November 25, 2004

EU, Russia Call for Peace in Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine - The European Union and Russia urged Ukraine leaders Thursday to find a nonviolent solution to the election crisis gripping this former Soviet republic.

The statement came after Ukraine's opposition leader raised the stakes in his standoff with the Kremlin-backed prime minister, asking the Supreme Court to declare presidential election results invalid and threatening to have his supporters block key highways.

Thousands of Victor Yushchenko's supporters have spent four nights outside in the bitter cold to protest authorities' decision to declare Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych winner of elections denounced by Western observers as fraudulent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin - who earlier sent a congratulatory telegram to Yanukovych that his win would raise the two nations' "strategic partnership to a new level" - said after meeting EU leaders in the Netherlands that all claims relating to Ukraine's election should be settled by the courts.

"From my perspective all issues concerning the elections ... should be addressed in accordance with the constitution. All claims should go to the court," Putin said. "We have no moral right to push a big European state to any kind of massive disorder."

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said, "We do agree that the peaceful approach to setting up a legitimate government is essential. Any objections to the electoral process must be looked into."

Yushchenko, a Western-leaning reformist, sent word to the masses in Kiev's Independence Square Thursday that the opposition intends to blockade several international highways in western Ukraine, where his support is running high.

"More and more people gather on the main streets of Ukrainian cities," Mykola Tomenko, a lawmaker and Yushchenko ally, told the crowd of 15,000.

Also, Yushchenko appealed the official results to Ukraine's Supreme Court, the Interfax news agency quoted his ally, Yuriy Klyuchkovsky, as saying. The opposition also planned to file complaints in regional courts to protest the election results.

Earlier, the reformist candidate called for a general strike to protest authorities' decision to name Yanukovych winner of Sunday's vote.

With the gulf deepening between the opposition and the government, a key mediator - Lech Walesa, founder of the Polish Solidarity movement - arrived in Ukraine to try to help pull this deeply divided nation of 48 million back from the brink of conflict.

The opposition's threat to shut down factories, schools and transportation risked provoking a crackdown by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who accused the opposition of trying to carry out a coup.

A strike could further divide the country: Yanukovych drew his support from the pro-Russian, heavily industrialized eastern half of Ukraine, while Yushchenko's strength was in the west, a traditional center of nationalism.

To prevent the crisis from widening, Yanukovych said negotiations with Yushchenko's team would begin Thursday. The opposition has said, however, that it would only talk about a handover of power to Yushchenko and would only negotiate with Kuchma.

The election officials' decision to declare Yanukovych the winner "puts Ukraine on the verge of civil conflict," Yushchenko told hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters Wednesday.

The commission said Yanukovych got 49.46 percent of the vote and Yushchenko 46.61 percent.

The election has led to an increasingly tense tug-of-war between the West and Moscow, which considers Ukraine part of its sphere of influence and a buffer between Russia and NATO's eastern flank.

Thousands of supporters spent the night in the capital, staying in giant tent camps along Kiev's main street and near the presidential administration building. As the sun rose, groups huddled together, drinking hot tea and breaking into regular chants of "Yushchenko! Yushchenko!" They stamped their feet to keep warm as the temperatures plunged below freezing.

The police presence around the presidential administration building was reinforced Wednesday night, with about 40 buses bring more than 1,000 officers with helmets and shields who stood in phalanxes up to eight deep outside the building.

The building became the site of the most tense standoff yet in the five days of protests when some 15,000 Yushchenko supporters faced off against riot police Tuesday night. Ukraine's Interior Ministry said Thursday it opened a criminal investigation into what it called an attempt to seize the building.

Sunday's runoff was denounced as fraudulent by Western observers, who cited voter intimidation, multiple voting and other irregularities. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday the United States cannot accept the result.

Powell challenged Ukrainian leaders "to decide whether they are on the side of democracy or not" and warned of "consequences for our relationship, for Ukraine's hopes for a Euro-Atlantic integration and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud."

Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz said the opposition was "organizing citizens, stopping lessons at schools and universities, stopping work at enterprises, stopping transport ... and, thus, we'll force the authorities to think about what they are doing."

Yuliya Tymoshenko, Yushchenko's key ally, said his followers would "surround all government buildings, block railways, airports and highways."

She also said the opposition would go to Ukraine's Supreme Court to protest the alleged election fraud. The opposition also planned to file complaints in regional courts.