November 30, 2004

High Court Meets Again on Ukraine Election

KIEV, Ukraine - Ukraine's Supreme Court resumed its probe Tuesday of the validity of bitterly disputed results from the presidential runoff election, while parliament convened to debate the growing threat to this ex-Soviet republic's unity.

The simultaneous sessions of Ukraine's highest judicial and legislative branches came amid rising support for an opposition-demanded revote as the only way to avoid splitting Ukraine into a pro-Russian east and pro-Europe west.

Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma said Monday that a new vote might be the best solution.

Ukraine's government has been paralyzed since the Nov. 21 presidential runoff brought hundreds of thousands into the streets of the capital for round-the-clock protests to support opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who claims massive fraud robbed him of victory.

Ukraine's eastern Russian-speaking regions, which support the declared winner, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, retaliated with threats of seeking autonomy, sparking fears that this eastern European nation of 48 million might break apart.

In parliament, speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn criticized "many state, regional and local officials in the east and south of the country for inciting separatism ... and unconstitutional and illegal aspirations for independence and autonomy."

Lytvyn said that "calls for new autonomous regions in Ukraine are illegal and punishable under the criminal code."

The opposition has asked the Supreme Court to annul the election results, which found Yanukovych the winner with a margin of 871,402 votes. Under Ukrainian legislation, the court cannot rule on the overall results but can declare results invalid in individual precincts.

The appeal focuses on results from eight eastern and southern regions - more than 15 million votes, almost half of the total cast in the runoff. The opposition was also asking the court to name Yushchenko the winner based on his winning a narrow plurality of the votes in the first round on Oct. 31.

"We have a lot of documents to review," said Presiding Justice Anatoliy Yarema.

The opposition has also pledged to seek a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in Yanukovych's government.

Kuchma's support for a re-run of the election indicated the government was feeling the mounting pressure from both the opposition and the fearful and increasingly rebellious east.

"If we really want to preserve peace and accord, if we really want to build a democratic state. ... let's hold new elections," said Kuchma, who backed Yanukovych.

The West has refused to recognize the election results, while Russia - which still yields considerable influence over Ukraine - congratulated Yanukovych and complained of Western meddling. Ukraine's parliament passed a nonbinding declaration Saturday declaring the vote invalid.

In Russia, parliamentary speaker Boris Gryzlov warned on Tuesday that the election crisis in the Ukraine could end in national schism or bloodshed.

Gryzlov said Yushchenko "was supposed to have called on his people to leave the streets" but had failed to do so. As a result, the situation would lead "either to a split of the country or to bloodshed."

Yanukovych said Monday that he would support a revote if allegations of fraud are proven - but that he had yet to see such proof.

Yushchenko urged tens of thousands of supporters flooding central Kiev to maintain their vigil despite freezing temperatures.

"The next couple of days will bring a solution," Yushchenko said.

Early Tuesday, his supporters warmed themselves around fires in barrels and sang Ukrainian folk songs. The sprawling tent camps that sprouted along Kiev's main street were covered in fresh snow.

Yanukovych's native Donetsk province scheduled an autonomy referendum for Sunday, and other eastern regions threatened to follow suit if their candidate is shut out of the presidency.

Yushchenko and his allies urged Kuchma to sack the separatist governors along with Ukraine's chief prosecutor for his failure to open a criminal investigation against them.

Kuchma warned that "we cannot in any instance allow the disintegration or division of Ukraine," and Secretary of State Colin Powell called him and urged him to work to keep his country intact.

The Kharkiv regional legislature on Monday retracted its threat to introduce self-rule, but the Donetsk region was pressing ahead.

The political crisis has led to fears that Ukraine, which has the fastest growing economy in Europe, could plunge into economic turmoil.

Many Ukrainians in the east, unsettled by the rising instability, have waited in long lines to exchange the national currency, hryvna, for U.S. dollars, and there have been warnings of runs on bank deposits.