November 30, 2004

Protesters Try to Enter Ukraine Parliament

KIEV, Ukraine - Opposition supporters tried to rush through the doors of the parliament building Tuesday after Ukrainian lawmakers appeared to backslide from supporting measures that would overturn the results of last week's disputed presidential election.

Ukraine's Supreme Court resumed its probe into allegedly fraudulent results from the Nov. 21 runoff vote, while regional authorities in the nation's industrial east began to retreat from threats to resist central rule if opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko is declared the winner.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, said the crisis in Ukraine must be solved without foreign pressure, the Interfax news agency reported.

He was quoted as telling the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that "an exit from the crisis should be found in a democratic way, that in, on the basis of observing the law and not under external or internal pressure."

The moves came after outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who did not run in the election, spoke out harshly against any steps that would divide this nation of 48 million. Ukraine's main security agency on Tuesday also opened a criminal investigation into threats to the country's territorial integrity in eastern Ukraine, according to Interfax.

In an apparent bid to fend off legal and political attacks, Donetsk Governor Anatoliy Bliznyuk said his region's referendum on self-rule wouldn't take place as planned this Sunday, stressing they were seeking "not autonomy, but to become a republic within Ukraine."

Bliznyuk added that the referendum could be scheduled later. The Kharkiv regional legislature had already retracted its threat to introduce self-rule.

Ukraine's government has been paralyzed since an announcement that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych had won the election sent hundreds of thousands into the streets of the capital for round-the-clock protests to support Yushchenko, who claims massive fraud.

Kuchma said Monday he would support a repeat vote as a compromise to pull Ukraine out of the crisis.

In an apparent bid to compromise, Yanukovych said Tuesday that if he becomes president, he will offer Yushchenko the post of "first person," or the prime minister's job. Yushchenko's aides have said he would reject such an offer.

Yanukovych also has said that he would support a revote if allegations of fraud are proven - but that he had yet to see such proof. On Tuesday, he even suggested he could withdraw from the race - if his rival did.

"We need to overcome the crisis and for the sake of this I propose that neither Viktor Andriyovych Yushchenko nor I participate in the (new) election if the result of the vote will be declared falsified," Yanukovych said, according to Interfax.

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."

Parliament tried to pass a vote of no-confidence in the government due to the emergence of separatist threats in the nation. Only 196 of the 410 lawmakers present supported the measure, however less than the 226 votes needed.

Lawmakers later tentatively approved a measure that would have annulled Saturday's nonbinding decision to declare the election invalid. The move angered opposition protesters, who approached the building and tried to enter; some made it into the lobby before police pushed them back. Lytvyn adjourned the session until Wednesday, and promised that parliament would not cancel its previous decision, which was nonbinding.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, continued to hear an opposition appeal to annul the Nov. 21 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.

Yushchenko's lawyers on Tuesday, the second day of the appeal, cited turnout of above 100 percent in hundreds of precincts in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, problems with voting lists and multiple voting with absentee ballots.

"Serious falsifications were used against Viktor Yushchenko and against millions of Ukrainian voters," said Yushchenko's lawyer, Svetlana Kustova.

The opposition also asked the court to annul the vote and name Yushchenko the winner based on his winning a narrow plurality of the votes in the first round on Oct. 31.

Kuchma's support for a rerun of the election indicated the government was feeling mounting pressure. 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.

"Don't forget that the crisis started when the government began toying with people's votes," Yushchenko said.

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