November 30, 2004

Ukraine Opposition Ends Compromise Talks

KIEV, Ukraine - Opposition supporters on Tuesday abruptly broke off compromise talks over Ukraine's disputed presidential election after pro-government lawmakers blocked a no-confidence motion seeking to topple the prime minister, who was declared the victor in last week's vote despite allegations of massive fraud.

The opposition's rejection of the talks raises pressure on Ukrainian authorities, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said the crisis in the former Soviet republic must be resolved without foreign meddling.

The Supreme Court was wrapping up a second day of hearings with no sign of a decision on an opposition appeal to annul the results from the Nov. 21 runoff election, which put Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych ahead by 871,402 votes.

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 and said he would support a new vote.

President Bush said Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski will lead a delegation to Ukraine "to encourage the parties to reject violence and to urge the parties to engage in dialogue toward a political and legal solution to the current crisis."

"Our common goal is to see the will of the Ukrainian people prevail," Bush said during a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin in Ottawa.

Ukraine's government has been paralyzed since the election results sent hundreds of thousands into the streets of the capital for round-the-clock protests to support opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who claims he was robbed of victory.

Putin told German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that "an exit from the crisis should be found in a democratic way, that is, on the basis of observing the law and not under external or internal pressure based on political passions," the Kremlin press service said in a statement.

Schroeder and Putin also discussed the possibility of new elections in Ukraine and agreed that any results should be "strictly respected," according to the German leader's office.

Russia considers the energy-dependent Ukraine part of its sphere of influence and a buffer with NATO's eastern flank and the political crisis has deepened the political tug-of-war between Moscow and the West.

Yushchenko's campaign chief, Oleksandr Zinchenko, announced Tuesday that the opposition candidate was breaking off talks with Yanukovych. The talks began last week under the mediation of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Kwasniewski.

Solana is set to arrive in Kiev Tuesday night for another round of talks and is to be joined Wednesday by Kwasniewski. The two planned to meet with the rival candidates on Wednesday, the European Commission's Kiev office said. It was not clear if the opposition announcement would affect Wednesday's meeting.

Zinchenko's comments came after pro-government lawmakers blocked an opposition attempt for a no-confidence vote in Yanukovych's Cabinet 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.

Legislators later tentatively approved a resolution that would cancel Saturday's nonbinding decision to declare the election results invalid, prompting demonstrators massed outside to try to storm the session.

Protesters - some crawling on top of each other's shoulders - got as far as the lobby of the building before police pushed them back. Yushchenko also addressed the demonstrators in an effort to calm tensions.

Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn adjourned the session until Wednesday and said the nonbinding decision would not be rescinded.

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

Yushchenko quickly brushed off the offer, saying he wants to focus on the vote fraud.

"The election was rigged," he said. "People are asking whether this country has a political elite capable of upholding a fair vote."

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.

Threats to Ukraine's unity, meanwhile, seemed to dissipate after the eastern Donetsk region said it would not hold its referendum on self-rule as planned Sunday amid sharp criticism from lawmakers and potential legal action to protect the nation's territorial integrity. The Kharkiv regional legislature also retracted its threat to introduce self-rule.

Donetsk Governor Anatoliy Bliznyuk - whose region is Yanukovych's home base - said his region was seeking "not autonomy, but to become a republic within Ukraine." He said the referendum would be held within the next two months.

The Supreme Court began hearing the opposition appeal on Monday, but officials have said a decision could take several days. 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 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.

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.

Yushchenko, whose stronghold was western Ukraine, a traditional center of nationalism, says he wants to push the country to greater integration with Western Europe, and he has suggested he would seek NATO membership.

Yanukovych drew his support from Ukraine's pro-Russian, heavily industrialized eastern half and was expected to pursue closer ties with Moscow.