- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

KIEV — Ukraine’s parliament yesterday approved a package of constitutional and electoral changes that opposition officials said should clear the way for a free and fair presidential election on Dec. 26.

The measures, promptly signed into law by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, resolved a dramatic 2-week-old standoff over the results of a widely discredited Nov. 21 election that had brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets.

“In 17 days we became another country,” opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko told some 100,000 supporters of his “Orange Revolution” who remained last night on Kiev’s central Independence Square.

“We felt ourselves a European nation. … We have grown confident that Ukraine’s future can’t be stolen,” he said.

Mr. Yushchenko also thanked the military and police for not using force against protesters, who poured into the streets shortly after Russian-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was declared the winner of the Nov. 21 vote despite widespread reports of fraud.

“Thank you for not putting your fingers on the trigger,” he said, surrounded by key political allies and his wife and two young daughters.

U.S. and European leaders hailed the agreement, which came less than a week after the Supreme Court declared that the earlier election had not represented the will of the people and called for the election to be rerun.

“Ukrainian and Russian authorities are hearing a clear message from North America and Europe, in diplomatic stereo — and that stereo sound makes a difference,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in Brussels, where he was attending NATO talks. “And what do we say? Let the people decide.”

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief who traveled to Kiev three times during the crisis, congratulated “all sides on the crucial decisions that were taken today,” according to the Associated Press.

The new measures will limit the use of absentee ballots and at-home voting, methods which Ukraine’s opposition said the government used to falsify the Nov. 21 vote. They also strengthen Ukraine’s regions and reduce the powers of the president, giving parliament the right to choose all but the top three Cabinet ministers.

The reduction of the president’s powers becomes effective no earlier than Sept. 1, 2005.

Mr. Kuchma, who had earlier opposed the election law changes, signed the package after it passed through parliament on a 402-21 vote with 19 abstentions.

“Over the last 100 years, Ukraine has more than once suffered through a crisis, but there was always enough common sense to find a way out,” Mr. Kuchma said.

Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn told lawmakers after the vote, “This is an act of consolidation and reconciliation, an act which demonstrates that Ukraine is united.” He held up the documents to show that both he and the president had signed them.

Parliament members also voted in a new Central Election Commission, replacing a panel which opposition officials accused of falsifying returns and ignoring numerous violations.

Several of the departing commission members had been considered close to Mr. Yanukovych.

Mr. Kuchma also accepted the resignation of the prosecutor general, long a target of the opposition. Mr. Lytvyn told journalists he expected a number of Cabinet ministers would also lose their jobs in the next several days.

Legislators had planned to vote on the changes Tuesday, but delayed the vote when they ran into disagreements late in the day.

Mr. Yanukovych, who was campaigning in Donetsk yesterday, criticized the new makeup of the election commission.

“This means that the presidential candidate who received the greatest number of votes [on Nov. 21] is left without his representatives in the CEC,” he said. The old commission had named him the winner over Mr. Yushchenko in the earlier round by 2.85 percentage points.

Yulia Tymoshenko, one of Mr. Yushchenko’s closest allies, broke with her colleagues yesterday, voting against the package.

“This vote means the president’s powers are severely cut and that means a victory for Kuchma,” she told reporters. Mrs. Tymoshenko, however, stood next to Mr. Yushchenko last night during his address, clapping and singing during a fireworks display.

Mr. Yushchenko called for the demonstrators to begin working in their home districts to help ensure the Dec. 26 vote is transparent, but renewed his support for those who choose to remain camped out in an impromptu tent city on Kiev’s main boulevard. “I am confident of victory on December 26,” he said.

Many of the demonstrators plan to remain in place until Dec. 26 and Mr. Yushchenko said opposition officials will continue to address them nightly, explaining how they can help his campaign.

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