- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

KIEV — Ukraine moved one step closer to civil conflict yesterday when election authorities declared Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the nation’s next president after fraud-tainted elections that triggered four straight days of massive anti-government protests.

Four of the 15 members of the nation’s Central Election Commission dissented from the decision.

Appearing buoyant before a crowd of more than 200,000 supporters, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who had declared himself the winner one day earlier, called for a general strike and said the decision freed the opposition “to put the nation on the street in an open struggle.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in Washington that the United States did not consider the election legitimate.

“We cannot accept this result as legitimate because it does not meet international standards and because there has not been an investigation of the numerous and credible reports of fraud and abuse,” Mr. Powell said.

The White House had urged Ukrainian authorities not to validate the election results.

“The decision of the CEC is illegal and puts Ukraine on the verge of a civil war,” Mr. Yushchenko told reporters who gathered on Kiev’s central Independence Square for the fourth day.

He said the government had “taken the most primitive road toward conflict” and thrown away “the possibility of political discussions and the road to compromise.”

Mr. Powell said he had spoken to outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who backed Mr. Yanukovych, and urged that the government not crack down on the protesters.

“Ukrainian leaders need to decide whether they are on the side of democracy or not,” Mr. Powell said.

“If the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly there will be consequences for our relationship, for Ukraine’s hopes for a Euro-Atlantic integration and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud,” Mr. Powell said.

Mr. Kuchma was outside the Ukrainian capital and has not been seen on television since an address to the nation one day before Sunday’s disputed election.

The military has refused to use force against protesters. Defense Minister Alexander Kuzmuk said his forces “will always serve only the people’s interests.”

Earlier in the day, Mr. Yushchenko said several military units in western Ukraine pledged their support to the opposition leader.

Ukrainian media reported the management of the nation’s largest commercial airport, Boryspil International, said it supported the opposition.

Opposition leaders nevertheless said they were concerned that military forces could be used to crack down on protesters.

Yulia Tymoshenko, one of Mr. Yushchenko’s closest allies, said a Ukrainian military officer had told her that special units “from another country” were dressed in Ukrainian uniforms to protect the presidential administration building, which has been the site of a tense standoff between supporters of the opposition and riot police wielding clubs and shields.

Mr. Yushchenko’s campaign had received reports that two Russian aircraft landed at Boryspil yesterday carrying military personnel of Moscow’s “Vityaz” special forces unit. Russia strongly backed Mr. Yanukovych and its president, Vladimir Putin, openly recognized Mr. Yanukovych before results were announced.

Ukraine’s conflict threatens to create tension between Washington and Moscow.

The State Department confirmed Monday that Russia’s ambassador to the United States had been summoned to discuss the situation.

Russian advisers have spent tens of millions of dollars aiding the prime minister’s campaign. Mr. Putin, who many fear is attempting to revive the regional hegemony Russia enjoyed as the dominant power in the Soviet Union, visited Ukraine twice since the first round of the election on Oct. 31.

“Moscow knowingly engaged its advisers in the Ukrainian election and were cognizant of the potential conflicts that could occur on the ground if massive election fraud occurred,” said Myron Wasylyk, an international adviser with experience working in Moscow, Kiev and Washington.

The opposition said it would file complaints with the country’s Supreme Court questioning the election results in separate districts and polling places.

The CEC said in its final results that the prime minister had received 49.46 percent of the vote against Mr. Yushchenko’s 46.61 percent.

Protesters set up more than 400 tents on Kiev’s main boulevard with food and hot beverages being provided to their occupants, many of whom are students.

They have pledged to stay put in the bitter cold to ensure that the government does not try to storm the plaza.

The Committee of Voters of Ukraine, an independent watchdog group, reported yesterday that at least 2.8 million ballots were rigged in the prime minister’s favor — more than enough to tip the balance in the nation of 48 million.

Of 2,000 polling stations in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions — pro-government strongholds — all but nine opposition observers were barred from polling stations.

Former Soviet and Eastern European leaders of the democratic transition that ultimately destroyed the Soviet Union voiced their support for Ukraine protesters.

“Everything should be within the bounds of democracy,” former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told reporters in St. Petersburg.

“Ukraine cannot be fractured. It is important for the process to end democratically. These elections in Ukraine are very important,” Mr. Gorbachev said.

Vaclav Havel, who led Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution,” was expected to visit Kiev today, and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has offered to mediate between the government and opposition.

• Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report from Washington.

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