- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

KIEV — A major eastern province of Ukraine called a referendum on autonomy yesterday in response to the impasse over a disputed presidential election, and the opposition demanded that President Leonid Kuchma fire his prime minister, the official winner.

The opposition warned that it would block Mr. Kuchma’s movements unless he fired Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and fulfilled other demands within 24 hours.

Earlier, Mr. Kuchma called on the opposition to end its four-day blockade of government buildings, saying compromise was the only solution to the crisis.

On Saturday, the parliament declared the election invalid amid international calls for a new vote, and lawmakers passed a vote of no confidence in the Central Election Commission, which declared Moscow-backed Mr. Yanuko-vych the winner.

The parliamentary votes, however, had no legal standing.

Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who says he was cheated out of victory in the Nov. 21 presidential runoff, urged his supporters yesterday to stay in the streets. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have thronged downtown Kiev for a week to support Mr. Yushchenko’s assertion that the election was rigged.

The Supreme Court was to consider Mr. Yushchenko’s appeal today. The court’s ruling could pave the way for a new vote, which the opposition is demanding, or remove the only barrier to Mr. Yanukovych’s inauguration.

The United States and other Western nations say the vote was marred by massive fraud. Russian President Vladimir Putin openly backed Mr. Yanukovych and congratulated him on his victory. Moscow considers this nation of 48 million people part of its sphere of influence and a buffer between Russia and NATO’s eastern flank.

Mr. Yushchenko also has called for a new vote Dec. 12 under the watch of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He also has demanded that the 15 members of the election commission be replaced.

Yulia Tymoshenko, a top ally of Mr. Yushchenko’s, told a rally of about 100,000 opposition supporters in Kiev’s main square yesterday that Mr. Kuchma had until this evening to fire Mr. Yanukovych.

“We know where he is, and we can prevent him from making a single step if he doesn’t fulfill our demands,” Mrs. Tymoshenko said.

Her other demands included firing the governors of eastern regions warning of autonomy bids and initiating a bill to reshuffle the Central Election Commission. If Mr. Kuchma does not fulfill them, he should be prosecuted for “crimes against the people,” Mrs. Tymoshenko said as protesters shouted “Down with Kuchma.”

She said opposition crowds would march to the Supreme Court and the Ukrainian parliament where Mr. Yush-chenko’s supporters would seek a no-confidence vote today in Mr. Yanukovych’s Cabinet.

Supporters of Mr. Yanuko-vych struck back from Donetsk, his native region and power base. The regional legislature voted 164-1 to hold a Dec. 5 referendum on autonomy for the province. About 30,000 demonstrators who gathered outside regional legislature in the city of Donetsk shouted pro-Yanukovych slogans.

“We won’t tolerate what’s going on in Ukraine,” Donetsk Gov. Anatoly Bliznyuk told lawmakers. “We have shown that we are a force to consider.”

Starting Thursday, Yush-chenko supporters encircled the Cabinet and the president’s administration buildings, refusing to let anyone enter or leave.

Mr. Kuchma, who backed Mr. Yanukovych, criticized the blockades yesterday as a “gross violation of law” that “would be unacceptable in any nation.” He made his comments during a meeting of his National Security Council, parts of which were broadcast live on Ukrainian television.

“Compromise is the only way to avoid unpredictable consequences,” Mr. Kuchma said.

Mr. Yushchenko responded that the “peaceful pickets will not be lifted, but will continue.” He urged tens of thousands of his supporters in and around Independence Square to maintain their vigil.

“You will ask me how long we should stay here, is it worth staying here?” he said. “Even the Georgian revolution lasted for three weeks. … I am asking you, I am demanding that you stay here until the end.”

Many of the Ukrainian demonstrators have been inspired by the November 2003 massive street protests in the former Soviet republic of Georgia that helped lead to the resignation of longtime President Eduard Shevardnadze.

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