- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2004

KIEV — Ukraine’s Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the runoff in the nation’s disputed presidential election was invalid and ordered a another vote be held Dec. 26, bringing cheers from tens of thousands of supporters of the opposition party who watched the announcement on giant TV screens in the capital’s central square.

“We made a radical choice today,” a jubilant Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader, told demonstrators shortly after the court rendered its decision. “Ukraine is a democratic nation. I want to welcome the free people of this nation.”

The nation’s highest court ruled that Mr. Yushchenko, oriented toward Western politics and economics, and Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-backed candidate, are to face off again to decide the election.

In Moscow, the State Duma, or lower house of Russia’s parliament, adopted a scathing resolution condemning Western Europe for its support of opposition demands that a new runoff be scheduled in Ukraine.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan called the court’s decision “an important step in moving toward a peaceful, democratic resolution that reflects the will of the people.”

Mr. Yushchenko, the opposition leader, charged that the Nov. 21 runoff was so rigged in his opponent’s favor, particularly in Ukraine’s eastern regions, that it cost Mr. Yushchenko the election.

The Central Election Committee declared Mr. Yanukovych the winner in the race, with a 2.85 percentage point margin over Mr. Yushchenko.

The 21 members of Ukraine’s Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Yushchenko’s appeal, unanimously ruling that the Nov. 21 runoff did not reflect the will of the people, citing numerous instances of fraud. The decision cannot be appealed, and both candidates had agreed to abide by the court’s decision.

The ruling brings to a climax two weeks of a war of words that has deepened the rift between the country’s democratic forces and the government and created tension between Russia and the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin openly supported Mr. Yanukovych, twice traveling to Ukraine during the campaign.

The United States and the European Union welcomed the court’s decision, while Russian politicians immediately called it unconstitutional.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who a year ago ousted a Soviet-era government, said in Tbilisi that “it is a historic day today not only for Ukraine but for the whole region and for Georgia.”

Showing his support for Mr. Yushchenko’s “Orange Revolution,” the Georgian leader wore an orange tie, hailing a new “process of democratization,” according to the Associated Press.

Orange has become the color of the opposition and has been worn by hundreds of thousands of protesters who have blocked Kiev’s downtown area and government buildings for the past 12 days.

Mr. Yanukovych and outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma did not immediately react to the court’s decision. The president has angered his constituents by his determined support for Mr. Yanukovych and refusal to sign legislative decisions passed by parliament, including the firing of the former prime minister. Parliament passed a no-confidence vote in Mr. Yanukovych’s government on Wednesday.

Mr. Kuchma further alienated the Ukrainian opposition on Thursday when he flew to Moscow for consultations with Mr. Putin. During a short meeting in a Moscow airport, both said they supported a totally new election campaign — not just a re-vote — which would have given the government time to regroup and find a more attractive candidate than Mr. Yanukovych.

Support for Mr. Kuchma and Mr. Yanukovych has been waning, even among parties traditionally linked to the government. Ten deputies from the powerful Trudova Ukraina parliamentary faction defected from their party yesterday, thus changing the balance of power in the legislature.

It remains questionable whether Mr. Yanukovych will agree to participate in the new vote. Both the former prime minister’s supporters and Mykola Katerinchuk, the Yushchenko attorney who wrote the Supreme Court appeal, said they believed Mr. Yanukovych will withdraw from the race.

“I think that in these conditions, Viktor Yanukovych will simply not agree to go into battle,” he said.

Mr. Katerinchuk called yesterday’s decision “a great victory of all people who have been standing at the square, a great victory for Ukrainian democracy.” He later appeared before supporters in Independence Square to read the names of the Supreme Court judges, whom he said were “true heroes of Ukraine.”

Parliament will work through the weekend to pass legislation conforming to the high court’s verdict. Additionally, it will have to change the membership of the 15-member election committee, which was criticized by the court, and the election law to prevent fraud.

In a direct attack on Mr. Kuchma, deputies yesterday passed a nonbinding resolution to withdraw Ukraine’s 1,600 peacekeeping troops from Iraq. The president is said to have deployed the troops largely to gain favor with Washington.

Mr. Yushchenko asked his supporters to remain in Independence Square — which is known simply as the Maidan — for at least another day to celebrate. He said everyone who had braved the snow and freezing temperatures would receive a certificate.

Surrounded by his political supporters and young daughters, one of whom hugged his leg, the opposition leader addressed Mr. Kuchma and Mr. Yanukovych directly: “Find the courage and go! Don’t torture your people.”

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