- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

KIEV — Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych resigned yesterday and grudgingly conceded he has little hope of winning the presidency of this ex-Soviet republic. But he vowed to continue his court battle to overturn this week’s elections that handed victory to his pro-Western opponent, Viktor Yushchenko.

Mr. Yanukovych’s resignation, which appeared to take effect immediately, came as Mr. Yushchenko and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili prepared to welcome the New Year side-by-side on Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of mass protests that overturned the political order in this nation of 48 million. The joint appearance of two post-Soviet politicians who have openly and actively courted the West is certain to further irk the Kremlin, which had strongly supported Mr. Yanukovych.

Mr. Yushchenko soundly won the court-ordered presidential rerun of the vote, but Mr. Yanukovych has refused to recognize the results, vowing to challenge the vote in the Supreme Court. His resignation during a New Year’s Eve address to the nation came as his first significant concession since Sunday’s vote.

“We are still fighting, but I don’t have much hope,” Mr. Yanukovych said. “I will act as an independent politician, as the rightful winner of the legitimate November 21 election.”

Mr. Yanukovych claimed victory in that vote, but hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flooded Kiev’s streets to demonstrate against massive fraud. After weeks of protests, dubbed the “Orange Revolution” because of Mr. Yushchenko’s campaign color, the court ruled that the election was corrupted. It annulled Mr. Yanukovych’s victory and ordered Sunday’s vote.

Mr. Yanukovych has seen much of his support fall away — losing the backing of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and watching as many of his top advisers desert him. Parliament passed a vote of no-confidence in his government on Dec. 1, but he ignored it, calling it illegal.

When Mr. Yanukovych returned this week after taking leave for campaigning, the opposition blockaded his government headquarters, refusing to let him convene a Cabinet session. The meeting went ahead in another building without him.

“I believe it is impossible to have any position in a state that is ruled by such officials,” he said, in an apparent reference to Mr. Kuchma. “This is my personal position.”

His resignation immediately triggers the dissolution of the entire 20-member Cabinet. According to the constitution, Mr. Kuchma must formally accept Mr. Yanukovych’s resignation and appoint a new government within 60 days — though he is likely to appoint a caretaker until a new president is inaugurated.

Meanwhile, Mr. Saakashvili, who was catapulted to power last year in a bloodless revolution that inspired the Ukrainian opposition, made his first stop in the Ukrainian capital at the opposition’s tent camp on Kiev’s tree-lined main street. He has displayed his support for Mr. Yushchenko by regularly wearing an orange tie.

“I couldn’t support you as an official during your revolution, but I was with you and I feel myself again a resident of Kiev,” Mr. Saakashvili, who studied international law in the Ukrainian capital, told the crowd in Ukrainian.

“Together we are celebrating a free Europe,” said Nodar Dumbadze, a member of the Georgian youth movement Kmara that helped lead the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia in 2003. About 20 Georgian flags flew above the camp, alongside Mr. Yushchenko’s orange banners.

The bitterly contested presidential race in Ukraine increased tension between the West and Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin rushed to congratulate Mr. Yanukovych after his Nov. 21 victory and has accused foreign states of meddling in Ukrainian affairs.

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