Friday, November 26, 2004

KIEV — Opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko yesterday demanded a new presidential election be held after a face-to-face meeting with rival Viktor Yanukovych failed to resolve Ukraine’s bitter weeklong political standoff.

Turning up the heat on the government-backed Mr. Yanukovych, Mr. Yushchenko told cheering supporters after the nearly three-hour meeting he opposed a proposal to refer charges of massive fraud in Sunday’s election to the Supreme Court.

“We will only hold talks on staging a new vote,” Mr. Yushchenko said.

Moments earlier, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma announced he would preside over a working group, including key European envoys who have converged on Kiev, to seek a solution to the crisis and head off growing fears of violence.

Massive streets protests and charges of fraud in the Nov. 21 vote have roiled this strategically placed country, the largest state to break from Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and put Moscow and Washington on a collision course over Ukraine’s future.

In Crawford, Texas, President Bush warned yesterday the world “is watching very closely” as Ukraine tries to sort through the fraud charges.

U.S. and European Union officials contend that massive fraud marred the presidential runoff election, in which Mr. Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow prime minister, narrowly edged Mr. Yushchenko. Ukraine’s Supreme Court ordered election officials not to publish the results until an appeal is heard on Monday.

Ukraine’s parliament is also set to meet today to consider the disputed election and what to do next. Lawmakers cannot overturn last Sunday’s vote, but could have an effect on the court hearing next week.

“There’s just a lot of allegations of vote fraud that placed the result of the election in doubt,” Mr. Bush said. “… People are paying very close attention to this and, hopefully, it will be resolved in a way that brings credit and confidence to the Ukrainian government.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin all but endorsed Mr. Yanukovych before the vote and congratulated the prime minister on his apparent victory.

The Russian foreign ministry yesterday hinted it may support a re-run of the election, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov again questioned the motives of Western governments in the crisis.

“In some European capitals, there are some forces that are attempting to draw some new border lines across Europe,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Mr. Yushchenko warned he would fight any stalling tactics by his opponent.

“If we see that Viktor Yanukovych is playing for time, we are going to take active measures,” he told supporters. “If a decision isn’t reached in one or two days, it means that Viktor Yanukovych doesn’t hear you.”

The challenger demanded a new election on Dec. 12, the creation of a new central election commission and equal access to the press for both candidates.

He urged his supporters to be steadfast and not leave Kiev’s Independence Square, where hundreds of thousands have braved the bitter cold for five days to show their support. Demonstrations have taken place in other parts of the country, as well.

Mr. Yanukovych appeared for the first time in public before the three-hour meeting to address 5,000 of his supporters, some apparently intoxicated, who demonstrated outside Kiev’s main train station.

He called the opposition’s demonstrations “illegal and anti-constitutional.”

“A constitutional coup is slowly taking place, which is being organized by [the opposition] with Mr. Yushchenko at its head,” he told backers, many of whom were from his power base in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east. “All the actions that are happening today are against the law.”

The country’s sharp east-west division has sparked fears of a breakup of the country. In one worrying sign, deputies from the eastern Donetsk region called for a referendum to create an autonomous region.

Mr. Kuchma, in a television address after the inconclusive meeting, told the country, “We will without any doubt find a worthy way out of this complicated situation.

“We understand that we have but one Ukraine and if we fail to find a solution, the consequences will be most unfavorable,” Mr. Kuchma said.

Yesterday’s meeting in Kiev included European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus. Boris Gryzlov, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament and Jan Kubis, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, also attended.

Ukraine’s crisis has also divided neighboring states that also once were part of the Soviet Union.

Georgia’s parliament yesterday voiced its support for the opposition, while Moldova said it does not recognize the results of the election. But Kazakhstan became the sixth country, after Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, to support Mr. Yanukovych.

An increasing number of Ukraine’s militia and police are siding with Mr. Yushchenko and the opposition forces in the streets.

One after another, uniformed officers are appearing before protesters on the main square, pledging their allegiance.

In a dramatic moment outside the presidential administration building, opposition deputy Taras Stetskiv took a hand drill to cut through the lock on a gate leading to the structure.

Two rows of riot police raised their clubs and shields.

“No one is going to march on you,” Mr. Stetskiv said through a loudspeaker. “The gate is opened to the people.”

Some police didn’t even wait for their commander to give the order and lowered their shields.

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