- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

KIEV — Ukraine’s president and prime minister said yesterday they support a rerun of the country’s sharply contested presidential election, even as the Supreme Court began hearing a request that it rule the vote invalid.

Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who claims victory was stolen from him in the Nov. 21 balloting, has already proposed a new election to resolve the standoff over the contested results, and a majority in parliament has endorsed his position.

Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma accepted that idea in an announcement yesterday, offering a way out of an impasse that has kept crowds of up to 200,000 in the streets of the capital for a week.

“If we really want to preserve peace and agreement, and really want to build a legitimate democratic society that we so often talk about … then let’s hold new elections,” Mr. Kuchma said, according to the Interfax news agency.

The president appeared to be driven at least in part by fear that the dispute will split the country.

“We cannot in any instance allow the disintegration or division of Ukraine,” he said, while continuing to insist that claims his government stole the election were without basis.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych — declared the winner of an election that was rejected by most Western observers as hopelessly marred by fraud — said shortly afterward that he, too, favored a rerun in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions if falsifications could be proved.

It was in those pro-government areas that some of the most egregious violations were reported. Mr. Yushchenko has charged that in Donetsk alone, more than 500,000 ballots were cast two hours after polling stations officially closed.

Some Ukrainian groups have said that as many as 2.8 million fraudulent votes were cast, more than enough to change the outcome of a vote that split the country between the pro-European west and the Russia-leaning east.

In what has become a daily address to the throngs in Independence Square — or “Maidan” as it is commonly called — Mr. Yushchenko said his supporters would call in parliament for the resignation of Mr. Yanukovych’s government.

The legislature is also expected to condemn demands for autonomy by several eastern Ukrainian regions.

“In six days, we have changed the country,” Mr. Yushchenko told cheering supporters who braved cold and snow to maintain their protest. “The criminal authorities want a dialogue. The role of the Maidan can’t be underestimated.”

It is still not clear how a new election could be managed constitutionally, though some lawyers said it might be legal if parliament passed a law and Mr. Kuchma signed it.

The final decision could go to the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule later this week on the opposition’s challenge to the results of the Nov. 21 vote.

A dramatic collapse of support for the government from senior officials continued. For the first time yesterday, former President Leonid Kravchuk, who heads the powerful Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (United), said he favored a new election and blamed Mr. Kuchma for the crisis.

Serhei Tihipko, Ukraine’s central bank chief who ran Mr. Yanukovych’s campaign, unexpectedly resigned from both posts yesterday. He told the Channel 5 broadcast station that if Mr. Yushchenko became president he would become part of a “constructive opposition.”

He also did not discount the possibility of running for president himself if new elections were held.

Ukraine’s once tightly controlled press has undergone a sea change in the past week. Many broadcast journalists have refused to work under censorship rules established by their agencies’ owners, many of whom are wealthy oligarchs.

Newscasts have become much more balanced. Yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing was broadcast on at least four channels, an unprecedented event in Ukraine’s broadcast history.

The government has all but lost the support of the security services and the military, which has said it will not act against peaceful demonstrators.

In a recent address that many Ukrainians took to be a warning to Mr. Kuchma, Evhen Marchuk, a one-time KGB chief and recently sacked defense minister, said, “It’s sad to see how you’re ending your presidency. You know there were widespread violations.”

Ukrainian diplomats around the world, including those based in Washington, are also supporting Mr. Yushchenko.

The Foreign Ministry yesterday issued a strongly worded statement that said foreign officials who inflame “separatist passions in eastern Ukraine” will face “serious” consequences.

The statement was a direct warning to Russian officials such as Moscow Mayor Yuriy Lushkov, who spoke to a Ukrainian regional legislature on Sunday with Mr. Yanukovych also in attendance. Delegates voted to hold a referendum on Sunday to establish an autonomous republic in eastern Ukraine.

Entertainment and sports icons, such as heavyweight boxer Wladimir Klitschko, also are supporting the opposition leader and making a point of appearing in the Maidan with him.

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