Thursday, December 2, 2004

KIEV — Outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma gained Russian President Vladimir Putin’s backing yesterday against calls for a quick rerun of the last round of the disputed presidential election.

The move by the Russian leader underlines Kremlin fears that if Ukraine’s opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko took power he would weaken links with Moscow and push Ukraine deeper into the West’s embrace.

Charging the election was rigged, the opposition wants an early repeat of the Nov. 21 runoff vote between Mr. Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, who was backed by both Mr. Kuchma and Mr. Putin.

Mr. Kuchma, who flew to Moscow yesterday, wants a completely new election, a longer process that could permit him to choose a new and more popular candidate. He said, however, he was prepared to speed up the process.

“A repeat of the runoff vote may fail to work,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Kuchma at an airport meeting outside Moscow.

In a sign of the strain the crisis is placing on relations as Russia and the West vie for influence in Ukraine, President Bush took a swipe at Moscow’s involvement, saying outsiders should not meddle in a new election.

“I think any election, if there is one, ought to be free from any foreign influence. These elections ought to be open and fair,” Mr. Bush told a reporter who had asked his views on a potential election and the prospect of Russian influence.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski joined the fray on the side of the opposition.

“We need to repeat the second round between the same candidates and give Ukrainians a chance to make a free choice. Once we secure fairness of the procedure, we will be sure that democracy has won,” he told TVN24 television.

Ukraine’s Supreme Court was holding its fourth day of deliberations on Mr. Yushchenko’s accusations that the election was rigged, with a ruling expected today.

Mr. Yushchenko, addressing tens of thousands of supporters standing outdoors in subzero temperatures late in the evening, reiterated his opposition to holding a new election from scratch.

“Let me say this to Kuchma, to anyone, to any politician calling for a fresh election this amounts to calling for the economic collapse of Ukraine,” he said in a 40-minute speech in Kiev’s Independence Square.

“A repeat vote is a compromise which can calm the nation. … If in the days following a Supreme Court decision, no date is set for a repeat vote, we will adopt appropriate measures.”

Russia, which has for centuries dominated Ukraine, and Poland are among mediators trying to resolve a crisis that is splitting the former Soviet republic and draining its economy.

Mr. Putin last week congratulated Mr. Yanukovych, whose campaign he helped, on his win even before it was official, amid international charges that the election was fraudulent.

With the next move focusing on the staging of an election of some sort, Ukraine’s politicians have agreed to wait for the Supreme Court decision today.

Mr. Yushchenko runs the risk that the mass demonstrations in his support will lose steam and he will run out of funds. He is demanding a repeat as soon as possible of only the second-round presidential runoff between him and Mr. Yanukovych.

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