Ukraine's president backs a new election

Posted: November 30, 2004

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine's departing president, Leonid Kuchma, yesterday gave tentative blessing to the idea of holding a new presidential election, paving the way to a possible solution of the political crisis that has gripped his country since the disputed Nov. 21 runoff.

"If we really want to preserve peace and consensus, if we really want to build a democratic state . . . then let's hold new elections," Kuchma said in a televised address.

His remarks followed conciliatory comments by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who last week was declared the official winner of the runoff. Yanukovych, a political ally of Kuchma's, said he would support calls for a new election if allegations of fraud in the election were proven.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians continued to camp on icy streets yesterday to protest what they believe was voter fraud that gave the election to the wrong candidate.

At stake is whether this former Soviet republic, with about 48 million residents, aligns itself politically with Russia or with Europe and the United States. Yanukovych has the strong backing of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. His opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, would likely draw the nation closer to the West.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called Kuchma yesterday to urge him to solve the crisis peacefully. Powell said he also had telephoned Kuchma to express concern about reports of a possible splintering of the country.

"We are very pleased that there has been no real violence, that people are being allowed to assemble peacefully and demonstrate peacefully," Powell said. "If we can keep things calm and allow the leaders and the politicians and members of the international community who are trying to help the Ukrainians all come together, then, hopefully, a peaceful solution will be found."

In eastern Ukraine, which borders Russia and which supports Yanukovych, regional leaders talked about seceding if the election were given to Yushchenko.

Yanukovych's native Donetsk province scheduled an autonomy referendum for Sunday, and other eastern regions threatened to follow suit.

Kuchma warned that "we cannot in any instance allow the disintegration or division of Ukraine."

He has called for compromise throughout the standoff but had not previously endorsed conducting another vote.

Kuchma, who did not seek another term, said Ukraine needed a "legitimate president" and added that the crisis could be resolved through a "constitutional agreement" endorsed by parliament, suggesting existing law might not be flexible enough to accommodate a settlement.

While it fell short of meeting protesters' hopes that Yushchenko would be named president, Kuchma's statement appeared to be at least a tacit admission that the election was tainted.

The Ukrainian parliament declared in a nonbinding vote Saturday that the election was invalid and said that the defeat of Yushchenko did not reflect the will of the people.

While the political deadlock continued into a second week, the Ukrainian Supreme Court yesterday began sifting through allegations of election corruption in eight pro-Yanukovych districts. The court gave Yanukovych's legal team until this morning to examine evidence of fraud. The court is reviewing more than 10,000 fraud allegations.

On Thursday, the court prohibited making the election results official until it could consider accusations that the results were rigged.

The Central Election Commission declared Yanukovych the winner of the runoff with 49.46 percent to Yushchenko's 46.61 percent. An exit poll funded in part by the U.S. Embassy and other Western embassies had shown Yushchenko winning, 54 percent to 43 percent.

Addressing tens of thousands of supporters who flooded central Kiev for the eighth straight day, Yushchenko urged protesters to maintain their vigil despite freezing weather. "The next couple of days will bring a solution," Yushchenko said, as the crowd shouted in support.

The country is split. The east, closer in spirit and geography to Russia, backed Yanukovych. Western Ukraine, nearer to Europe, went overwhelmingly for Yushchenko, a former prime minister. His supporters' mass protest appears to have taken control of the capital and a number of western cities. The opposition has blockaded official buildings in Kiev for days.

Mykhailo Merlavskiy, an engineer from Ternrejne in the west, arrived in Kiev on Nov. 22 and said he did not plan to move from the streets until Yushchenko was acknowledged as president.

"If we go home, if we leave, we lose our chance at ever being a free nation," he said. "This is not a battle for the streets. It is a fight for the soul of our country."

Beyond the political turmoil, Ukraine is also facing an economic crisis. Yanukovych blamed the problem on the protests that have shut down the government. Yushchenko blamed inept planning by his opponent.

"Due to unprofessional performance" of the prime minister's team, "the financial and banking system has developed trends which may lead to a collapse of the hryvnia in a few days," Yushchenko said, referring to the national currency. He said he warned Ukrainians about this issue several times during the election.

Serhiy Tyhypko stepped down as Central Bank chairman and resigned as campaign chief for Yanukovych. Tyhypko told reporters that the country was divided and that a new election was needed.

Kuchma warned that the country's financial system could "fall apart like a house of cards" in "a few days."

Contact reporter Matthew Schofield at mschofield@krwashington.com.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

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