Ukraine's parliament declares presidential election invalid


Saturday, November 27th 2004, 9:59 am
By: News On 6


KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ Ukraine's parliament on Saturday declared invalid the disputed presidential election that triggered a week of growing street protests and legal maneuvers, raising the possibility that a new vote could be held in this former Soviet republic.

Parliament's vote came amid a flurry of domestic and international support for the possibility of a revote. A European Union envoy _ Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot _ said new elections were the ``ideal outcome'' for the standoff between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko. Asked if new elections were the only solution, Ben Bot answered: ``Yes.''

The Unian news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko as saying Friday that Moscow regarded a potential revote favorably _ an apparent significant retreat from its earlier insistence that the Nov. 21 elections were fair and valid.

Parliament's move was not legally binding but clearly demonstrated rising dissatisfaction with the announced outcome. The United States and other Western nations contend the vote was marred by massive fraud.

The presidential election was won by the Russia-backed Yanukovych, according to the Central Elections Commission, but Yushchenko's supporters streamed into the streets, claiming he was cheated out of victory. The Supreme Court will hear an appeal by Yushchenko's supporters on Monday, and Yanukovych will not be inaugurated before that appeal is decided.

Regional courts also are considering some 11,000 complaints _ from both sides _ about alleged voting fraud.

``The most realistic political decision, taking into account the mutual claims of massive violations, is to pronounce the elections invalid,'' parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn said.

Also, parliament Saturday passed a vote of no confidence in the elections commission, which said Yanukovych, who also was backed by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, won by 3 percentage points. While that no-confidence vote also has no legal ramifications, it steps up pressure on Yanukovych and his supporters.

``The Central Election Commission discredited itself in the first round, undermining public trust in the institution as it is,'' Lytvyn said.

The votes came as negotiators from both candidates' camps were expected to meet for talks in a format worked out with European envoys a day earlier.

Outside the parliament building, more than 7,000 opposition protesters encircled the building, chanting ``Yushchenko!'' Police stood near the building's entrances and watched.

Yushchenko told a cheering crowd he was insisting on a new election Dec. 12 and would give the talks two days at most to yield results. He also demanded that the election commission membership be changed, absentee balloting be prohibited, the candidates be given equal access to the media and that international observers participate.

``Kuchma and Yanukovych want to drag out time,'' said Ivan Plyushch, one of four Yushchenko supporters who were to participate in the working group, told The Associated Press. ``But if in the next two days the situation doesn't develop, we'll return to active measures.''

He refused to elaborate.

Yanukovych aide Stepan Havrysh, who was to participate on behalf of the prime minister, said he believed it might be possible to reach an agreement.

The election has led to an increasingly tense tug-of-war between the West and Moscow, which considers this nation of 48 million people part of its sphere of influence and a buffer between Russia and NATO's eastern flank. The United States and the European Union have said they cannot accept the results and warned Ukraine of ``consequences'' in relations with the West.

``The international community is watching very carefully,'' President Bush said Friday. ``Hopefully it will be resolved in a way that brings credit and confidence to the Ukrainian government.''

Concerns about the election's fairness have overshadowed policy differences between the two candidates.

Yushchenko, whose wife is U.S.-born, says he wants to push the country to greater integration with Western Europe, and he has suggested he would seek NATO membership. His critics worry he will alienate Ukraine from Russia, its key trade partner and main energy supplier.

Yanukovych was praised by Russian President Vladimir Putin and was expected to pursue closer ties with Moscow. He drew his support from Ukraine's pro-Russian, heavily industrialized eastern half, while Yushchenko's stronghold was the west, a traditional center of nationalism.

Many Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east fear a Yushchenko presidency would make them second-class citizens.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have massed in the Ukrainian capital all week to protest what they insist was Yushchenko's election victory. Rising temperatures and wet snow Saturday created a sea of slush around their sprawling tent camp along a main avenue and the central Independence Square, and many Yushchenko supporters _ clad in orange rain ponchos _ were trudging down the street with plastic bags tied around their shoes.

Orange was his campaign color.

``I am not hopeful and don't have faith in talks, so I plan to stand on the square until the end,'' said Ruslan Pokatai, 23, of Sumy, who already has spent five nights in the freezing cold.

Tens of thousands of Yanukovych supporters rallied in Donetsk, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine, to call for a referendum granting the region autonomy. Calls in the region for greater autonomy in the case of a Yushchenko presidency have intensified in recent days.

Yanukovych's Party of Regions scheduled an urgent session Sunday in the eastern city of Luhansk to discuss autonomy, lawmaker Anatoliy Blyzniuk told protesters gathered there.

``Some 15 million people have said: Yanukovych is our president,'' he said. ``It is not just that (Luhansk) region, it is the entire southeast of the country that wants that (autonomy) option.''