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Parliament declares vote invalid
KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's parliament declared the country's disputed presidential election invalid Saturday amid international calls for a new vote, fueling what has become a political tug-of-war between the West and Moscow over the future of this former Soviet republic.
The elections commission chief also said he was not opposed to a revote.
Parliament's vote, which was symbolic and has no legal standing, came as representatives of the two presidential rivals sought a solution in talks mediated by European envoys. Demonstrators jammed downtown Kiev in freezing weather for a sixth straight day, alleging the Nov. 21 vote was rigged and robbed their candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, of victory.
Thousands of demonstrators joined Yushchenko in demanding a new vote. A European Union envoy -- Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot -- said new elections were the "ideal outcome" for the standoff between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who was declared the winner by the Central Elections Commission.
Asked if new elections were the only solution, Ben Bot answered: "Yes."
Parliament also passed a vote of no confidence in the elections commission, saying it "discredited itself" by declaring Yanukovych the winner by 3 percentage points.
The symbolic act apparently aligned the legislators with those wanting the results annulled. The Supreme Court will make the ultimate decision after hearing an appeal of the results by Yushchenko supporters Monday.
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 United States and other Western nations contend the poll was marred by massive fraud.
At President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, White House spokesman Jim Morrell said, "We are hopeful that the developments of the past two days can pave the way for a democratic process which reflects the will of the Ukrainian people. We continue to call on all parties to work to achieve a fair and just outcome without the use of force."
Representatives of Yanukovych and Yushchenko met Saturday under a program worked out a day earlier with European envoys. A Yushchenko representative, Ivan Plyushch, was quoted by the Interfax news agency after the meeting as saying, "It seems to me that the sides have the constructive wish to reach compromise."
Yanukovych aide Stepan Havrysh, who was to participate, said earlier he believed it might be possible to reach an agreement within two days.
The symbolic parliamentary votes demonstrated rising dissatisfaction and indicated that Yanukovych, if he becomes president, would face a hostile legislature.
"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. "The Central Election Commission discredited itself in the first round, undermining public trust in the institution as it is."
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.
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.
Russia, West test
A top aide to Putin on Saturday said the election dispute was a major test of Russia's relations with the West and accused politicians in the United States and Europe of fomenting political change in former Soviet republics.
"It's impossible not to see the direct involvement of the American Congress, individual congressmen who are spending their days and nights in Kiev -- foundations, nongovernment organizations, consultants, experts," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin's special representative for ties with the European Union, said in an interview on state-run Rossiya television. "It's clear and obvious to everyone."
But Yastrzhembsky added he does not see a "serious chill" in relations with Europe and that it is not in either side's interest to alienate the other.
Ukranian lawmakers also called for changes in election legislation to be considered next week. Those proposed changes could include a call for parliament to be granted the power to dismiss the elections commission.
Yushchenko said he was seeking a Dec. 12 revote under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But whether the systematic elections violations that international observers complained of could be addressed in such a short period was in doubt.
Elections commission head Serhiy Kivalov said Saturday he was not opposed to new voting but added that "before such an emotional decision is taken, a commission must be created to analyze the work of the CEC," according to the Unian news agency.
That position would be unlikely to please Yushchenko's camp, which wants to keep the protests' momentum going.
Outside parliament, more than 7,000 opposition protesters encircled the building, chanting "Yushchenko!" Police looked on from the building's entrances.
Yushchenko has also demanded that the election commission's membership be changed, absentee balloting be prohibited, the candidates be given equal access to the media and that international observers participate.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters have massed in the Ukrainian capital all week to protect 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.
"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. Regional calls for greater autonomy in the event of a Yushchenko presidency have intensified in recent days.
Yanukovych's Party of Regions scheduled an urgent session in the eastern city of Luhansk on Sunday to discuss autonomy, lawmaker Anatoliy Blyzniuk told protesters gathered there.