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Ukraine opposition calls off talks; protests continue

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's shivering but determined political opposition dug in its heels in Kiev's frigid central square Tuesday, rejecting an offer of the prime minister's job from the declared winner of a disputed presidential election and withdrawing from talks aimed at reaching a compromise.

The election dispute sparked a struggle at Ukraine's parliament, with throngs of opposition supporters trying to storm inside after lawmakers tentatively approved a resolution that would cancel Saturday's nonbinding decision to declare the election results invalid. Protesters -- some crawling on each other's shoulders -- got as far as the lobby before police pushed them back.

The government, which is supported by powerful neighbor Russia, pushed ahead with offers that sought to placate or isolate Ukraine's popular opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, who favors closer ties with the West.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whose victory in the Nov. 21 presidential runoff has been challenged as fraudulent, suggested he could agree to outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's proposal for a new election -- but that both he and Yushchenko should bow out if one is held.

"If this election brings a split in the country ... I'm ready to drop my bid along with him," Yanukovych said.

Yushchenko ignored the proposal. He also rebuffed the offer of the prime minister's post under a Yanukovych presidency, saying it fell far short of a solution to Ukraine's crisis.

"The election was rigged," he said. "People are asking whether this country has a political elite capable of upholding a fair vote."

Yushchenko has led the opposition for years and was long seen as its candidate in the election in a country where millions are yearning for change after Kuchma's 10-year rule. By contrast, Kuchma anointed Yanukovych as his favored successor just last spring, hoping his prominence and publicity as prime minister would attract votes.

On Tuesday, Yanukovych pleaded for an end to round-the-clock-protests, which he said would ruin the economy, but the opposition promised to tighten its blockade of official buildings.

The political crisis has led to fears that Ukraine, which has the fastest growing economy in Europe but where millions live in poverty, could plunge into economic turmoil. Many Ukrainians have waited in long lines to exchange the national currency, hryvna, for U.S. dollars.

Ukraine's Central Bank moved Tuesday to counter a run on bank deposits by imposing tough limits on the amount of money citizens can exchange and withdraw. Analysts said fears of economic collapse were stoked in part by Kuchma, who earlier likened the divided nation's finances to a precarious "house of cards."

But Yanukovych's backers in eastern Ukraine blamed the hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko supporters who have kept up massive street protests since the election.

As temperatures hovered around 23 degrees, opposition demonstrators jammed Kiev's central square Tuesday, filled a giant tent camp on the main avenue and laid siege to official buildings.

For a second day, the Supreme Court heard an opposition appeal focusing on results from eight eastern and southern regions -- more than 15 million votes, almost half of the total cast in the runoff.

Yushchenko's attorneys cited turnout of above 100 percent in hundreds of precincts in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as alleged problems with voting lists and multiple voting with absentee ballots. The opposition asked the court to name Yushchenko the winner based on his narrow plurality of the votes in the election's first round on Oct. 31.

Yushchenko's side said it was breaking off compromise talks with Yanukovych, accusing him of trying to drag them out to consolidate his grip on power.

"The authorities used the talks to lull our supporters to sleep," said Oleksandr Zinchenko, Yushchenko's campaign manager and vice speaker of parliament. "We are resuming pressure on the government if it doesn't understand other language."

The talks were launched last week under the mediation of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.

Solana arrived Tuesday night for more meetings and is to be joined today by Kwasniewski and OSCE Secretary General Jan Kubis. The European envoys planned to meet with the rival candidates today.

President Bush, visiting Canada, said Kwasniewski's delegation will try "to encourage the parties to reject violence and to urge the parties to engage in dialogue toward a political and legal solution to the current crisis."

"Our common goal is to see the will of the Ukrainian people prevail," Bush said during a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin in Ottawa.

Solana underscored the need for both sides to "remain engaged in the current negotiation process," spokeswoman Christina Gallach said. Solana and other international leaders have also stressed the importance of averting a split between Ukraine's mostly Russian-speaking east, Yanukovych's support base and the western regions where Yushchenko is popular.

Yanukovych's supporters called this week for autonomy in the east if Yushchenko is installed as president.

But the Bush administration urged Kuchma to intervene, and the risk of a split seemed to ease after the Ukrainian president consulted with eastern governors who had threatened to seek autonomy. Ukraine's security agency opened a probe into the regional actions.

Donetsk Governor Anatoliy Bliznyuk said his region wouldn't hold its referendum on self-rule as planned Sunday, but that it could be held later. The Kharkiv regional legislature also retracted its threat to introduce self-rule.

THE ISSUE

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's victory in the Nov. 21 presidential runoff has been challenged as fraudulent.

THE COMPROMISE OFFER

Yanukovych suggested he could agree to a new election -- but that both he and opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko should bow out.

THE RESPONSE

Yushchenko ignored the deal and rebuffed an offer of the prime minister's post under a Yanukovych presidency.


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