Pro-Western Candidate Moves to Grab Presidency in Ukraine

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Moscow ( - Ukraine's disputed presidential election drifted towards constitutional crisis Tuesday as opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko declared victory and took a symbolic presidential oath of office in the country's parliament despite official results indicating that he had lost.

A parliamentary session ended without making any decision on the matter, as only 191 lawmakers of a required minimum of 226 were present.

After bringing his orange-clad supporters onto the streets by the thousands, Yushchenko, 50, accused the government of rigging Sunday's vote in favor of his pro-Russian rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

He also warned that the country was on the verge of civil conflict and announced the launch of a campaign of civil disobedience.

Ukraine's central election commission maintains that, with 99.4 percent of votes counted, Yanukovich has won by 49.3 percent to Yushchenko's 46.7 percent.

On Tuesday, the pro-Western Yushchenko appealed to the international community to recognize him as the legitimate winner, issuing a statement addressed to "the parliaments and people of the world."

The municipal assembly in the capital, Kiev, said it would refuse to recognize the official ballot results and backed Yushchenko.

The governments of four other large cities also said they recognized Yushchenko as president, while Yanukovich won the public backing of the eastern Donetsk region and Crimea.

Analysts say the country is deeply divided between Western-focused western regions and the Russian-speaking east.

International observers described Sunday's election as flawed.

One of them, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), was quoted as saying there had been "a concerted and forceful program of election-day fraud and abuse."

He called on the outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, "to review all of this and take decisive action in the best interests of the country."

Kuchma urged negotiations between the government and the opposition. In a statement announced on state-run television Tuesday night, he ruled out the use of force to end protests in Kiev.

Special forces troops on Tuesday evening pushed back opposition supporters who had moved to storm the building housing the presidential administration in the capital. Top security ministers held an emergency meeting.

Yanukovich has called for national unity.

"I categorically will not accept the actions of certain politicians who are now calling people to the barricades," he said. "This small group of radicals has taken upon itself the goal of splitting Ukraine."

The 54-year-old Moscow-backed premier claimed that Western-backed elements were trying to reproduce the "Rose Revolution" in another former Soviet state, Georgia.

Massive street protests following rigged elections a year ago prompted President Eduard Shevardnadze to resign.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the Russian parliament's lower house, have both congratulated Yanukovich despite the dispute.

The speaker of Russia's upper Federation Council expressed the hope that strategic relations between Russia and Ukraine would not change irrespective of the choice of the Ukrainian voters.

Russian analysts disagree with that assessment, however. Valery Khomyakov, director general of the Council for National Strategy, said an opposition victory would bring about a dramatic deterioration in bilateral ties, since Moscow had supported Yanukovich far too overtly.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned that Russia should not interfere in its neighbor's dispute.

"Everything should remain in line with principles of democracy, and Ukraine should not be split," he said on Tuesday.

See Earlier Story:
US Warns of Punitive Steps if Ukraine Election Dispute Is Not Resolved
(Nov. 22, 2004)

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