Court: Ukrainian presidential vote results not official until opposition appeal decided
KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine’s Supreme Court gave the political opposition some breathing room Thursday, ruling that the results of a presidential election are not official until it hears an appeal from a Western-leaning candidate who says it was stolen from him.
But there were no indications that opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko’s call for a national strike was taking hold, and it was unclear whether the high court even has the right to annul the vote count that gave victory to the Kremlin-backed candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
The opposition increased the stakes further Thursday, calling for a nationwide series of roadblocks.
The election pitting Yushchenko against Yanukovych has led to an increasingly tense tug-of-war between the West and Moscow, which considers Ukraine part of its sphere of influence and a buffer between Russia and NATO’s eastern flank.
At a summit in The Hague, Netherlands, Russian President Vladimir Putin and European Union leaders staked out starkly opposing views of Ukraine’s election dispute but agreed the crisis must be resolved peacefully.
Although Yanukovych had widespread official backing, including that of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, the Supreme Court is respected as an unbiased body. The court’s decision boosted Yushchenko’s supporters, who have flooded the streets of Kiev since the Sunday run-off.
“Yeah, we are definitely going to win,” said Valentyn Kulchytsky, 23, one of about 100,000 demonstrators standing in freezing weather.
Yushchenko praised the decision, but told the crowd, “This is only the beginning.”
Yanukovych late Thursday said “I don’t see any possibility for resolving this conflict by the path of ultimatums … we should sit at the negotiating table,” news agencies reported.
A day earlier, Yanukovych had said that negotiations with the opposition would begin Thursday, but Yushchenko’s camp has brushed off the idea.
The court decision also foretells a continuation of tension for at least several days. The appeal will be considered on Monday, court spokeswoman Liana Shlyaposhnikova said.
The protesters, swelling to as many as 200,000 at times, have braved freezing temperatures in Kiev’s Independence Square since Sunday’s run-off, saying the ballot was rigged to allow Yanukovych to win.
Apparently responding to the call for a nationwide road blockade, Yushchenko supporters put up a barricade of logs and burning tires Thursday along a main western road leading from the city of Lviv to the Polish border.
“In Ukraine, there will not be a single major highway that will not be closed,” key Yushchenko ally Yulia Tymoshenko told the Kiev crowd.
An approximately 100-strong unit of men in police uniform went over to the protesters’ side on Thursday night, and the Unian news agency described them as cadets.
The demonstrators were galvanized Thursday by a visit from Lech Walesa, the founder of the Polish Solidarity movement, who said he was “amazed” at their enthusiasm and predicted their protest would succeed.
Walesa, who arrived in Kiev to try to help pull this deeply divided nation back from the brink of conflict, said he met earlier with Yanukovych, “not as a presidential candidate but as prime minister.”
“I am worried that all the people I talked with stressed that there is a possibility of provocations, and if you have a provocation then force must be used,” Walesa said later, but added nonetheless that “I am leaving with some hope.”
Western observers have denounced the vote as fraudulent, citing voter intimidation, multiple voting and other irregularities. The United States and the European Union said they couldn’t accept the results as legitimate and warned the Ukrainian government of “consequences” in relations with the West.
The stakes for both Moscow and the West are substantial.
Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Sevastopol is home to the Russian navy’s southern fleet, and the country is seen as a buffer between Russia and eastward-expanding NATO. In addition, pipelines carrying Russian gas and oil – Russia’s major export earners – cross Ukraine.
As for Moscow’s own international prestige, any prospect of even partially resurrecting the Soviet Union, such as through free-trade zones, depends on Ukraine’s allegiance to Russia.