New Vote in Ukraine Appears More Likely
This bitterly divided nation increasingly appeared headed toward a rerun of a disputed presidential election after President Leonid D. Kuchma met Friday with European and Russian envoys and rival presidential contenders to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
All sides “stand against any use of force that may lead to escalation of the conflict and bloodshed,” Kuchma said after 2 1/2 hours of talks at the Mariinsky presidential palace. Kuchma did not detail a possible peaceful way out. But an extended legal battle in the courts or a repeat election appeared to be the options, and one of the contenders, pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, swiftly proposed a Dec. 12 revote.
Kuchma, who did not seek reelection after 10 years in power, spoke in a joint appearance with the foreign mediators and the two presidential candidates, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich -- the winner, according to the disputed official count -- and Yushchenko. Parties to the talks had set up a working group that was to search for a formula on how to settle the bitter standoff, the president said.
“I would like to express my hope that we will find with dignity a peaceful solution of this political crisis, because it may lead to unexpected consequences and wrongdoings that will not benefit the whole country and the people of Ukraine,” said Kuchma, flanked by Yushchenko and Yanukovich, who has Moscow’s strong backing.
Kuchma took no questions. None of the other participants -- who included European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski -- spoke during the joint appearance.
The day’s developments added to Yushchenko’s momentum in seeking to block Yanukovich from taking office based on Sunday’s election, which not only the challenger’s camp, but also the U.S. and Western European governments have rejected as too flawed to be considered legitimate. On Friday, President Bush said the world was watching Ukraine “very closely.”
Yushchenko smiled broadly as he greeted supporters outside the palace after the mediation session, while Yanukovich looked disgruntled.
Later Friday evening, Yushchenko appeared before tens of thousands of festive supporters massed in and around central Kiev’s Independence Square. He announced that his demand in the negotiations was to hold the repeat election under conditions designed to ensure fairness.
Yushchenko demanded that any repeat election be organized by a new Central Election Commission composed of equal numbers of members from the two sides, and that balloting be conducted “under the firm and full control” of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He also demanded that absentee balloting not be allowed, that employers and schools not pressure workers and students, and that the candidates have equal access to media.
An OSCE observer mission was among the foreign delegations that said Sunday’s runoff vote failed to meet democratic standards. The first round of voting, with 24 candidates, was held Oct. 31.
Yushchenko said Yanukovich was insisting that the issue be resolved through the courts, based on Sunday’s balloting. Although Yushchenko is pressing legal appeals, he rejected this course as an overall way to resolve the crisis, saying his campaign has 11,000 complaints -- enough to keep the courts busy “until the first flowers come out.”
The Supreme Court is scheduled to consider the first of the opposition’s complaints of fraud Monday.
“We will only hold talks on staging a new vote,” Yushchenko declared. “We must not delay talks for three or four days. If there is no decision within one or two days, it means Yanukovich cannot hear you.”
Solana, speaking on CNN, said the proposal for a revote would be discussed at a working group meeting today. “Without doubt, a third election is a possibility,” Solana said.
Ukraine’s Unian news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko as saying that Moscow looked favorably on a possible repeat election -- an apparent retreat from its earlier insistence that Sunday’s election results were legitimate.
Some of Yushchenko’s conditions for a revote would appear to require new legislation, and Ukraine’s parliament scheduled an emergency debate today.
Earlier in the day, while addressing miners and other supporters brought to Kiev by train from his power base in the country’s Russian-speaking eastern region, Yanukovich said he wanted to resolve the issue through legal means.
“Dear friends, together we must do everything so that an unconstitutional coup in Ukraine does not happen,” Yanukovich told the rally outside Kiev’s main train station. “I believe in our strength, I believe in the law, I believe in the constitution.... I don’t need power at the cost of spilled blood.”
Many of those he addressed, however, were men carrying large sticks, which raised fears of potential clashes with Yushchenko supporters. Those fears eased with the opening of talks between the two sides.
Several thousand Yushchenko backers earlier Friday had blocked the Cabinet building and other government offices to press their demand that the official vote count be rejected as fraudulent.
“We came to fight for our rights,” said Natalya Gamulyak, 25, an economist from the town of Galich in western Ukraine, who was among the crowd of several thousand blocking employees from coming to work at the Cabinet building. “We came to fight for our President Yushchenko. We want Ukraine to be truly independent. We want to get rid of the gangsters and the corruption.”
The outcome of the election battle will influence whether Ukraine looks more to Western Europe and the United States or to Russia.
Yushchenko, 50, who is seen as a market-oriented democratic reformer, aims to move the country toward closer ties with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Yanukovich, 54, has emphasized economic ties with Moscow.
Speaking to reporters outside a restaurant in Crawford, Texas, where he was spending Thanksgiving weekend with his family, Bush expressed concern about the allegations of election fraud in Ukraine and warned that the international community “is watching very closely” as the country tries to work through its electoral crisis.
Bush acknowledged that the validity of the election had been cast into doubt by reports of voting irregularities. “People are paying very close attention to this,” he said. “Hopefully, it will be resolved in a way that brings credit and confidence to the Ukrainian government.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov, speaking at a Moscow news conference, reiterated Russian criticism of Western challenges to the legitimacy of the official election results and apparent support for Yushchenko’s street protests.
“The attempt by some states to transfer the situation in Ukraine from the legal field provokes concern, especially when some European capitals say that they don’t accept the election result,” Lavrov said. “Next, they will be saying that Ukraine must be with the West.”
Times staff writer Warren Vieth in Crawford contributed to this report.