The political crisis over Ukraine’s disputed presidential election threatened Sunday to tear the nation apart as leaders of eastern provinces pressed demands bordering on separatism and opposition supporters pledged to block the outgoing president’s movements if he didn’t meet their demands.
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko both warned that the bitter struggle over which of them was the legitimate winner of the Nov. 21 vote risked escalating into violence and regional conflict.
Yanukovich, the officially declared winner of the campaign, met with supporters from 17 regional councils in eastern and southern Ukraine who had gathered to discuss demands for autonomy or independence should Yushchenko succeed in having the official results overturned. Yanukovich, whose power base is the largely Russian-speaking east, urged caution.
“I’m warning you against any radical measures,” he said. “Once the first drop of blood is spilled, we will not be able to stop it.”
In the end, the gathering called for a December referendum “to determine the region’s status.” Meanwhile, the council of the Donetsk region, also in the east, voted 156 to 1 to hold a referendum next Sunday on forming a republic within a federal Ukrainian state.
Yanukovich, who is backed by Moscow, did not endorse the demands of the separatists, who basically envision dividing the country into two autonomous regions with a figurehead president and weak central government.
Instead, he stressed that outgoing President Leonid D. Kuchma and the National Security and Defense Council should make Yushchenko’s supporters stop blocking access to the Cabinet building and other government offices in Kiev.
Tens of thousands of Yushchenko backers have been camped out in the center of the capital for a week, demonstrating against election results they regard as fraudulent. Yushchenko, seen as a pro-Western democratic reformer, draws most of his support from Kiev and the country’s primarily Ukrainian-speaking western region.
The final outcome of the crisis will probably determine whether the former Soviet republic of 48 million moves toward warmer ties with the United States and Europe, pursues a tighter relationship with Russia or cleaves into adversarial halves, one looking east and the other west.
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who has been helping to mediate the crisis, expressed concern about the hardening regional divisions in Ukraine. Asked in a television interview whether there was a danger of Ukraine splitting, he replied: “This is a realistic threat, especially if it is supported by outside forces.”
He added, “Even if it ends with Yushchenko becoming president -- which is most likely, after repeated procedures and so on -- it is difficult to believe that east Ukraine will fall in love with him.”
In Kiev, Yushchenko accused Yanukovich’s backers of playing “the dangerous card of separatism.”
“Public officials calling for separatism are committing a crime, and they will be responsible according to Ukrainian laws,” he told an afternoon rally in Kiev’s main square. He called for “immediate criminal charges against separatist governors.”
“They have started down the road of dismembering Ukraine,” he added. The crowd responded with calls of “Shame, shame!”
Late Sunday, Yulia Tymoshenko, a former deputy prime minister in the opposition camp, demanded at the ongoing rally that Kuchma, who has backed Yanukovich, fire him as prime minister. She also pressed for the dismissal of regional officials calling for autonomy.
“We give 24 hours for these demands to be met, otherwise we will view Kuchma’s activities as a crime against his own people,” Tymoshenko told the crowd of about 150,000. “If in 24 hours he does not fulfill all the demands, we will start blocking all Kuchma’s movements on Ukrainian territory. We know exactly where he is. And we are able to organize matters so that he will not be able to take a single step.”
Tymoshenko called for parliament to meet today to oversee the formation of a new coalition government. And she told supporters to mass today outside the Supreme Court as it considers the Yushchenko camp’s allegations that fraud tainted the voting.
“You must go to the court not to put pressure on it ... but to defend the judges from the authorities’ pressure,” said Tymoshenko, who charged that pro-Yanukovich officials were threatening and attempting to bribe the judges to win a favorable ruling.
There are several possible outcomes of the court’s deliberations if it decides there is merit to the allegations. The judges may rule that lower courts should be given time to consider specific complaints. Or, if they agree that there was widespread cheating, they could declare Yushchenko the winner.
“The Supreme Court can do that basically by invalidating the elections in separate districts where the violations were so systemic and so acute that there are grounds to do this,” said Roman Zvarych, a member of parliament who is one of the few Yushchenko representatives on the Central Election Commission.
Western observers and governments have said the balloting and vote count were so marred by irregularities -- including massive abuse of absentee ballots to inflate Yanukovich’s total -- that the official count could not be considered legitimate.
In Washington, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and an observer of Ukraine’s vote, urged a second round of balloting -- but only if authorities excluded the absentee balloting that he said was at the center of much of the fraud.
In Kiev, the National Security and Defense Council issued a statement calling for talks between the two sides to be speeded up. The panel also urged an end to protesters’ blockade of government offices but pledged to not use force against legal actions by the opposition.
Kuchma, however, criticized the blocking of government buildings as a “grave violation of the law.”
“Democratic countries have learned to take harsh measures in such cases,” Kuchma said before television cameras during the security council’s meeting.
Yushchenko warned authorities against a crackdown on his supporters.
“For two days, there has been talk of a state of emergency to allow dispersal of the demonstration,” Yushchenko told the rally in the capital. “Mr. President, I turn to you: God forbid that the authorities turn to force.”
A crackdown would mean that the mass of demonstrators in central Kiev “will multiply by 10,” he said. “You will face a force never before seen.”
Yushchenko said that if “any kind of violent scenario is being prepared,” he would immediately quit the negotiations with Yanukovich’s camp that were set up at a meeting Friday presided over by Kuchma and attended by European and Russian envoys.
At the same time, Yushchenko also used his appearance at the rally to try to allay the fears of those Ukrainians, especially in the east, who believed he would pursue too nationalistic an agenda if he became president.
“Dear brothers and sisters, our country cannot be divided by geography, language, religious belief or the directions of our integration” with Russia or Western Europe, he said.
He rejected as false “tales” critics’ claims that he cared little for the Russian language and the Russian Orthodox Church and was less concerned about people in the country’s east than those in its west.
“At the start of the third millennium, there should be no question about what language to speak: of course, Ukrainian; of course, Russian,” he said. “With Europe we will speak their language, with Russia, its language.”
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.