Ukraine court rejects vote tallies, orders new election this month

Judges' ruling cites `systematic violations'

parliament to meet today

December 04, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIEV, Ukraine - Ukraine's Supreme Court threw out the results of last month's presidential election yesterday because of widespread fraud and ordered a new runoff to take place by Dec. 26, a victory for opposition demonstrators who have held 12 days of street protests.

The court's chief justice, after seven hours of deliberations, said in proceedings broadcast live on Ukrainian television that "systematic violations" of election laws in the Nov. 21 presidential runoff "affected the results of the election and rendered them impossible to certify."

The ruling triggered jubilation, with the capital echoing with the thunderous roar of supporters of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, the candidate who said Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych had won the vote thanks only to large-scale fraud encouraged and sponsored by the government.

"Today Ukraine has turned to justice, democracy and freedom," Yushchenko told demonstrators in Independence Square. "It happened thanks to you."

Yushchenko and his supporters had challenged the official election results in the courts, in parliament and on the streets. He charged that up to 4 million votes had been fraudulently cast, giving what election officials claimed was a narrow victory to Yanukovych, a protege of the country's president, Leonid D. Kuchma.

If the contest is rerun, as the Supreme Court ordered, Yushchenko would begin as the favored candidate. Yanukovych had prevailed in the November vote thanks to what the court acknowledged were flagrant violations of elections laws.

Parliament was expected to meet today to debate legislation allowing the new runoff, but it remained unclear what actions President Kuchma would take. Kuchma was pressed by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin not to hold another vote.

Putin did not comment on the court's decision as of last night. But Russian officials were increasingly critical of events here, accusing the West of helping finance the opposition and interfering in relations between Ukraine and Russia.

The enormous crowd that gathered last night at Independence Square listened to Yushchenko say: "You are heroes."

"On the 21st of November you witnessed the rude violation of your rights," he said. "But from now on we are going to see a new country. You proved that you are not a nation of goats. You proved you are not a nation that allows others to trample on your rights."

As they have for the past 12 days, joyous and teary-eyed demonstrators chanted Yushchenko's name, waved banners attached to fishing rods and sang the Ukrainian national anthem.

Members of Yushchenko's legal team called the court's decision a triumph for both their candidate and the rule of law. But the court refused to grant Yushchenko's request to immediately declare him the winner.

"It was not what we expected," said Hennadiy Udovenko, Ukraine's former ambassador to the United Nations. Standing at one of the barricades thrown up around government buildings, Udovenko, a member of parliament, said his briefcase contained a package of draft election laws for parliament to begin considering today.

Udovenko called on President Kuchma to dismiss Yanukovych as prime minister, dismiss his Cabinet, dismiss the Central Elections Commission and appoint an interim government to run the elections. Parliament passed a vote of no confidence against the government on Wednesday, but Yanukovych said the vote had no legal force and refused to step down.

In the sprawling tent city on Khreschatyk Street, demonstrators expressed concern that the government would seek to ignore the court.

"Kuchma will try to put sticks in the wheels of the process, even though he doesn't have the moral right," said Sergei Semenchenkov, 22, a student from the city of Chernihiv. "He's disgracing himself, openly and impudently. But we will beat him now, because now we are a very strong nation."

People had watched the Supreme Court proceedings live on television for five days. Stepan Zaruma, a builder, said the proceedings were difficult to follow but fascinating.

"It is very interesting to watch what is happening in the Supreme Court because Ukraine is a very corrupt country," he said. "Everybody knows that judges are corrupt, that they take bribes. Now the world is watching them at work. Now they have to play a different role. Now they have to pretend that they are honest."

Nina Vasilenko, who works the evening shift at a food processing plant, had heard lawyers and witnesses testify that officials had stuffed ballot boxes, falsified records and intimidated voters. "What really surprised us was that people had the courage to come to court and testify," she said. "They were heroes, because it's dangerous to tell the truth in our country."

If Yushchenko were to win a new run-off, his first challenge would be to unite the country. Most of his support comes from western Ukraine, where the first language is Ukrainian and the outlook European.

Eastern Ukraine supported Yanukovych, a former governor of the industrial Donetsk region. Most residents there are Russian-speaking, more closely linked to Moscow. Many of them fear that the east's industrial base is threatened by the liberal economic policies championed by Yushchenko, a former head of Ukraine's central bank.

A news report last night on Russia's TVTS network, controlled by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, said Ukraine was now "split in two." The broadcast included video of alleged fraud in western Ukraine, Yushchenko's base, and warned that the coal miners of eastern Ukraine might decide to strike.

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