Street protesters in Ukraine stand firm on voting reforms

Safeguards for runoff stalled in parliament

December 06, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIEV, Ukraine - For two weeks the enormous crowds swirling through central Kiev shouted and marched until the government agreed to a new presidential runoff. But yesterday afternoon, the streets grew quieter as protesters braced themselves for what they believe will be an anxious wait until the new vote on Dec. 26.

Many of the protesters supporting the opposition candidate Viktor A. Yushchenko say they will stay in their tents pitched in the streets and continue their blockade until the government adopts measures to ensure that the vote is fair.

"We're staying until victory," said Yuri Zavalo, 21, an economics student from western Ukraine. Wearing a knit cap plastered with an orange sticker declaring "Freedom Can't Be Stopped!" he was one of about 300 protesters at barricades on Garden Street, blocking access to the building that houses the offices of Yushchenko's opponent, Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych.

Yushchenko's supporters insist there is no way he can lose an honest election, but there are fears that no matter who wins, the election could split the country.

Yushchenko tried to ease those fears yesterday in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., saying: "It's a completely wrong view to say Ukraine is divided west against east."

Standoff over reforms

On Friday, Ukraine's Supreme Court overturned the results of the Nov. 21 runoff, blaming the government for large-scale fraud, and called for the new runoff. But when parliament met Saturday to adopt constitutional reforms intended to prevent a repeat of last month's blatant vote-rigging, legislators failed to reach an agreement.

Deputies supporting President Leonid D. Kuchma and Yanukovych refused to endorse the reforms unless Yushchenko's supporters agreed to amendments giving parliament more power. Yushchenko's followers said they didn't want him to win the presidency only to become a figurehead. The deadlocked parliament then adjourned for 10 days.

Yulia Tymoshenko, a prominent member of parliament who supports Yushchenko, said she was confident of "a colossal victory" even if the vote is held without new safeguards against fraud.

Some television networks that support the president have begun reporting events more honestly, she said, and members of the Central Elections Commission know they will be closely scrutinized.

"They will not blindly follow the criminal orders they receive," she said.

In an interview yesterday with The New York Times, Kuchma, 66, said he believed Yanukovych was the legitimate winner of the Nov. 21 vote, though the Supreme Court ruled otherwise. He said the court-ordered runoff would be entirely fair.

"The election will be done in full compliance with the law," he was quoted as saying.

Kuchma indirectly advised Yanukovych to drop out of the race, saying that is what he would do in his place. According to news reports, if Yanukovych dropped out by Dec. 16, another candidate could take his place on the ballot.

Holding their ground

Tymoshenko is well-known for having a fortune earned from natural gas interests and for having been arrested briefly in 2001 on corruption charges. Some Yushchenko supporters express concern about her influence over the candidate.

Tymoshenko said she had little control over the demonstrators. "I think that if Viktor [Yushchenko] and I told them to leave and prepare for the elections, they would simply start whistling at us," she said.

Sophia Vovk, an elementary school teacher at the barricades on Garden Street, said neither she nor those standing with her would automatically leave at Yushchenko's behest.

"If we thought the situation warranted it, maybe we would do that," she said. "But we can make up our own minds. We also understand the situation."

For the demonstrators, yesterday was a time to enjoy the wan autumn sunshine. Bogdan Pylypchuk, an unemployed musician, ambled around Independence Square in a jacket with an orange ribbon tied around his bicep.

"We can see with our own eyes what is a real democracy," he said. "We want the same things for our country that they have in Europe."

Not everyone here sees the presidential contest in such stark terms.

Sergei P. Gerasimov, a 57-year-old electrician, said he voted "against Yanukovych," who has a criminal record, rather than for Yushchenko. Gerasimov's wife, Aleksandra, voted for Yanukovych.

He still has doubts, he said, about Yushchenko's close association with Tymoshenko and other so-called oligarchs, who earned fortunes dealing with the state.

But both he and his wife plan to vote for Yushchenko in the runoff because of what his young supporters have already achieved in bringing the nation together.

`Something has changed'

"I lived all of my life in a system that suppressed people," he said, waving his right hand at the protesters' tent encampment on Kreschatyk Street. "The means existed to prevent this. But something has changed in the life of the ruling elite. They didn't use force."

The demonstrators, he said, had prevailed over the government: "In my opinion, they have already won."

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