Yushchenko moves one step closer to power

CHRIS STEPHEN
IN KIEV
 

A KEY legal obstacle to Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko becoming the next president was removed yesterday when the supreme court threw out complaints about alleged voter fraud.

The complaints were lodged by the prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, who claimed Mr Yushchenko won Sunday’s vote after massive election violations. Judges threw out all four complaints, echoing the view of international monitors that the election had been free and fair.

Mr Yushchenko won 52 per cent of Sunday’s vote, against 44 per cent for Mr Yanukovich, in a re-run of their November election that was declared invalid after weeks of opposition protests.

Mr Yanukovich has lodged a second complaint of fraud, presenting 27 volumes of alleged violations to the central election commission.

The commission is expected to follow the supreme court judges in rejecting the complaint, but their deliberations mean further delays in Mr Yushchenko’s inauguration, deepening the country’s constitutional crisis as Ukraine is, in effect, without a government.

Earlier this month Mr Yanukovich lost a no-confidence vote in parliament, but the outgoing president Leonid Kuchma, his ally, has refused to sign the dismissal order.

Mr Yushchenko is expected to make the signing of this dismissal order his first priority but he will not now be inaugurated until 12 January at the earliest.

This leaves Ukraine in deadlock, with Mr Yanukovich insisting he is the prime minister and the opposition promising to barricade government offices against him, as they did earlier this week.

The deputy opposition leader, Petro Poroshenko, said he feared that if Mr Yanukovich was allowed to exercise power, even for a few days, he could cause mischief in an already tottering governmental machine.

"He [Yanukovich] still tries to insist to sit a couple more days in government," Mr Poroshenko told The Scotsman. "I think it’s extremely dangerous for the government. We have six billion grivna [Ukraine currency, ?586 million] in our treasury, we keep an eye on it."

Mr Yanukovich continues to hold cabinet meetings at different addresses, but Mr Poroshenko said his powers are sharply curtailed.

"He doesn’t have the police, forget about that. He doesn’t have the armed forces, forget about that," said Mr Poroshenko. "We think we can have trouble only from a couple of hundred criminals."

Weeks of protests, strikes and uncertainty have left the economy fragile, with state coffers almost empty and many workers going unpaid. Fresh trouble came last night when the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan announced it was suspending natural gas supplies as of 1 January, saying it had not been paid. The supplies are half of Ukraine’s needs, and with fresh snow forecast, the move could cripple the country.

In a sign of the growing swing of power from government to opposition, the parliament’s speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn, publicly congratulated Mr Yushchenko for "forming and consolidating an honest, transparent system of power directly linked to the people".

The continuing nervousness had one unexpected effect yesterday, with street protesters ignoring a call by Kiev authorities to dismantle their so-called "tent city" in the city centre.

City governors want the campsite to be cleared away to allow traditional New Year celebrations to take place, but protestors announced they will now wait until Mr Yushchenko is inaugurated.

Mr Yushchenko has begun planning his new administration, telling journalists in Kiev that he has a 100-day plan, and that he had created a committee to fill top cabinet positions.

"We can move to the West only after normalising relations with neighbours," Mr Yushchenko said in a television interview.

"The European Union doesn’t need a partner with a suitcase full of problems."

In New Year greetings posted on his website, Mr Yushchenko said the country has made a "great step forward".

"The vote has changed the country and it changed us," he said.

Mr Yushchenko has pledged to fight corruption and nudge Ukraine closer toward Europe, while maintaining "friendly ties" with Russia.

He also said that he would consider replacing all of the country’s appointed governors.