Ukraine's top court orders new vote

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Ukraine's opposition celebrated what it called the birth of democracy in the country Friday night after the Supreme Court overturned a disputed presidential election and called for a repeat runoff vote between the two main candidates on Dec. 26.

Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko had called for the ruling, which dealt a heavy blow to outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's hopes of maintaining his political grip.

“Today Ukraine has turned to justice, democracy and freedom,” Mr. Yushchenko told a massive crowd on Kiev's Independence Square, where his supporters have gathered every day since the disputed Nov. 21 vote. “It happened thanks to you.”

Massive protests against the Kuchma government have become known as the Orange Revolution, named after the colour of Mr. Yushchenko's campaign. While the drama is not over yet, the crowd Friday night was ecstatic after a court win few were certain was coming.

The centre of Kiev was transformed into a giant dance floor as musicians played into the night and fireworks exploded overhead.

The top court declared that the runoff election between Mr. Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich was so deeply flawed that Ukraine's Central Election Commission should not have declared Mr. Yanukovich the winner.

The ruling came as an embarrassment to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had heavily backed Mr. Yanukovich during the campaign and twice called to congratulate him on his victory.

Few expect the discredited Mr. Yanukovich, a 54-year-old pro-Moscow ex-convict, to have much chance against the Western-leaning Mr. Yushchenko on Dec. 26.

Mr. Kuchma and Mr. Putin both spoke out strongly against a simple rerun of the Nov. 21 vote and had been pushing hard for entirely new elections, suggesting they hoped to find a better candidate.

But the court ruled that the runoff vote — marred by widespread fraud, including voter intimidation and a turnout that reached 127 per cent in one region — should be held again under close international supervision.

If Mr. Yanukovich does not run, Oleksander Moroz, a close Yushchenko ally who finished a distant third in first-round voting on Oct. 31, would take his place on the ballot.

The court's five days of deliberations were often broadcast live on giant-screen televisions to rapt opposition supporters on Independence Square, who watched them anxiously.

A crowd of orange-clad demonstrators had gathered around a battered white Zhiguli vehicle with a speaker mounted on the roof to listen to a radio broadcast of the proceedings. When the verdict was announced they gave a loud cheer and began hugging one another.

“We're happy. The court took into account the opinion of the people gathered on the square and took into account the constitution of Ukraine, and they didn't give in to Kuchma and Yanukovich,” said Ivan Dolyuk, a 21-year-old student from the western city of Lviv.

He admitted that he was exhausted after protesting for 10 consecutive days, and said he was looking forward to returning home for a rest.

Many of the protesters who brought central Kiev to a standstill during the past two weeks said they would gradually begin heading home over the weekend, although some said they would stay longer to make sure Mr. Kuchma lets the new vote take place. All were certain their candidate would win a fair race against Mr. Yanukovich.

Many on the streets say the question of whether Ukraine will take the route of democracy or dictatorship is at the heart of the power struggle. They say they support Mr. Yushchenko because he represents an end to the Kuchma era, which has become associated with widespread corruption and growing restrictions on freedom of speech.

There were lingering fears among Mr. Yushchenko's supporters Friday night of an attempt to steal the Dec. 26 election. But protest leader Irina Chupryna said the country's authorities had learned from the past two weeks of pro-Yushchenko demonstrations that they can no longer take Ukraine's people for granted.

“They know we'll return to the streets if this revote is a farce,” she said. “This is a wave which cannot be stopped.”

There were concerns that Mr. Putin's government, which sent its top spin doctors to aid Mr. Yanukovich and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into his campaign, was not done meddling yet.

There was talk that Russian ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky would visit eastern and southern Ukraine this weekend — areas where pro-Russian sentiment is strong and many backed Mr. Yanukovich.

There were fears he would fan the separatist sentiment that is already running high in some parts. The eastern industrial region of Donetsk, Mr. Yanukovich's home province, has scheduled a referendum for Jan. 9 on seeking greater autonomy from Kiev, and a large pro-Yanukovich rally was held Friday night on the city's main square.

Some say Ukraine could slide into civil war if Mr. Yushchenko wins the presidency.

“It's a very dangerous situation still,” said Natalya Belitser, a pro-opposition political analyst. “It looks like Kuchma and Putin will never give in and that they will try and fight this to the very end.”

The Dec. 26 election needs heavy international supervision, she said.

Western countries were quick to promise support. The Canadian government said it would send 75 observers if asked at a cost of $520,000, as well as other assistance. The Winnipeg-based Ukrainian Canadian Congress has begun raising funds to send observers, as it did for the earlier voting.

The crisis has turned into a Cold-War-style struggle for influence between Russia and the West over the former Soviet republic. The Kremlin considers Ukraine part of its “sphere of influence,” while some Western leaders openly backed the 50-year-old Mr. Yushchenko, who favours greater integration with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Pressing his advantage, Mr. Yushchenko Friday night demanded that Mr. Kuchma fire Mr. Yanukovich and his cabinet, as required by a non-confidence vote passed on Wednesday by Ukraine's parliament.

“Find the courage to do that — stop tormenting the nation,” Mr. Yushchenko said.