Discredited PM vows to contest election rerun and pours scorn on court ruling

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The Independent Online

Hopes that the Orange Revolution would sweep away Ukraine's discredited Soviet-style regime overnight were dealt a blow yesterday when Viktor Yanukovich, the country's pro-Russian Prime Minister, vowed to contest fresh elections vigorously.

Speaking a day after the supreme court handed what appeared to be a huge victory to Viktor Yushchenko, his pro-Western rival, Mr Yanukovich seemed to revel in his defiance. There had been widespread speculation that he would disappear quietly after the court struck down the results of the 21 November presidential elections, which were massively rigged in his favour.

Mr Yanukovich made it clear yesterday through his spokeswoman, however, that he was far from finished.

"He is convinced he will win the second time as he won the first time, since 15 million Ukrainians stand behind him," said Anna German, referring to east Ukraine, where many people look to Moscow rather than Kiev, and are nervous of talk about closer ties with the EU and Nato. "There is no other way but to run and win."

Ms German's comments set the stage for a bruising and possibly dirty election campaign. The two contenders are to meet at the ballot box before 26 December. But Boxing Day itself is looking like the most likely date for the new poll. Thousands of foreign observers are expected to flood in to make sure that the vote is fair. The exercise will be closely watched by the US and the EU on one side and by Russia on the other.

Mr Yanukovich poured scorn on the wisdom of the supreme court's decision, despite pledging earlier that he would respect its verdict. "I am certain the supreme court's decision is a violation of the Ukrainian constitution, and that it was taken under pressure from the street," he said.

His bravado sought to obscure the fact that he and his government have been formally sacked by the country's parliament, it has been proved that his supporters systematically cheated in the elections, and that he himself is reviled in Kiev and the west of the country. Many Ukrainians regard him as little more than a criminal, since he has been in jail twice, only to have the charges later quashed in dubious circumstances.

Some of Mr Yanukovich's supporters have admitted privately that they believe he will be easily beaten. Mr Yushchenko, riding a two-week wave of popular support, has overcome the result of a fixed election, a feat never before achieved by a politician in the former Soviet Union.

Stepan Gavrish, an MP who had been one of Mr Yanukovich's most loyal supporters, said that his erstwhile idol's career is finished. He said he thought Mr Yanukovich should bow out gracefully. "It's only my opinion, but I don't consider that Yanukovich should remain [in the race] until the bitter end," he said.

But after the euphoria and triumphalism of the previous day, in the wake of Friday's supreme court decision, there were signs that Mr Yushchenko will not have things all his own way. MPs in his camp appeared to hold up the process of legal reform, something that is seen as a essential before a new vote can take place.

It had been hoped that the parliament would vote for changes to the election law to prevent fraud, as well as driving through important constitutional changes that would strip whoever becomes Ukraine's president of some powers. But pro-Yushchenko MPs angered their colleagues by refusing to vote on both measures at once. As a result the parliament adjourned for 10 days, and non-aligned politicians who had previously turned out to be useful allies for the candidate said they were disillusioned.

Thousands of Mr Yushchenko's orange-clad supporters continued to occupy Kiev yesterday, but there were signs that the east, which has traditionally backed Mr Yanukovich, was growing restless too. Thousands of pro-Yanukovich supporters demonstrated in the city of Kharkiv, where more than 1,000 people from eastern and southern regions had gathered to condemn the supreme court's verdict.

Some of them warned of serious trouble ahead. Yevgeni Kabanov, from Zaporozhe, said: "The third round [of voting] will provoke a new spiral of extremism and will bring Ukraine to a precipice."

RADICAL VOICE OF THE OPPOSITION

Known as the "Goddess of the Revolution" or as Ukraine's Joan of Arc, Yulia Tymoshenko's good looks and fiery speeches rarely leave people indifferent.

While her ally Viktor Yushchenko, the man who would be Ukraine's President, is a mild-mannered former banker, she is an outspoken MP who represents the radical wing of the protest. She says the things he can't afford to, mixes with the youth activists who occupied the centre of Kiev and talks an uncompromising game.

When parliament was almost over-run by opposition protesters last week, Mrs Tymoshenko tried to hold the doors open for them. If Mr Yushchenko is the good cop, she is the bad one. Her job - at least in the eyes of the activists - is to make sure that he holds his nerve and gives the people what they want.

Aged 44, she is fiercely ambitious and has made no secret of her desire to be Prime Minister in a Yushchenko administration.

Such a move would be controversial; she is despised by Russian nationalists and by Ukraine's discredited outgoing President, Leonid Kuchma, who threw her out of his government several years ago. She also has a reputation for being provocative, and for getting carried away by her own rhetoric.

Indeed many of the things Mrs Tymoshenko has said in the past two weeks have seemed exaggerated in the cold light of day. But among her supporters she inspires fanatical devotion - indeed, many of the tens of thousands of people who have occupied central Kiev's streets speak of "Yulia" as if she were a religious figure.

But her past is controversial. A talented economist and businesswoman, she headed a power firm called Unified Energy Systems before becoming an MP in 1998 and serving as Deputy Prime Minister under Mr Yushchenko from 1999 to 2001. Her task was to clean up Ukraine's fraud-ridden energy sector. But then she was accused of corruption herself, namely of making $2.25bn (£1.15bn ) along with her husband and father-in-law, through illegal gas deals. She was jailed for a month, but later acquitted with her husband, though her father-in-law is still being pursued.

Mrs Tymoshenko claims the charges were politically motivated. Shortly before these elections, Russian prosecutors wanted to question her about a bribery scandal involving Russian defence officials. She refused to give evidence.

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