Isolated Kuchma offers prospect of fresh elections

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The Independent Online

Ukraine's besieged authorities signalled for the first time yesterday that they would hold fresh presidential elections to appease Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western leader of the so-called "Orange" or "Chestnut" Revolution.

Ukraine's besieged authorities signalled for the first time yesterday that they would hold fresh presidential elections to appease Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western leader of the so-called "Orange" or "Chestnut" Revolution.

There seemed to be an edge of panic in their pronouncements. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Mr Yushchenko's pro-Russian rival, said he had taken his family out of Kiev because it was too dangerous, and Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine's embattled President, cut a lonely figure as he told officials that the country could not be allowed to disintegrate and warned that the economy was close to collapse. Mr Yanuk-ovych said: "Personally, I'm staying. I'll be here until the end."

Mr Yushchenko, who insists he was robbed of victory by large-scale vote-rigging that benefited Mr Yanukovych, remained defiant, saying parliament could pass a vote of no confidence in Mr Yanukovych as early as today. There were also signs that his advisers may try to get the supreme court to declare him president outright without fresh elections.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said Britain could not accept that the elections had been free and fair and called for restraint. Baroness Thatcher warned that "a new iron curtain" was falling across Ukraine and called on the West to stand up to "tyranny".

The Ukrainian government's concession on a fresh vote was voiced by Mr Kuchma and Mr Yanukovych. The Prime Minister said he would be willing for fresh elections to be held in two key regions in the east where most of the irregularities are alleged to have taken place "if fraud was proven".

An MP thought to be speaking on his behalf made it clear that Mr Yanukovych would be willing to go even further and have a re-run of the entire election, both rounds not just the second one which Mr Yushchenko originally said he wanted rerun. He also appears to want changes to the constitution that would weaken presidential powers.

Mr Kuchma said: "If we really want to keep peace and harmony and really build a democratic society based on the rule of law which is something we've been talking about a lot we have to do it by legal means. Let's have new elections." Ukraine, he said, needed "a legitimate president".

Yulia Tymoshenko, a close aide to Mr Yushchenko, has given Mr Kuchma 24 hours to fire Mr Yanukovych and others and to form a coalition interim government that would govern until fresh elections could be held. She threatened to block Mr Kuchma's movements if he refused.

The country's supreme court is considering detailed allegations of election fraud in the second round of voting. If the court agrees there were serious irregularities which favoured Mr Yanukovych it could declare the results invalid, paving the way for a partial recount or a fresh round. It was unclear last night how long the court will take to reach a decision, with some analysts speaking of days and others weeks.

Ukraine is beginning to appear increasingly rudderless. Yesterday, the Speaker of the parliament said the executive branch of government had ceased to function and parliament would "take responsibility" for the unfolding situation.

In a blow to Mr Yanukovych Serhiy Tyhypko, the head of the central bank and the chief of his campaign team, unexpectedly resigned from both posts yesterday saying he was generally in favour of the "Orange Revolution".

Panicky Ukrainians also rushed to withdraw their savings in dollars and euros, causing a run on bank deposits.

In Kiev, the city centre is still packed with Mr Yushchenko's vociferous orange-clad supporters, who show no signs of surrender to the government or the icy elements. Jigging from one foot to another in an effort to keep warm as a fine patina of snow settled on his head, Oleg Kokot, a 35-year-old carpenter from the capital, said any fresh elections had to be run differently from the first two rounds of voting.

"We need the new election to be filmed to prevent fraud and we need observers from Europe," he said. "It must be free and totally fair. The people can't be stopped now. They are like a horse that has been set free."

He said the authorities had completely discredited themselves. "People are waiting for Yanukovych to step down. As for Kuchma, he is afraid to even walk in the street. He's a criminal and a puppet and he just doesn't know what to do any more."

The heads of Ukraine's armed services have said they will not use force against Mr Yushchenko's supporters.

In Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, Mr Yanukovych's power base, the mood is very different . The pro-Russian coal-producing region is to hold a referendum on Sunday to consider the option of autonomy.

Nato and the European Union issued strong statements yesterday, urging Ukraine to preserve its territorial integrity and to refrain from violence.

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