Putin casts doubt on rerun of election

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President Leonid Kuchma flew to Russia to consult Vladimir Putin yesterday in a move said by his political enemies to prove that Moscow is giving the outgoing Ukrainian leader his instructions.

President Leonid Kuchma flew to Russia to consult Vladimir Putin yesterday in a move said by his political enemies to prove that Moscow is giving the outgoing Ukrainian leader his instructions.

And in a controversial move, the Russian President suggested a straight rerun of the original presidential election would achieve little. He said: "I do not know a single country whose laws would allow such a rerun."

Opposition leaders have said that threats to split up Ukraine emanate from the Kremlin. But Mr Putin said: "We are very worried about all those things concerning a trend towards the split of the country."

He characterised Ukraine as an indivisible part of "fraternal" Russia's sphere of influence. Mr Putin said: "We have lived so long in one country and in our hearts we do not divide Ukraine into north, south or west". The opposition said that Mr Kuchma's trip to Moscow showed who was trying to call the shots.

Mr Kuchma has wavered between advocating a new election and insisting that the official winner of last week's vote, Viktor Yanukovych, should be confirmed as president. He said he was convinced that Russia needed to be part of the solution to the political turbulence that has gripped the country for 12 days: "Without Russia's efforts it is impossible to find ways to overcome the political crisis, otherwise Ukraine may lose its political image," he said.

Ukraine's Supreme Court was continuing hearings late last night about whether to annul results of the election on 21 November which pitted the pro-Russian Prime Minister, Mr Yanukovych, against the pro-Western opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko. If the court rules in favour of an opposition complaint that the vote was fixed, it is likely to order a new election.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, led other Western mediators yesterday in talks with all sides. But no agreement was reached.

Mr Kuchma left the biggest crisis of his 10-year presidency to fly to Moscow having nominated and backed Mr Yanu-kovych in the election. Mr Putin visited Ukraine on the eve of both rounds of the presidential contest to endorse Mr Yanukovych, who wants Ukraine to be part of a Russian-led economic bloc, and courted the Russian minority for votes.

Mr Kuchma, who has never enjoyed a reputation for courage, has tried to ignore the demands of the protesters and has made clear that, if he can, he still wants to pass on power to Mr Yanukovych.

At the weekend, powerful politicians in eastern Ukraine raised the spectre of separatism and possible civil war if Mr Yushchenko became president. The politicians are close allies of both Mr Kuchma and Mr Yanukovych.

Mr Yushchenko did not believe the visit to Moscow would help resolve the crisis. "I would like to, as much as possible, separate Ukraine's domestic political affairs from both the east and west," he said.

"I think that the people and voters of Ukraine know that external pressure was used on the eve of the election to influence the results. The wellspring of the government should be the people and that wellspring is here in Ukraine, not abroad."

The opposition said that talks with the government would resume after the Supreme Court delivered its decision. That may happen today.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of opposition supporters continued to occupy the centre of the capital, Kiev, last night and to surround major government buildings.

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