Ukraine's supreme court to hold inquiry into vote-rigging claims

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The Independent Online

Ukraine's political crisis took a dramatic turn last night when the country's supreme court suspended the result of the disputed presidential election until it has heard complaints of massive vote-rigging.

Ukraine's political crisis took a dramatic turn last night when the country's supreme court suspended the result of the disputed presidential election until it has heard complaints of massive vote-rigging.

It is an unexpected boost for the pro-Western opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, who nonetheless called on supporters to press forward with plans for a national strike to bring transport and industry to a halt.

"This is only the beginning. It is proof that it is society that always wins. It is small compensation for the suffering we have endured," the opposition leader told tens of thousands of supporters in Kiev to wild cheering.

With the country split and tens of thousands of protesters on the street, the court decision gives some hope that Ukraine will avoid some of the more dire predictions of civil war or the break-up of the state.

Last night, there was one other positive sign as the outgoing Ukrainian President, Leonid Kuchma, asked Lithuania's President, Valdas Adamkus, and the Polish President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, to mediate over the poll that sparked protests on the streets of Kiev and other cities. Poland has been the main EU sponsor of closer ties with Ukraine and the Polish President said he would visit the country in the "next few days".

The European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana will visit Ukraine today for urgent talks with the main figures in the election crisis. His spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said Mr Solana would discuss "a negotiated diplomatic solution" to the dispute.

On Wednesday, the country's Central Electoral Commission had certified the pro-Moscow candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, the winner over Mr Yushchenko, who campaigned for closer relations with the EU and Nato.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has branded the elections unfair and the head of an EU observer mission likened the poll to those held in North Korea.

The EU and Russia yesterday clashed over the crisis as the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, urged the West to stay out of Ukrainian politics, saying outsiders had no right to push Ukraine into "mass mayhem".

A three-hour EU-Russia meeting in The Hague produced deadlock, with Jan Peter Balkenende, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, which holds the EU presidency, rejecting the declared result of the poll. "The election did not meet international standards and therefore the European Union is not able to accept its results," he said.

His comments imply that, without concessions, the EU would not be able to recognise Mr Yanukovych officially as the next president.

At the summit, overshadowed by the convulsions in Ukraine, Mr Balkenende did not attempt to conceal the divisions saying bluntly that the two sides' approaches "differ".

The European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, has warned of "consequences" for relations with Ukraine if there is no compromise. But the EU has not so far said what the consequences for Ukraine would be, if there is no accommodation with the Ukrainian opposition.

It is torn between its desire to support the protesters and the knowledge that, were it to cut aid or diplomatic ties with Ukraine, the country might turn to Moscow in the same way that Belarus has done.

Mr Putin showed no signs of self-doubt over his position yesterday, arguing that the situation must be resolved by the Ukrainian supreme court.

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