Ukraine vote goes to court

Monday, Ukraine's Supreme Court examines the disputed election that is testing whether the country can survive as one nation.

Split down the middle, with two Viktors claiming the presidency, Ukraine looks Monday to its Supreme Court to resolve the political crisis that threatens to break the nation apart.

The sea of orange flags and the festive mood in Kiev may suggest that the opposition is close to a breakthrough. But away from the rock concerts and television cameras, discontent is brewing in Ukraine's pro-Moscow eastern provinces, where talk of seeking autonomy mounted.

Indeed, the integrity and unity of this young democracy is being tested as never before. Amid sudden global scrutiny and wild public mood swings - from optimism to angst and back again - Ukraine's contenders are struggling to advance their candidacies while preventing turmoil.

Sunday, outgoing president Leonid Kuchma called for compromise yet admitted that agreement talks were going badly. Incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who was pronounced the winner last week, said the country was "on the brink of catastrophe," but he urged his supporters to avoid bloodshed. And opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko told his orange supporters to stay out on the streets.

Earlier, it had seemed that fresh elections might offer a way forward. After parliament on Saturday declared the presidential poll invalid, opposition followers said they hoped there might be a new vote as early as Dec. 12. That was the date Mr. Yushchenko preferred and he called for any rerun to be conducted under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

But blue-clad followers of Mr. Yanukovich, who draws his support from the industrial east, were adamant that their man had been rightly declared the winner and demanded the court give him the go-ahead for his inauguration.

The court convenes Monday but it may not give an immediate ruling.

Speaking for the European Union, which has condemned procedural violations of the Nov. 21 vote, Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot said new elections would be "the ideal outcome."

The likelihood for a fresh poll increased when a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Russia, which had overtly backed Yanukovich, said Moscow also now favored a rerun.

Like the confident fans of a sports team playing at home, the orange protesters have taken over the streets of Kiev, pushing the few blue visitors from the east to a small area around the railway station.

But back in the mining regions, thousands of Yanukovich supporters rallied, insisting their chosen candidate should be confirmed.

At a conference of pro-Yanukovich governors and other local politicians in Severodonetsk, there were calls for autonomy for eastern Ukraine in the event of an orange takeover.

Kiev and western regions oppose this idea because they depend on the east's industrial output.

Although the atmosphere of the demonstrations in Kiev is still one of sporting goodwill, the risk of violence has not disappeared and the scope for confrontation is great in this giant of eastern Europe.

"If you ask me," says Ivan, a worker at the rail station, "we should have neither Yushchenko, who is too close to the Americans, nor Yanukovich, who will do what Russia says, but a neutral president."

"With either of the Viktors, a lot of people are going to be dissatisfied," he adds.

"Freedom is Unstoppable" read the stickers on the clothes and bags of the opposition crowd on Kiev's main thoroughfare, the Khreshchatyk.

Some have pitched tents and are sleeping there, although most are going home or staying with friends at night.

The scene is a study in orange. Expensive Italian fashion shops, perhaps concerned for their glass frontages, have dressed their mannequins in orange sweaters and pants. Street sellers of orange scarves are doing a roaring trade. Some of the wackier fashions include orange sunglasses and blown-up rubber gloves attached to hats like roosters' combs - in orange, of course.

"I am standing here because I am offended," says Dasha Kroshka, who was handing out newspapers calling for a general strike.

She said she came from the city of Dniepropetrovsk, which used to be the hometown and stronghold of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

"I'm studying in Kiev now but all my friends in Dniepropetrovsk told me they were forced to vote for Yanukovich. The teachers at my old school said there were many violations; people in hospitals, people in prison, they were all forced to vote for Yanukovich."

Another student, Nikolai Kucherenko from the western city of Lviv, said he was not so much supporting Yushchenko, an economist, as opposing outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and Yanukovich for what he called their corruption and vote-rigging.

"I am simply defending my freedom and my right to a choice," he says. "I am a computer programmer. I work for clients in the US, Germany and the UK. To my mind, Yushchenko will give us more opportunities. Maybe in some years, we can integrate with Europe. I have not lost hope of that."

"Yes," says his friend, Sergei Ivanov (no likeness to the current Russian Defense Minister of the same name). "It's not that we are against Russia. Ordinary Russians are decent people. We just think there will be more opportunities if we move West rather than East."

At the railway station, Lena, one of the few Yanukovich supporters said nobody had forced her to vote for the incumbent prime minister. She had done so because she had seen wages at the aircraft factory where she works rise while he had been at the head of the cabinet.

"And it is not true that all Yanukovich supporters are coalminers," Lena added. "I am not from Donetsk; I am from right here in Kiev."

Back on the Khreshchatyk, the crowd was only growing bigger.

"Don't believe it when they tell you we are all skipping work for this," says Svetlana Gorobei, a hairdresser.

"I have been putting in a full day at the salon and coming out every evening with my husband. We will keep on demonstrating until we achieve victory.

"We are not drunks and hooligans, we are respectable people," she added. "This orange is not a fascist color - it is a sunny colour. We are angry about Russia's attitude toward us. Mother Russia is so loving she would suffocate her children."

As night fell, the campers began building up braziers that would keep them warm through the hours of darkness.

At the station, a single Yanukovich supporter remained, waving his blue flag. He was surrounded by a crowd of orange protesters, who were trying to convince him of the error of his ways.

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