Ukraine in turmoil after vote
Thousands on the streets in protest at election result
Nick Paton Walsh in Kiev
Tuesday November 23, 2004
Ukraine's bitter presidential run-off vote was poised last night to tip over into civil unrest when four cities dismissed the victory claimed by the prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, and hailed the opposition candidate, Viktor Yuschenko, as their new president.
More than 30,000 protesters filled Independence Square in central Kiev, setting up a large tent city and bringing the capital's main street to a standstill. Three cities in western Ukraine - Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk - declared Mr Yuschenko the winner, dismissing official figures that gave the pro-Russian Mr Yanukovich victory by about 3%. An exit poll funded by western embassies put the pro-western opposition candidate ahead by 11%.
Zinovi Siryk, the head of the Lviv city parliament, said that he and 50,000 protesters in the city centre would "do everything possible to defend the Ukrainian constitution. A strike of all the city transport has just begun".
The city parliament in Kiev dismissed the results as illegitimate and it called on the national parliament to do the same. The capital and the west of Ukraine are opposition strongholds.
In the Russian-speaking east of the country, a rally in support of Mr Yanukovich was reportedly under way in the city of Donetsk.
Mr Yanukovich said the majority of voters had backed him for president in the run-off ballot at the weekend. He said those "urging people to fight on barricades" were "a small group of radicals" who "have set themselves the goal of splitting Ukraine by resorting to coercive pressure and unlawful action. Many Ukrainian mothers have asked me to prevent street riots in which our children might be injured.
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"I assure you that we have enough reason, balance and sense of responsibility to prevent destabilisation."
Ukraine's security bodies warned that they would put down any lawlessness "quickly and firmly".
Opposition protests were fuelled by statements from the US, the EU and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the election. They called Sunday's vote illegitimate. Senator Richard Lugar, President Bush's emissary to the elections, said a "corrupted and forceful programme of election day abuse was conducted with the leadership or consent of the government authorities". He said the vote gave rise to lists of "egregious assaults on democracy".
The OSCE's observers pointed to irregularities, citing a lack of transparency in the counting process.
The intervention of Washington and Moscow during the race's brutal campaigning raised the stakes and turned the vote for many into a choice between east and west. Mr Bush wrote to the outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, threatening a "review of relations" if the results were "tarnished".
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, rang Mr Yanukovich last night to offer his congratulations. He said the struggle had been "open and honest" and that "the victory was convincing", Interfax quoted his spokesman as saying.
Mr Yuschenko pledged to continue mass peaceful protests, start lawsuits over election violations, and ask parliament to issue a vote of no confidence in the Central Elections Commission.
Fears of confrontation grew last night with rumours that protests would resume today outside parliament. Twenty-six buses, each carrying more than 30 people from the pro-Yanukovich east, sat in a car park near central Kiev last night.
The crowd in Independence Square thickened as the working day ended, protesters braving freezing temperatures to hear opposition speakers and musicians. Amid a sea of orange flags and armbands - the opposition's trademark colour, Tatyana, 19, sat behind the wheel of an unmarked, new Mercedes. "We will win whether they try to deceive us or not. Yuschenko is for honesty and so is everyone here. Rich or poor, we want an honest country," she said.
A former government adviser, Mikhail Progrebinsky, said the protests were "mostly noise". He said Mr Yanukovich would only yield victory to a court decision. "The opposition needs to produce evidence in court, not words. We are not on the brink of a revolution."