Pro-Yushchenko protestors in the tent city in Kiev's city center.

Pro-Yushchenko protestors in the tent city in Kiev's city center.
Pro-Yushchenko protestors in the tent city in Kiev's city center.

Kiev

In another major development in Ukraine's post-presidential election crisis the national parliament, the Verkhovnaya Rada, met in emergency session on Saturday and voted to declare last Sunday's electoral results invalid. The parliament also passed a vote of no confidence on the country's Central Electoral Commission (CEC), which had rushed to certify the results of balloting and ignored the multiple charges of fraud by international observers.

However, Ukraine's political system is close to that of other former Soviet Republics in that the real powers of parliament are limited and the president is an almost benign dictator. Parliament's vote, although it clearly reflects the will on the people who have taken to the streets by the hundreds of thousands in protest, is only symbolic and is not legally binding. The more meaningful decision has to be taken by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who has been reluctant to see anyone other than his current Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich, succeed him.

A legal case brought by the opposition candidate's campaign, Viktor Yushchenko, to declare the election invalid is to be heard in Ukraine's supreme court on Monday. Yushchenko had won the first-round balloting, after which all of the lesser candidates threw their support to his camp. With those other candidates behind him his victory in the second round run-off against Yanukovich should have been close to the 54-43 percent split that Ukrainian exit polls indicated.

The official results, which gave Yanukovich a three percent victory, and the over 11,000 cases of election fraud documented by Yushchenko's campaign are the cause for what has become a popular revolution. In addition to their paper documents and statements by witnesses, an online Ukrainian newspaper has produced transcripts of taped phone conversations between Yanukovich aides, unidentified campaign workers and the head of the CEC, Sergiy Kivalov, discussing how to rig the results to guarantee the PM's win.

Should the supreme court echo the parliament's vote, President Kuchma would have little choice but to enact legislation calling for new elections and eliminating the provisions in the current election laws that have seen the absentee balloting process become the center of accusations of ballot-box stuffing. The current date being suggested for a re-run of the election is December 12.

THIS CRISIS, which has paralyzed the political process in the country is now entering its second week, but it has been a long time in the offing. On October 28, the city's main downtown street, Khreshchatyk, and the massive Independence Square were the site of a large military parade featuring modern-day Ukrainian elite units led by a WWII-era T-34 tank. The combination of "past and present" military power was meant to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the city's liberation by the Red Army. But the parade's timing and the dignitaries in attendance foreshadowed the crisis now gripping the Ukraine.

The officially recorded date of Kiev's liberation was November 6, not October 28. (As Soviet forces were driving the Germans westward, Stalin decreed that the city be taken back from the Wehrmacht before the USSR's celebration of the November 7th Revolution Day holiday--regardless of the cost.) This year's parade had been brought forward nine days for no other reason than to be a live campaign event for Yanukovich.

In attendance--and on the podium--was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who offered his very public endorsement of Yanukovich. Russia much prefers a Ukraine led by the PM, who comes from heavily industrialized and Russian-speaking eastern region of Ukraine, over the reformist and pro-western Yushchenko. Those supporting Yushchenko point to the parade as symbolic of the message Putin has been sending: He wants Ukraine securely locked in the orbit of the old Soviet establishment.

The protest at Independence Square carries on late into the night.
The protest at Independence Square carries on late into the night.

THE UKRAINIAN PUBLIC, however, has shown during the last few days that it wants to move forward into a new era: oriented towards Europe. And they are willing to risk a pitched battle in the streets rather than to slide into post-Soviet colonial status.

Today the same street and square are completely impassable--occupied by a massive tent city and 24-hour throngs of protestors supporting Yushchenko. Traffic in the center of Kiev has been all but shut down. Busloads of new volunteers draped in sweaters, scarves, streamers, flags, and winter coats in the orange colors of the Yushchenko campaign are arriving daily from the four corners of the country.

The demonstrators--who are as well-organized and determined than any civil disobedience movement ever in this part of the world--are growing rapidly in number as more regions realize that the battle for their country's future is being decided in the streets. They chant "Yu-SHCHEN-ko" around the clock, and automobiles circling the center of the city beep their horns in the same triplet-rhythm cadence.

"We are not leaving here until justice is done," said two protestors from the far western city of L'viv, near the Polish border. "We are determined. We are going to win." Yanukovich's camp has made some half-hearted attempts to bus its own protestors. Many of them arrive in Kiev drunk requiring the TV stations showing footage of them to bleep out much of what they say in front of the cameras.

In contrast, most western observers who have been in the Yushchenko camp are taken back by how respectful, polite, and disciplined the youthful protestors are. A strict regime of no alcohol has been observed in the tent city, despite the freezing temperatures--almost unheard of in this nation.

WHAT HAS MADE THE SITUATION an international crisis is the heavy-handed Russian interference in the election. Russia's involvement is so beyond the pale that two former presidents who led revolutions against Soviet-installed puppet governments in their own nations--Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Lech Walesa from Poland--have waded in on the side of Yushchenko.

Havel sent a letter which was read by Yushchenko at an evening demonstration in which he urged Yushchenko and his followers to continue their fight. Walesa arrived in Kiev two days later to support Yushchenko. He spoke twice to the crowds at Independence Square. The situation reminded him "of the struggle that we carried on with Solidarity in the 1980s," he said.

PUTIN HAS BEEN SO ANXIOUS to see Yanukovich installed that he has extended his official recognition of the tainted victory not once, but twice. The first was in a congratulatory phone call on the day after the election--before the ballots had even been finished being counted and any official results posted. The second was with a telegram on Wednesday night after the Ukrainian CEC voted to certify the official vote tally that most of the international observers who monitored the election regard as fraudulent.

But his attempts to coronate Yanukovich this last week pale in comparison to the wide-spread political guerilla warfare Russia has been conducting. In the past year, hundreds of millions of dollars of Russian money was poured into Yanukovich's campaign, Russian political consultants have flocked to Kiev from Moscow. Pro-Yanukovich commercials and ads were run in areas of Russia populated by Ukrainians who would be voting absentee ballot.

WHATEVER THE END GAME, the campaign to keep the Ukrainian government from stealing the election from Yushchenko is uniting the country as nothing before. Even the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches had abandoned their centuries old schism in order to support the protests. "Nothing has ever been able to make us come together before," said one church official, "but this struggle for our future now has."

Unless Moscow is ready to risk international pariah status and send in its own tanks, its campaign to keep Ukraine as a vassal state has failed. The question for Putin and his government now is: What will his own citizens think now that the Ukrainian people have shown them the possibility of change through a popular campaign of protest and non-violence?

Reuben F. Johnson is an American writer living in Kiev.

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