(AP) KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine’s outgoing president called on the political opposition to end its four-day blockade of government buildings over the disputed presidential election, saying Sunday that compromise was the only solution to the crisis gripping this former Soviet republic.
But opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who claims he was cheated out of victory through fraud in the Nov. 21 presidential runoff, urged his supporters to stay in the streets. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have thronged downtown Kiev for a week to support Yushchenko’s claim that the election was rigged and he was robbed of victory.
The United States and other Western nations say the vote was marred by massive fraud.
The standoff has fueled a political tug-of-war between the West and Moscow over the future of Ukraine. On Saturday, Ukraine’s parliament declared the election invalid amid international calls for a new vote, and lawmakers also passed a vote of no confidence in the Central Elections Commission, which declared Moscow-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the winner.
Both parliamentary votes, however, are symbolic only and have no legal standing. Yushchenko also has called for a new vote on Dec. 12 under the watch of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has also demanded that the 15 members of the election commission be replaced.
Starting Thursday, Yushchenko supporters encircled the Cabinet and the president’s administration buildings, refusing to let anyone enter or leave.
Current President Leonid Kuchma, who backed Yanukovych, criticized the blockades as a “gross violation of law” that “would be unacceptable in any nation.” He made his comments during a meeting of his National Security Council, parts of which were broadcast live on Ukrainian television.
“Compromise is the only way to avoid unpredictable consequences,” Kuchma said.
He acknowledged the parliamentary vote calling the election invalid but emphasized it was a “political decision.”
The opposition, however, saw it is a big boost to their fight.
“Most important, (the declaration’s) character is political, moral and ethical,” Ivan Plyushch, a Yushchenko ally, told Ukraine’s Inter television.
Representatives of the Western-leaning Yushchenko and Yanukovych were expected to resume negotiations Sunday under the auspices of European Union negotiators, but a Yanukovych aide said in the afternoon that the two sides had not met.
Stepan Havrysh said the prime minister’s campaign team was upset by the parliamentary votes but still optimistic the talks might resume Monday.
On Sunday, Yushchenko urged tens of thousands of his supporters in and around Independence Square to maintain their vigil.
“You will ask me how long we should stay here, is it worth staying here?” he said. “Even the Georgian revolution lasted for three weeks. … I am asking you, I am demanding that you stay here until the end.”
Many of the Ukrainian demonstrators have been inspired by the November 2003 massive street protests in the former Soviet republic of Georgia that helped lead to the resignation of longtime President Eduard Shevardnadze.
The crisis has exacerbated the stark divide between the pro-Russian, heavily industrialized eastern half of Ukraine, where Yanukovych draws his support, and the west, Yushchenko’s stronghold including the capital Kiev, which is a traditional center of Ukrainian nationalism.
The crisis also has overshadowed political differences between the candidates.
Yushchenko, whose wife is U.S.-born, says he wants to push the country to greater integration with Western Europe, and he has suggested he would seek NATO membership. His critics worry he will alienate Ukraine from Russia, its key trade partner and main energy supplier.
Yanukovych was praised by Russian President Vladimir Putin and was expected to pursue closer ties with Moscow. Many Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east fear a Yushchenko presidency would make them second-class citizens.
Yanukovych’s Party of Regions brought together 3,500 delegates from 17 eastern and southern Ukrainian regions for an urgent session Sunday in Severodonetsk to discuss autonomy for much of eastern Ukraine. Yanukovych and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov attended the session.
“On the one hand, we see the sabbath of witches who have been fattened up with oranges and who pretend that they represent the whole of the nation, on the other hand we see the peaceful power of constructive forces that has gathered in this hall,” Luzhkov said in comments broadcast on Russia’s NTV television.
Borys Kolesnikov, the head of the Donetsk region and a key ally of the prime minister, warned that a Yushchenko presidency “would prompt the establishment of a new federal state in the form of a southeastern republic with its capital in Kharkiv,” close to the Russian border.
Yanukovych has said he would honor all decisions made at a session in Severodonetsk, the Interfax news agency reported.
Yushchenko told his supporters that the opposition-formed National Salvation Committee — a parallel government — intended to open criminal cases against the governors of the eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk in connection with separatism. But he also called for “productive dialogue” with Russia.
“We aren’t going to choose only one side — Europe or Russia,” Yushchenko told his supporters.