The heated meeting in the eastern region of Luhansk, a support base for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, came a day before the supreme court is to hear an opposition appeal over results of the Nov. 21 runoff election that said Yanukovych won by some one million votes. Pro-Western opposition leader Victor Yushchenko claims the government helped rig the election in favor of his rival and is asking the court to either order a recount or a new vote.
Ukraine's Yanukovych bastions in the southeast have warned they would declare greater autonomy if their candidate fails to become president, fanning fears that the crisis could split the country.
Flanked by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Yanukovych (photo) met some 3,500 local officials from 17 of Ukraine's 27 regions and warned that the country was heading toward an imminent collapse, denouncing a vote in parliament Saturday proclaiming the election invalid.
"Either we are capable of preserving the stability and peace in our state, or everything will collapse and very rapidly," he told a meeting of Ukraine's Russian-speaking regions where local officials demanded autonomy. "I ask you not to take any radical measure. When the first drop of blood is split, we won't be able to stop it," Yanukovych added.
If the "coup" continues
The regional leaders said they would hold a vote on "self-defense" -- a euphemism for autonomy -- should Yushchenko come to power.
"In the worst-case scenario of the political situation in the country, we will be united and decisive in defending the will of the Ukrainian people, including holding a referendum on a possible change in the administrative and territorial status of Ukraine," their resolution said. "In case the state coup continues and the illegitimate president comes to power" the eastern regional chief said they "reserved the right to take adequate measures of self-defense."
Meanwhile in Kiev, tens of thousands of opposition protestors streamed into central Independence Square, which has turned into a week-long political demonstration mixed with a rocking street party in Yushchenko's support. Yushchenko told his followers that the Russian-speaking southeastern regions traditionally allied with Moscow had to be punished for threatening to break off.
"We demand the opening of a criminal inquiry against the separatist governors," Yushchenko, wearing on opposition orange scarf to himself from the freezing cold, told the orange flag waving masses below him.
Amid the tension, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma said in televised remarks that a compromise over the crisis was needed to avoid "unforeseeable consequences" but the compromise still seemed a long way off. "The negotiations are very difficult and it is difficult to say whether or not a compromise can be reached," he cautioned.
The high court hearing on Monday comes after parliament-backed opposition claims that the Nov. 21 vote did not reflect the will of the voters in a non-binding vote that some said could influences the judges.
High geo-political importance
At stake is the future direction of this nation of 48 million after 13 years of independence -- Yanukovych favors retaining traditional ties to Moscow while Yushchenko backs turning toward the West. The vote has exacerbated historical tensions between Ukraine's west -- nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking and once part of Poland with a large Uniate Catholic population -- and its east -- industrialized, Russian-speaking, mostly Orthodox and with strong cultural ties to its giant neighbor.
Ukraine's geography -- the nation stretches along most of Russia's western border and hugs much of the Black Sea's northern coast -- has assured intense interest in its internal affairs in foreign capitals from Moscow to Washington. Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed Yanukovych, twice traveling to Ukraine to meet with his candidate in well publicized photo ops prior to both rounds of the presidential election. Russian oil and gas pipelines run through Ukraine, and Kiev is a steady consumer of arms from Moscow's military complex.
Meanwhile Washington and the European Union have lined up behind opposition and Western observers' claims that the election was marred by widespread fraud and have urged Ukraine's authorities to "review" the official vote results. EU's new members Poland, Hungary and Slovakia border Ukraine and the West sees the nation as a buffer state against an increasingly authoritarian Russia. Western capitals say they are simply standing up for democracy in a neighbor.
But Moscow angrily accused the West of fomenting unrest to wrest Ukraine from Russia into its sphere of influence. "You can no longer ignore the direct involvement of the American Congress, that individual congressmen spend their days and nights in Kiev, the non-governmental organizations, consultants, experts," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who holds the European brief at the Kremlin, told an interviewer late Saturday.