Faced with the prospect of breakaway regions and a burgeoning financial crisis, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma signaled a willingness Monday to acquiesce to opposition demands for a new presidential election, a move that even Ukraine's disputed presidential victor was willing to accept in two key eastern provinces.
"If we really want to preserve peace and accord, and if we really want to build up the democratic society we talk about so much, let's organize new elections," Kuchma said.
The statement represented a major retreat by Kuchma, who backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych as the winner in the disputed Nov. 21 presidential runoff, an election that opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, international observers and Western governments say was marred by widespread election fraud.
Kuchma made the remarks after speaking by telephone with U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who urged the Ukrainian leader to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, one that abides by Ukraine's constitution. Powell also urged Kuchma to maintain Ukraine's territorial integrity in the face of threats from Donetsk and Kharkiv, two pro-Yanukovych provinces in the east, to secede if Yushchenko were named president.
However, Donetsk Gov. Anatoliy Bliznyuk said today his region's referendum on self-rule wouldn't take place as planned on Sunday, stressing that Donetsk was seeking "not autonomy, but to become a republic within Ukraine." He said the referendum could be scheduled later.
The Kharkiv legislature had already retracted its threat to introduce self-rule.
Parliament today failed to pass a vote of no-confidence in the government due to the separatist threats. Only 196 of the 410 lawmakers present backed the measure, less than the 226 needed.
Lawmakers later tentatively approved a measure that would annul Saturday's nonbinding decision to declare the election invalid. Today's move angered opposition protesters, who tried to enter the building; some made it into the lobby before police pushed them back.
The speaker adjourned the session until Wednesday.
Yanukovych also backtracked Monday, saying he would agree to new balloting in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, where Yushchenko alleged widespread election fraud helped Yanukovych.
Yanukovych qualified his remarks by saying allegations of fraud in those two regions would have to be proved before he would agree to new balloting.
The statements by Yanukovych and Kuchma marked a dramatic shift in strategy in the face of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine who continue to protest Yanukovych's victory.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's Supreme Court today resumed its investigation of the disputed election results, focusing on more than 15 million votes in eight eastern and southern regions.
During the second day of a hearing on Yushchenko's appeal, his lawyers cited turnout of more than 100 percent in hundreds of precincts in Donetsk and Luhansk, problems with voting lists and multiple voting with absentee ballots.