Ukraine's supreme court ruled Friday that contested presidential elections were tainted by fraud and must be repeated, handing a historic victory to pro-Western opposition forces.
Celebrating the ruling
"We order the central election commission to set a date for a new runoff vote from Dec. 5, 2004 in accordance with the law," the court's chief justice Anatoly Yarema announced. "The court decision is final and cannot be appealed."
A representative of pro-Western opposition leader and presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko said the law stipulated that a vote must take place three weeks from the date announced by the court for the start of the campaign.
"I think it will be the 26th" of December, Yushchenko representative Yury Kluchkovsky said.
Opposition supporters hailed the court's ruling and predicted it would be accepted by all political forces in this country of 48 million people.
"A huge victory"
Ukrainian deputy Mykola Katerynchuk, who represents opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, celebrate as the judges exit from the court
"This is a huge victory for all those people who have been standing out on the square," said a Yushchenko spokesman, Mykola Katerynchuk (photo, right), referring to the tens of thousands of opposition protesters who have camped out in the streets of the capital since the contested Nov. 21 vote. "We think that all political forces respect this decision."
Oleg Rybachuk, a top Yushchenko aide, was similarly pleased with the decision.
"This was the decision that the entire country, and, I think, Europe and the rest of the world hoped for," Rybachuk said.
US, EU welcome ruling
The United States and the European Union immediately welcomed the court ruling.
"The court's decision is an important step in moving toward a peaceful, democratic resolution that reflects the will of the people," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner had a similar response.
"I welcome this independent decision, which opens the way for a repeat of the second round of the election that can fully reflect the will of the Ukrainian people," she said in a statement.
Viktor Yushchenko (left) and Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday
Yushchenko (photo, left) had insisted that he won the election and complained to the court that his victory was stolen from him through massive election fraud. The court's decision made law much of what he had demanded, specifically a repeat of the second, one-against-one vote in a short time.
Yanokovych backers slam verdict
Supporters for Ukraine's pro-Russia Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (photo, right) however slammed the verdict.
"The court effectively played a political role," said Stepan Gavrich, a Yanukovych representative, according to Interfax news agency.
It "even went beyond the plaintiff's appeal (that) did not ask for another runoff vote, but had asked to annul results," he added.
There was no immediate comment from Yanukovych himself or from outgoing President Leonid Kuchma.
Putin (left) and Kuchma during an earlier meeting
Kuchma, who supported Yanukovych, on Thursday met Russian President Vladimir Putin and both leaders made clear afterwards that they opposed a re-run only of the Yushchenko-versus-Yanukovych contest, favoring instead a repeat of the entire election process -- a plan vehemently opposed by the opposition.
Kuchma promised to sack the Yanukovych government as demanded by Yushchenko following a vote of no-confidence in parliament, but that promise was conditioned on acceptance of a wider Kuchma plan to implement controversial political reforms, the fate of which were uncertain after the ruling.
Russia attacks EU, OSCE
Prior to the court's ruling, lawmakers in neighboring Russia fired off another salvo at the West, accusing the European Union, the European parliament and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of fomenting unrest in Ukraine that could destabilize the continent.
Actions by these bodies, the Russian State Duma said, could lead to "massive disorder, chaos and a split of the country" and "this will have the most negative consequences not only for Ukraine but for Russia, all of Europe and for the international community as a
Several pro-Russian, Russian-speaking parts of eastern and southern Ukraine where support for Yanukovich was strongest have threatened to seek greater autonomy should Yushchenko be installed as Ukraine's next president.
One of those regions, Donetsk, has already set a date next month for holding a referendum on whether to seek greater autonomy.
Parliament votes to pull out of Iraq
As if to highlight the larger stakes in the Ukraine political situation, the country's parliament earlier in the day voted to demand the pullout of the 1,600 Ukrainian troops based in Iraq as part of the US-led coalition there.
The opposition, which has supported such a move, complained that the timing of the parliament's move was an effort to discredit them.
Poland, which commands the multinational division in Iraq that includes the Ukrainian forces, expressed alarm at the vote.
But Polish Defence Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski, quoted by Poland's PAP news agency, said Warsaw was for the time being regarding it as a purely political statement pending a decision on it by Kuchma.