KIEV, Ukraine, Dec. 2 -- President Leonid Kuchma won crucial political support on Thursday from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sided with him in rejecting an opposition demand to repeat the presidential runoff election of 11 days ago.
The call for a new vote, prompted by widespread allegations of fraud in the Nov. 21 balloting, has been at the core of mass demonstrations in Kiev, the capital, in favor of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. The United States and the European Union favor another election.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, left, walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their meeting at a government airport outside Moscow.
Transcript: Andrew Kuchins, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Moscow Center was online.
Video: President Bush discussed the Ukrainian election crisis on Thursday.
Transcript: Andrew Kuchins, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Moscow Center discussed the ongoing standoff in Ukraine.
Transcript: Dr. Anders Aslund, director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also discussed developments in the country.
Graphic: A look at the East-West split that seems to be dividing the country politically.
Kuchma flew to Moscow and told Putin at an airport meeting, "I do not know a single country whose laws would allow such a rerun."
Putin concurred, saying: "A repeat of the runoff vote may fail to work. A rerun can be held twice, three times, 25 times until one of the parties gets the desired result."
Putin had backed Kuchma's candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and visited Ukraine twice during the campaign to support him. Yanukovych ran on a platform of close relations with Moscow, a stand that fits with Putin's view that Ukraine is part of the "near abroad" of former Soviet republics within Russia's sphere of influence.
Yanukovych was officially declared the winner of the runoff by about 3 percentage points, but international monitors agreed with Yushchenko that the process was plagued by fraud, and Ukraine's parliament subsequently declared the vote invalid in a nonbinding resolution.
In Washington, President Bush indirectly criticized Russia's role in the crisis. "I think any election, if there is one, ought to be free from any foreign influence. These elections ought to be open and fair," Bush said in response to a reporter's question about the prospect of Russian influence on a new vote in Ukraine.
The U.S. government has been eager to avoid a conflict with Putin, whom Bush regards as an ally in the war on terrorism. But the political crisis in Ukraine has divided the country between the east, where many ethnic Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians reside, and the west, the base of support for Yushchenko, who regards ties with NATO and the E.U. as crucial to the country's future prosperity.
Kuchma has emerged as a key player in the crisis and the main target of opposition criticism. The question of his intentions has eclipsed the issue of Yanukovych's candidacy, Western diplomats said.
Kuchma, a former Soviet factory director who is closely tied to the Russian government, decided not to seek reelection. He has served as president since 1994, all but three years of Ukraine's independence, and his opponents have accused him of leading a corrupt system dominated by major businessmen.
"Kuchma is the pivotal figure," said a senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Where he puts his effort may be decisive. To stall is part of it, but he still holds out hope that someone from his side could be president."
Kuchma has endorsed the idea of new elections, but wants them to start from scratch, which would open the field to new candidates and give him time to organize and fund a campaign.
During an evening rally at Independence Square in central Kiev, Yushchenko, a former prime minister who once headed the central bank, told tens of thousands of supporters that he would not engage in talks based on Kuchma's proposal. "Only a rerun of the election can save the state," he said. "They are testing our patience and nerve."
One of his leading lieutenants, Yulia Tymoshenko, asked those in the crowd if they would stay in the plaza until Yushchenko was president. They answered with a thunderous yes.
The day before, Yushchenko had appealed to his massed backers to abandon sieges at government buildings. But the protesters remained, and offices that were blocked by hundreds of people on Wednesday were still obstructed Thursday. The demonstrators, many of them young, wore ribbons and scarves of orange, Yushchenko's campaign color.
Many of Yushchenko's supporters have come to consider Kuchma the main villain of the election, and his trip to Moscow on Thursday was a source of deep resentment. "Kuchma and Putin can't be allowed to run the country," said Andrei Yurchenko, a computer technician at a Kiev research institute. He carried a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag among a group of protesters outside the Supreme Court. One line of graffiti written in the snow said, "Putin, Don't Be a Terrorist."
"It's okay to negotiate, but it must be made clear that the terms are of surrender of the criminal authorities," said Sergei Shandrenko, a colleague of Yurchenko's.
Unlike at other offices, demonstrators at the Supreme Court left a wide corridor for functionaries to enter. After four days of hearings, the Supreme Court heard final arguments Thursday on a suit by Yushchenko to invalidate the Nov. 21 vote. A decision could be announced as early as Friday.
The protesters at the court chanted, "No lies, no lies!" and "Supreme Court with the people!" They also sang Cossack folk tunes. "If the Supreme Court fails in its duties, this will go on indefinitely," said Valentina Soroka, a journalism student who also works at an extreme sports magazine. "Demonstrating is much more serious and also much better than extreme sports," she said.
If the court declares the runoff a fraud, it would open the way to a re-vote, as Yushchenko wants, or new elections, as Kuchma has proposed. In remarks to government ministers on Thursday, Kuchma held out a carrot to Yushchenko: If the opposition leader agrees to elections from scratch, Kuchma would endorse a "shorter time frame" for the vote. Under law, elections cannot take place until three months after they are announced.
Kuchma's support for new elections would open the way for him to regroup and choose a new candidate, diplomats said.