KIEV, Ukraine, Nov. 24 -- Ukraine's Central Elections Commission declared Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the winner of the country's bitterly disputed presidential vote Wednesday, defying strong pressure from the United States and other Western countries. In response, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko called for a national strike starting Thursday.
Following the commission's ruling that Yanukovych won 49.46 percent of the vote to 46.61 percent for Yushchenko, rhetoric from both camps escalated, with each accusing the other of planning a coup. Hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters remained in the streets, pressing their claim that Yanukovych stole the election. Smaller numbers of Yanukovych supporters also arrived in the city.
Ukrainian Americans rally at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington against what many called a fraudulent vote. U.S. officials also rejected the result.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
Government remained largely paralyzed Wednesday in the former Soviet republic of 48 million people, where democracy has found infertile soil since the country won independence in 1991. Ukraine has sided with the United States in sending troops to Iraq; at the same time, U.S. officials have criticized the government of President Leonid Kuchma, saying it uses strong-arm tactics against opponents.
Speaking after the election commission issued its official finding, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters in Washington, "We cannot accept this result as legitimate because it does not meet international standards and because there has not been an investigation of the numerous and credible reports of fraud and abuse.
"If the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly," Powell said, "there will be consequences for our relationship, for Ukraine's hopes for Euro-Atlantic integration, and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud." The 25-country European Union and Canada, which has a large Ukrainian population, issued similar statements.
With statements like those, international response to the crisis in Ukraine has split along Cold War lines. Moscow has supported Yanukovych, who favors closer ties with Russia; Western governments have been sympathetic to claims of fraud from Yushchenko, who has campaigned for closer relations with the European Union and the NATO alliance.
Several thousand Yushchenko supporters massed Wednesday night outside the offices of Kuchma, the incumbent president, who supports Yanukovych. The offices were guarded by riot police, and the standoff remained peaceful.
In a speech to throngs of supporters who continued to maintain a vigil in the capital's Independence Square on Wednesday, despite intense cold, Yushchenko declared that government leaders "want to bring us to our knees." The commission's vote tally, he said, had "put Ukraine on the verge of a political coup."
Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, one of Yushchenko's key strategists, said the opposition was "organizing citizens, stopping lessons at schools and universities, stopping work at enterprises, stopping transport . . . thus, we'll force the authorities to think about what they are doing."
Kuchma said Yushchenko's supporters were trying to "carry out . . . a coup d'etat," according to the Interfax news agency. He told foreign governments to "refrain from interference in Ukraine's affairs."
The lower house of the Russian parliament adopted a statement condemning the opposition. Deputies "express deep concern over the illegal actions of Ukraine's radical opposition forces, which may lead to dramatic consequences for the brotherly people," the statement said.
The day had begun with signs of compromise. Speaking to supporters, Yushchenko declared his willingness to participate in a re-staging of the runoff election that was held Sunday, "provided we have an honest Central Elections Commission."
Yanukovych, meanwhile, said that he was not interested in a "fictitious" victory and that "no position of authority, no matter how important, is worth a single human life."
But late in the afternoon, the election commission chairman, Serhiy Kivalov, began to read the official election results in the commission chamber, over the din of Yushchenko supporters in the room who cried, "Shame, shame!" Yanukovych supporters applauded their man's victory. Two of the commission's 13 members refused to sign the official results.
Outside the commission building, several hundred Yanukovych supporters who had traveled to the capital from the prime minister's stronghold in the eastern part of the country milled around log fires burning on the ice as they listened to loudspeakers broadcasting old Soviet songs -- punctuated at one point by an instrumental version of the Eagles' "Hotel California."
A handful of Yushchenko supporters engaged some of them in debate about the election.
"We are here to support our president," said Roman Bagayev, 27, a factory worker from Donetsk, the city where Yanukovych was once governor and where Yushchenko and Western monitors said fraud was most prevalent. "There is a danger of revolution, and we are here to protect our country."
Despite Yanukovych's conciliatory statement earlier in the day, his campaign released a later statement that seemed to rule out further review of the elections.
The commission "gave serious consideration to election observers' reports of campaign and ballot counting irregularities," campaign chairman Sergei Tyhypko said in the statement. "However, with mounting public confrontation, the duly empowered authorities of the Ukrainian government felt further unwarranted delay would only increase the prospect of violence and civil strife. . . . To the extent there were irregularities and abuses in the campaign and the election, there is no reason to think that they were of sufficient magnitude to affect the outcome."
In the statement, which referred to Yanukovych as the president-elect, Tyhypko called on "Yushchenko and his supporters to meet with [Yanukovych's] transition team to assist in taking early steps to heal the passions that have bitterly divided Ukraine and to restore national unity."
Mykola Tomenko, a member of parliament and Yushchenko supporter, said the only discussion would be about "the peaceful handing over of power to Yushchenko by Kuchma."