Ukrainians attend rallies amid political standoff

At one gathering of thousands, the president of the ex-Soviet republic is urged to dissolve parliament to block his rival, the prime minister.

Published April 1, 2007

KIEV, Ukraine - Tens of thousands of demonstrators called on Ukraine's president Saturday to defeat a challenge from the rival prime minister by dissolving parliament and calling new elections, a move that could throw the ex-Soviet republic into crisis.

A smaller rally supported the prime minister.

President Viktor Yushchenko accused Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych of trying to usurp power by recruiting lawmakers allied with the president. Yushchenko told a party conference that if the situation did not change, "I will sign the decree to dissolve parliament."

The party passed a resolution appealing to the president to dissolve parliament, and more than 70,000 supporters waving flags and banners rallied on Kiev's Independence Square, the heart of the 2004 Orange Revolution mass protests that ushered Yushchenko, who calls for closer ties to the European Union and NATO, into power.

About 20,000 supporters of Yanukovych, an ally of Russia, protested in a nearby square.

Dissolving parliament could spark a crisis, particularly if Yanukovych's coalition - which denies Yushchenko's allegations and argues there is no constitutional basis to dissolve parliament - refuses to abide by the president's decision. But if Yushchenko backs down, he could find himself politically weakened and isolated.

"It is not the right of the president (to dissolve parliament), it is his obligation," said former Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who called the demonstrators to Independence Square to press for the dissolution of parliament.

The standoff arose after 11 lawmakers allied with the president defected to Yanukovych's coalition, in violation of a new law that compels lawmakers to remain with the party they belonged to during the election.

Yanukovych now has the support of 260 lawmakers in the 450-seat house, and his party has suggested they will soon reach 300 - enough to overturn presidential vetoes and make changes to the constitution.

Police in bullet-resistant vests manned barricades separating the rival rallies.

"I'm here to support Yanukovych. He's a true patriot and we've seen success," said retiree Valentine Ivanenko, 69. "Pensions have gone up. Industry is working."

Yushchenko accused Yanukovych's parliamentary majority of violating the constitution by taking away presidential powers and failing to fulfill a unity agreement that Yanukovych signed before Yushchenko agreed to accept him as premier.