Ukraine's Constitutional Court has ruled that President Leonid Kuchma can run for a third term of office next year. The move sets the stage for a possible new round of street protests by the country's opposition.
The court ruled that President Kuchma is eligible to run for another term on what opposition leaders say is a technicality that represents a setback for democracy in the former Soviet republic.
Mr. Kuchma was first elected in 1994, and is now serving a second term in office that is due to expire next year.
But the Constitutional Court ruled that because the president's first term started before the current constitution was adopted in 1996, he can be elected for another term. The constitution limits presidents to just two terms.
Mr. Kuchma has said he does not plan to run in next October's election. But opposition leaders have already denounced what they claim are plans by the longtime leader to prolong his rule at any cost.
Last week, opposition parties failed to block a parliamentary move by pro-Kuchma deputies that could do away with direct elections for president altogether. The controversial vote gave preliminary approval for a plan to have the president elected by parliament beginning in 2006.
After the court ruling, a lawmaker with the opposition Our Ukraine party denounced the move as reflecting the court's bias in favor of the president.
Party leader Mykola Katerynchuk said the opposition might stage mass protests against Mr. Kuchma in mid-January.
The president has endured protests before. Demonstrations rocked the country for months in 2002 after the president was accused of complicity in the murder of a journalist who was critical of Mr. Kuchma's policies.
Leading opponents also say corruption is rampant within Mr. Kuchma's government, charges that he has long denied.
Mr. Kuchma has also had trouble on the foreign policy front. Relations with the United States were severely strained by the alleged sale of sophisticated military radar to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq more than a year ago. But Mr. Kuchma won favor after he agreed to send peacekeepers to Iraq after Saddam's ouster.
Leaders in other former Soviet republics have also been accused of using the courts or electoral systems to prolong their rule indefinitely. This is especially the case in central Asian republics, whose leaders have clung to power by holding Soviet-style referendums or outlawing opposition groups that have attempted to develop democratic institutions.