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Ukraine's Supreme Court Hears Election Fraud Appeal, Amid Talk Country Might Split

Ukraine's supreme court is hearing an appeal from the political opposition, claiming the presidential runoff election was rigged in favor of pro-Moscow Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. The court action comes as a week-old political crisis threatens to split Ukraine.

The court is to hear an appeal filed last week by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who says he was cheated out of electoral victory in the November 21 election, because of massive fraud by the electoral authorities.

The court hearing comes after Ukraine's parliament voted Saturday to declare the election results invalid. Although that action is not legally binding, it does give Mr. Yushchenko and his supporters a boost.

Tens of thousands of pro-Yushchenko demonstrators continue to rally in the center of downtown Kiev, Ukraine's capital city. Many say they are hopeful because the supreme court has a reputation for being independent, and they feel the momentum has shifted in their favor.

However a very different mood exists in southeastern Ukraine among supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. Regional officials there are threatening to seek autonomy, if Mr. Yushchenko becomes president.

At a meeting with supporters yesterday, Mr. Yanukovich warned the country is heading toward possible "collapse" as the crisis continues.

Pro-Yanukovich officials say they may hold a referendum on autonomy soon, if the court rules that a new runoff election should be held, as Mr. Yushchenko is proposing.

If this happens, the country could effectively split in two. Two-thirds of Ukraine's population of 48 million lives in the regions of the south and east, close to Russia. Many of them are ethnic Russians and have always felt more loyalty to Moscow than to the Ukrainian-speaking West, where Mr. Yushchenko has his power base. Much of that area was part of Poland before World War II, and most people there lean towards the West.

Since Soviet times, political power has been concentrated in the pro-Russian East. Analysts say the recent election only highlighted this longtime split.

Russia openly supported Mr. Yanukovich during the election campaign and has recognized him as the official winner, rejecting opposition claims about fraud.

The political crisis has highlighted differences between Russia and Western nations, which say they cannot accept the official result and called for an investigation into the fraud allegations. The Kremlin has accused the West of "meddling" in Ukraine's internal politics and trying to take the country out of Russia's traditional sphere of influence.

Moscow political analyst Irina Kobrinskaya said both sides want to find a way to resolve the issue. "The only thing clear now is that neither Russia nor the West really wanted such complications in their relations because of Ukraine," she said. "This is obvious. Both parts are eager to solve the problem to exclude a new round of confrontation between Russia and the West."

Last week, Mr. Putin said complaints about fraud should be a matter for the courts to consider.