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Ukraine Protesters to Camp Out Until Political Crisis Over

Ukraine is scheduled to hold new elections on December 26, but its political crisis is not yet over. The opposition demands reform of the country's electoral system - the outgoing president wants a trade-off, in which a new president would have less power and the parliament, more.

That might be an attempt to keep real power in the hands of the current prime minister, Victor Yanukovych, even if opposition leader Victor Yushchencko wins the new election against Mr. Yanukovych.

The uncertainty is keeping the opposition protesters out on the streets of Kiev. VOA's Jeff Swicord has more from the Ukrainian capital.

For weeks they have gathered in Kiev's Independence Square, and camped out in tents along the city's premier thoroughfare, Khreshchatyk Street. The protesters were jubilant after Friday's Supreme Court decision, only to be disappointed at parliament's inability to approve election reforms on Saturday.

But most have vowed to fight on. Dianna Derhak is an American of Ukrainian descent living in Kiev. She served as an election observer in the last round, and says there is only one man who can ask the protestors to leave.

"What we are seeing here in the streets is a commitment to stay and the crowds will respond to what the leadership says and what Yushchenko says," she said.

Although the crowds are smaller than previous weeks, there is still a substantial core of protestors who want to stay until the end, no matter what, or when, that may be. Dimitri Dmytroyanyuk is among them.

"We stay here not only for one man, that includes the democracy, freedom, and our idea," he said.

Providing food and clothing for tens of thousands of people has been a monumental task. Contributions have come in from all over the country. And kitchens all over Kiev have been pitching in to feed the protestors.

Anatoliy Skuratovsky is an unemployed ship's mate from Odessa. He told us that this small operation at one end of Khreshchatyk Street hands out about 1,000 sandwiches a day.

"The people of Kiev bring us everything," he said. "Over there in the central tent city, that's where they give us medical treatment and help in every way they can. The medications and everything else are free. It's all very expensive. But they give us everything for free, everything."

A medical center, one of many in the downtown area, is set up in an old army tent. It is also run by a staff of volunteers.

Natalia Leetenkov, a pediatrician from Kiev, says a recent shipment of medicine was donated from a pharmacy in Chernobyl. She says the most common medical problems are caused from the cold weather, including one case of frozen legs.

"I have very mixed feelings," she said. "First of all, I am very proud for my people and I want to help. Secondly there is pain, that they are suffering such difficulties. As a mother, if feel sorry for them. I'm ready to hug them all, cover them with kisses and comfort them."

The people in the camps realize that last Friday's Supreme court decision was not a victory, but one step in a continuing struggle. For the moment, the protestors are the engine driving the country. But as Dianna Derhak points out, the question is how long will they hang on.

"Well, that is the big concern because the longer people are out here the more affected they are financially, businesses are affected by it, cold weather, people's health, etc.," she said. And so, there is a lot of speculation that the government is going to string this out to the point where the crowds will diminish, the interest by the international press will diminish, and they can quietly handle it in their own way."

On this night, as every night, the crowds in Independence Square swell to watch the news of the day on a stadium-style big screen. For now, optimism is ever-present. Driven not only by the outrage of a stolen election, but the desire for a change in direction for the country.