KYIV (AP) - Ukraine's Supreme Court began discussing the validity of the presidential election results Nov. 29, as political tension heightened with an eastern province scheduling a referendum on autonomy and the opposition threatening to tighten a blockade against top officials in the bitterly divided nation.
The Supreme Court was considering an appeal by opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko against official results of the Nov. 21 presidential runoff which declared Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the winner.
The court was expected to hear arguments and then retire to review the case before issuing a decision. It was not clear how long the proceedings would last.
The high court ruling could pave the way for a new vote, which the opposition is demanding, or remove the only barrier to the inauguration of Yanukovych, who has the backing of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and the Kremlin.
"The official results of the elections do not meet the people's will and this is a violation of their constitutional rights," Roman Zvarych, a Yushchenko aide, said inside the courthouse. "I hope that the Supreme Court will be guided by the law."
Under Ukrainian election legislation, the court is unable to rule on the overall results, but can declare results invalid in individual precincts.
While the court's decision is likely to boost the legitimacy of whichever side it seems to favor, it could also deepen the divide and prolong the crisis by fueling anger in the other camp.
Tension mounted ahead of the session. Yushchenko, who claims his victory was stolen through election fraud, rejected government appeals Nov. 28 to call off tens of thousands of protesters and urged his backers to maintain their weeklong round-the-clock vigil and their blockades of the Cabinet building and the presidential administration.
Early Nov. 29, opposition supporters - with ribbons in Yushchenko's campaign color of orange flapping from their clothes - slid down the capital's icy streets shouting their leader's name.
Yushchenko's ally, Yuliya Tymoshenko, threatened Kuchma with an ultimatum Sunday, saying opposition supporters would block his movements if he didn't fire Yanukovych and governors of eastern regions threatening to push for self-rule, by late Monday.
"We know where he is, and we can prevent him from making a single step if he doesn't fulfill our demands," Tymoshenko told a crowd of some 100,000 at Kiev's central Independence Square.
Yanukovych supporters struck back from the city of Donetsk, the prime minister's native region and main power base. The regional legislature voted 164-1 to hold a Dec. 5 referendum on autonomy for the province. About 30,000 demonstrators gathered outside the legislature building in Donetsk.
"We won't tolerate what's going on in Ukraine," said Donetsk governor Anatoly Bliznyuk. "We have shown that we are a force to reckon with."
The referendum would ask Donetsk voters to demand the status of a republic for the region, which would require changing Ukraine's constitution to allow for stronger self-rule for its provinces. While such changes could face serious opposition, the vote suggested Ukraine's rift could deepen much further if the election results are overturned.
The referendum move came after an urgent meeting attended by Yanukovych and some 3,500 delegates from the east and south who adopted a resolution threatening to hold a similar plebiscite if the crisis worsens.
Borys Kolesnikov, the speaker of the Donetsk regional legislature, warned that a Yushchenko presidency could lead to eastern and southern provinces splitting away and forming an autonomous southeastern republic with its capital in Kharkiv, close to the Russian border.
The crisis has deepened the divide between Ukraine's pro-Russian east and Yushchenko's strongholds in the capital and western Ukraine, which is a traditional center of Ukrainian nationalism.
Tymoshenko blamed Kuchma for provoking the eastern provinces' push for self-rule, which she called "attempts to split Ukraine."
She called on the opposition crowds to march to the Supreme Court and the Ukrainian parliament, where Yushchenko's supporters would seek a no-confidence vote in Yanukovych's Cabinet Monday. However, no Yushchenko supporters were visible outside the Supreme Court building, which was guarded by an increased number of police.
The Supreme Court said last week that the election's official results could not be published until it rules on Yushchenko's challenge. Yanukovych cannot formally take office until the results are published. On Nov. 27, Ukraine's parliament passed a nonbinding resolution declaring the election invalid.
Russia and the West are at odds over the political stalemate in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin openly backed Yanukovych and congratulated him on his
victory, while many Western nations, including the United States, say they don't recognize the official results.
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