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Ukraine: Focus On Constitutional Court As Standoff Continues

Supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych gathering in Kyiv on April 4 (official site) KYIV, April 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of supporters of Viktor Yanukovych today continued to gather in central Kyiv, many traveling by bus and train from Ukraine's east to show their support for the prime minister and the ruling coalition.

But Viktor Yushchenko remained firm.

Speaking at an emergency session of the National Security and Defense Council, the Ukrainian president said anyone failing to comply with his April 2 decree -- which dissolves parliament and calls for new elections for May 27 -- would be prosecuted.

MORE: Coverage in Ukrainian from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

ANALYSIS: Weak Institutions At Heart Of Crisis

"Ukrainian law does not allow anybody to disobey this decree," Yushchenko said. "You may appeal to the Constitutional Court, you may make decisions that you consider necessary as long as they are within the framework of law, but I will never compromise and I will not allow the decree to be disobeyed."

No Common Ground

The National Security and Defense Council subsequently ordered government structures to begin preparations for early elections. Council Secretary Vitaliy Hayduk said this included an agreement, by April 7, to finance the elections from the national budget.

But Yanukovych, during a press conference later in the day, said the ruling parliamentary coalition -- led by his Party of Regions -- would make no move until the country's Constitutional Court had pronounced Yushchenko's decree legal.

The court is composed in a way meant to avoid political bias. But analysts say it is prone to outside pressure and lacks the standing in society to render important rulings.

But that, officials say, could take months.

Volodymyr Shapoval, a former Constitutional Court justice who is now the presidential liaison to the court, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service a quick vetting of the decree is unlikely. (Read the complete interview in Ukrainian.)

"Proceeding from my experience, I think [a ruling] may take no less than two months," Shapoval said.

"If the decision is taken much sooner, we'll know we have real Heroes of Ukraine at work," he added ironically, refering to an honorary award bestowed by the president.

Weak Institution

The court -- which works at a notoriously slow pace, and has not made a single ruling in over eight months -- announced today that it will take 15 days just to make a preliminary ruling on whether there are grounds for opening constitutional proceedings into the case.

Officially, the way the Constitutional Court is composed is meant to avoid clear political bias. The court comprises 18 justices, appointed in equal shares by the president, the parliament, and the Council of Judges, a nonpartisan judicial body.

Nonetheless, analysts say the court is widely believed to be prone to political pressure and lacks the standing in society to render such an important ruling.

Ukrainian Constitutional Court Chairman Ivan Dombrovskyy is rumored to be considering resigning (TASS file photo)

Mykhaylo Syrota, a former legislator who helped draft Ukraine's 1996 constitution, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that Constitutional Court judges are "incapable" of making a decision.

"In order to make a decision in a crisis situation, they would have to be people of a high moral and ethical standing -- not only within Ukrainian society, but also on a global scale," Syrota said. "Only this would make them able to withstand the pressure that is exerted on all constitutional court judges, in every country."

Yanukovych and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz on April 4 alleged that the head of the court, Ivan Dombrovskyy, was being pressured to resign -- something that could throw the debate surrounding Yushchenko's decree into further disarray.

Yushchenko's office promptly denied the allegation. Contradictory reports followed that Dombrovskyy had alternately left on sick leave or tendered his resignation only to have it rejected by the court.

Dombrovskyy himself has made no public comments.

Blue Versus Orange

The situation on Kyiv's streets, meanwhile, is a contrast to the 2004 Orange Revolution, when tens of thousands of Yushchenko supporters protested a rigged election.

This time it is Yanukovych's blue-clad backers -- who brought the Party of Regions to power in a March 2006 vote universally deemed free and fair -- who are setting up tent cities in the capital.

Yushchenko says Yanukovych committed the original sin in the current political crisis by enticing opposition lawmakers in parliament to join his ruling coalition.

This, the president said, is a violation of the country's consitution, and that only parliamentary factions -- and not individual legislators -- can switch sides.

Yanukovych does not deny trying to enlarge the number of lawmakers in his ruling coalition -- but says such actions are perfectly legal.

In an article published in Britain's "Financial Times" daily, Yushchenko wrote that Yanukovych's government "has exceeded its mandate and attempted to monopolize political power."

Supporters of the parliamentary coalition gathering in Kyiv today (epa)

A statement from the pro-Yanukovych parliament, meanwhile, accused Yushchenko of "provoking legal chaos in the country" by "pushing state and local authorities to carry out mass illegal activities."

Earlier today, rumors swirled through Kyiv that Yushchenko was preparing to dismiss Yanukovych's government and declare emergency rule. But Moroz, speaking after today's meeting of the National Security and Defence Council, said there were "no grounds" for discussing a state of emergency.

Yushchenko's office denied the reports. But speaking at a meeting of the country's Security Council -- where he sat next to Yanukovych --Yushchenko said he would not "take a single step" toward rescinding the decree disbanding parliament.

With Easter celebrations approaching, it is unclear whether the standoff will reach a critical point over the weekend.

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