KIEV -- Facing a relentless tide of opposition protests, embattled President Leonid Kuchma said yesterday that a new election might be the only way out of a spiraling crisis that threatens to break up this former Soviet republic between the pro-Russia east and the Western-leaning rest of Ukraine.
Kuchma warned that "we cannot in any instance allow the disintegration or division of Ukraine," and Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had telephoned the Ukrainian president to express concern about reports of a possible splintering of the country.
Kuchma, along with the Kremlin, has staunchly supported the official winner of the disputed Nov. 21 runoff, his prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych. Kuchma has called for compromise throughout the standoff but had not previously endorsed another vote.
"If we really want to preserve peace and harmony, if we really want to build a democratic state . . . let's hold new elections," said Kuchma, who did not seek another term. He said Ukraine needs a "legitimate president" and added that the crisis could be resolved through a "constitutional agreement" endorsed by parliament, suggesting existing law might not be flexible enough to accommodate a settlement.
While it fell short of meeting protesters' hopes that opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko would be named president, Kuchma's statement appeared to be a tacit admission that the election was tainted.
Yanukovych, who was declared the winner of the runoff by a margin of 871,402 votes, said he would support another vote if allegations of fraud in the election are proven, but that he had yet to see such proof.
Yushchenko has pushed for a new vote to settle the runoff, but Kuchma's remarks suggested the government may want to start the whole election process over. Kuchma's statement could also indicate a desire to win a respite from the relentless opposition blockade of official buildings.
Kuchma spoke as Yushchenko's supporters contested the vote in the Supreme Court, demanding that it cancel the official results because of evidence of fraud.
Addressing tens of thousands of supporters who flooded central Kiev for the eighth straight day, Yushchenko urged them to maintain their vigil despite freezing temperatures. "The next couple of days will bring a solution," Yushchenko said, as the crowd shouted in support.
He said he expects the court's verdict soon, and added that the opposition would also try today to topple Yanukovych's Cabinet through a no-confidence motion in parliament.
But in a sign of division in Yanukovych's camp, Serhiy Tyhypko resigned as his campaign chief and also stepped down as chairman of the
Kuchma warned that the country's financial system could "fall apart like a house of cards" in "a few days."
"Neither the president nor the government can be held responsible for this," he said. "The government cannot work in a normal way as you can all clearly see."
Yanukovych told Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage, that he had sought to moderate the pro-Russia eastern regions' push for autonomy, but added that "if the opposition fails to compromise, the threat of Ukraine's breakup remains real," the Interfax news agency reported.
"There is little time left for finding a balanced political decision: not even days, but hours," Yanukovych said, according to Interfax. "If we don't do that, the situation may spin out of control."
Yanukovych's native Donetsk province scheduled an autonomy referendum for Sunday, and other eastern regions threatened to follow suit if Yanukovych is shut out of the presidency.
Russian-speakers are concentrated in the eastern industrial heartland of Ukraine. Many easterners feel a growing alienation from the more western regions, ruled by Poland until the 1700s, where voters overwhelmingly supported Yushchenko's reformist program and orientation toward Europe. Eastern Ukraine is more heavily populated than the west, and many of its citizens -- coal miners and factory workers -- see themselves as holding the country together economically.
A spokesman for Yushchenko's campaign in the eastern Luhansk region, Dmitriy Malikov, said several dozen Yanukovych supporters armed with brass knuckles and hammers beat about 70 Yushchenko supporters. He said some 20 people were injured, including a Canadian election monitor.
In a conversation with Armitage, Yanukovych said that his son had been attacked and other family members had been pressured by the opposition, prompting him to send his family out of Kiev.
The opposition has voiced fears that Kuchma or his aides might try to introduce a state of emergency, but Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk ruled it out and said the army wouldn't move against the people.
Ukraine's election crisis has pitted Russia against the United States and other Western nations, which have refused to accept official results. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Powell yesterday that the dispute must be resolved in accordance with Ukrainian law.
Under Ukrainian legislation, the Supreme Court cannot rule on the overall results but can declare results invalid in individual precincts. Mykola Katerinchuk, a Yushchenko aide, said the appeal focused on results in eight eastern and southern Ukrainian regions: more than 15 million votes, almost half of the total cast in the runoff. The Supreme Court said last week that the official election results could not be published until it rules on Yushchenko's challenge -- effectively blocking Yanukovych's inauguration. On Saturday, parliament passed a nonbinding resolution declaring the election invalid.