Ukraine's pro-Russia regions met yesterday amid threats to break off over a disputed presidential vote that has split this former Soviet republic and left Moscow and Western capitals glowering at each other across a Cold War-like divide.
The meeting in the eastern region of Lugansk, a support base for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, came a day before the supreme court hears an opposition appeal over results of the Nov. 21 election that said Yanukovich won by some one million votes.
Western-leaning opposition leader Victor Yushchenko claims the government helped rig the election in favor of his rival and is asking the court to either order a recount or a new vote.
Ukraine's Yanukovich bastions in the southeast have warned that they would declare more autonomy if their candidate fails to become president, fanning fears that the crisis could split the country.
Flanked by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Yanukovich was due to attend a meeting of some 3,500 local officials from 17 of Ukraine's 27 regions, news agencies reported.
Meanwhile in Kiev, thousands of opposition protesters streamed into central Independence Square, which has turned into a weeklong political demonstration mixed with a rocking street party in Yushchenko's support.
Amid the tension, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma said in televised remarks that a compromise over the crisis was needed to avoid "unforseeable consequences."
The high-court hearing today comes after parliament backed opposition claims that the Nov. 21 runoff poll did not reflect the will of the voters in a non-binding vote that some said could influence the judges.
"The supreme court wouldn't dare to recognize as valid the results of the presidential election after our vote," said Socialist Party chief Oleksandr Moroz, who backed opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in the runoff.
At stake is the future direction of this nation of 48 million after 13 years of independence -- Yanukovich favors retaining traditional ties to Moscow while Yushchenko backs turning toward the West.
Ukraine's geography -- the nation stretches along most of Russia's western border and hugs much of the Black Sea's northern coast -- has assured intense interest in its affairs in foreign capitals from Moscow to Washington.
Russian oil and gas pipelines run through Ukraine and Kiev is a steady consumer of arms from Moscow's military complex.