Ukraine's Supreme Court began discussing the validity of the presidential election results yesterday, while an eastern province scheduled a referendum on autonomy and the opposition threatened to further paralyze the government through a blockade.
Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma said "we cannot in any instance allow the disintegration or division of Ukraine," the Interfax news agency reported.
Fears of a split rose after Ukraine's giant industrial base, the eastern Donetsk region, scheduled a referendum on autonomy for next Sunday.
Speaking at a meeting of eastern Ukraine officials, Kuchma said he believed that neither opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko nor Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych "wants to be president of one part of Ukraine."
The Supreme Court was considering an appeal by Yushchenko against results of the Nov. 21 runoff, which declared Yanukovych the winner.
Under Ukrainian legislation, the court cannot rule on the overall results but can declare results invalid in individual precincts. Mykola Katerinchuk, an aide to Yushchenko, 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 opposition claimed "severe violations of Ukrainian legislation" and asked the court to annul the results, he said.
The justices were expected to hear arguments, then retire to review the case before issuing a decision. They called a one-hour break after a two-hour morning session. It was not clear how long the proceedings would last.
The 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 Kuchma and the Kremlin, which still yields significant political and economic influence over energy-dependent Ukraine.
Yanukovych was declared the winner with a margin of 871,402 votes.
"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.
While the court's decision is likely to boost the legitimacy of whichever side it seems to favor, it could also fuel anger in the other camp. Thousands of pro-Yushchenko and pro-Yanukovych supporters massed outside the court building, mingling in a peaceful rally and distinguishable only by their orange and blue-and-white campaign banners.
Yushchenko, who claims his victory was stolen through election fraud, rejected government appeals on Sunday to call off tens of thousands of protesters and urged his backers to maintain their vigil.