The parliament in Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern Donetsk region was due to meet yesterday to finalize plans to hold a referendum on autonomy this weekend amid a growing political crisis sparked by a disputed presidential election.
With pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich's victory in the Nov. 21 vote looking inceasingly likely to be overturned due to allegations of widespread ballot fraud, Ukraine's eastern and southern regions have begun to air demands or autonomy.
The lawmakers "will formulate the referendum plan so that it does not violate the Ukrainian constitution," Donetsk administration spokeswoman Olena Bondarenko said amid criticism that the vote was the first step towards an independence declaration in Ukraine's industrial southeast.
Donetsk, a coal mining center that produces nearly a quarter of Ukraine's industrial output, plans to hold the referendum on Sunday, is the first of Ukraine's 27 regions to set a date to hold a vote.
Last Sunday some 3,500 local officials from 15 administrative regions, which account for nearly two-thirds of Ukraine's population of 48 million, threatened to hold autonomy referendums on December 12 in order to create a southeastern republic if Yushchenko becomes president.
Officials in the Russian-speaking regions are vociforously opposed to the pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko becoming president.
Many supporters of Yanukovich said they would support declaring autonomy if Yushchenko was declared winner or the elections were put to a new vote.
Yushchenko's camp has declared the autonomy moves illegitimate, calling them a "threat."
Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma said Monday he could not accept the division of Ukraine, after meeting with the regional leaders who have threatened to demand autonomy.
"My position is that we cannot allow the division of Ukraine," Kuchma said in televised remarks.
He later suggested holding new elections as a way to resolve the crisis.
The supreme court began Monday hearing opposition appeals to invalidate the vote due to fraud.
The vote would be a step towards a declaration of independence by the region, making it illegal because "referendums on the territorial integrity of Ukraine have to be proposed by the president or the national parliament," said Olexander Bakunets, an official in Yushchenko's Donetsk campaign office.