Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on Wednesday criticized as illegitimate a parliamentary vote to dismiss his prime minister and government, deepening the country's political turmoil ahead of new elections s in March.
"The decision was made by a parliament that was elected four years ago by the old regime and is living its last weeks," Yushchenko said during a visit to Kazakhstan, where he attended the inauguration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. "The decision only demonstrates one thing: the destabilization of the situation."
The prime minister, Yury Yekhanurov, defied parliament's vote on Tuesday by presiding over a meeting of the government's ministers on Wednesday.
"We are continuing to fulfill our duties," he said at the beginning of the meeting, according to news agencies, reversing his initial statement after Tuesday's vote that the ministers would serve only in an acting capacity.
The dispute -- prompted by the handling of negotiations with Russia over the price of natural gas -- in effect left Yushchenko's government in a sort of political limbo. It not only undermined his political position before the elections but also called into question recent constitutional changes that gave parliament new powers, including the authority to dismiss the government.
Those changes, which went into effect on Jan. 1, were part of an agreement reached in December 2004 to hold a new presidential election after tens of thousands of Ukrainians protested a fraudulent vote that initially handed victory to Yushchenko's rival, Viktor Yanukovich.
Yushchenko, who has since criticized the agreement, did so sharply again on Wednesday.
"In fact, we are dealing with the first consequences of inconsiderate changes to the constitution," he said in a statement released by his office.
Yushchenko has previously suggested that he might seek to reverse the constitutional changes by holding a referendum, but neither he nor his aides have indicated that they would -- or could -- do so before the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 26.
The parliament that assembles after that vote will elect the country's next prime minister, a significant shift in constitutional power. Given the current impasse, it appeared unlikely that a new government would be formed before then, leaving Yekhanurov's in place for now.
It also appears unlikely that Yushchenko's bloc of deputies, Our Ukraine, will be able to control the majority needed to choose the new prime minister. Polls show Yanukovich's party leading, followed by a bloc led by Yulia Tymoshenko, Yushchenko's erstwhile ally whom he dismissed as his first prime minister in September.
Tymoshenko, whose supporters voted to dismiss the government, has been a vociferous critic of the agreement that ended the dispute over gas prices, vowing to challenge it in court.
Others in parliament said that while lawmakers could not directly reject the deal, they could challenge related interstate agreements with Russia, including those setting the amounts of gas supplied.