February 20, 2010 1:57 pm

Ukraine’s Tymoshenko drops election appeal

Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s prime minister, on Saturday withdrew her appeal of a hotly contested presidential contest that was narrowly lost to Viktor Yanukovich.

The surprise development opens the door for Mr Yanukovich to be inaugurated as president on February 25, completing his astonishing comeback since a humiliating defeat in the 2004 Orange Revolution.

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Ms Tymoshenko reiterated claims that the February 7 presidential runoff was rigged in her opponent’s favour, but dropped her legal appeal insisting that a high court hearing the case was unfair in refusing to study evidence provided by her lawyers.

“Under these circumstances, we simply do not see the reason for continuing with this case being considered ...We are withdrawing our suit,” she told Ukraine’s High Administrative Court.

“It has become obvious that it is not a court and it is not justice,” she added.

Ms Tymoshenko accused Mr Yanukovich of trying to steal the presidential contest, much as he allegedly attempted in 2004. Back then, she led Orange Revolution protests that helped to secure a court ruling, which overturned a fraud-marred vote in favour of Mr Yanukovich, the Moscow-backed candidate.

Observers said violations were detected in this month’s poll, but not enough to change the overall outcome in which Mr Yanukovich took nearly 49 per cent support, or 3.5 percentage points more than Ms Tymoshenko.

More than 3,000 international observers dubbed the election as democratic, saying it reaffirmed Ukraine as a rare beacon of democracy on post-Soviet turf. Ms Tymoshenko was not expected to win the election appeal, which analysts said was more aimed as an exercise in political survival.

Despite losing the presidential contest, Ms Tymoshenko is trying to hold on to her job as prime minister, a position which actually holds more authority over domestic affairs. But Mr Yanukovich has pledged to oust her government and replace her fragile majority coalition in parliament with one loyal to him.

Ms Tymoshenko warns that such a scenario would monopolise all political power into the hands of Mr Yanukovich and his most influential backers, oligarch businessmen. Meanwhile, investors and businesses in Ukraine are nervously watching and fear that a protracted dispute could prolong five years of political paralysis, poor governance and complicate Kiev’s efforts to resume co-operation with the International Monetary Fund.

IMF aid kept Kiev financially afloat last year. But the IMF froze a $16.4bn bail-out package last autumn due to political bickering and lacklustre reforms. Fresh aid is crucial to helping Ukraine crawl out of a still very deep recession.

Kiev’s economy shrank by a whopping 15 per cent in 2009. The deep plunge ended a decade of strong growth and marked the nation’s sharpest economic contraction in 15 years.

As president, Mr Yanukovich pledges to keep Ukraine on a path towards potential European Union membership while reviving relations with Moscow that soured under Viktor Yushchenko, the outgoing president.

But Mr Yanukovich’s critics fear he will bring Kiev back under Moscow’s grip. Mr Yanukovich said he could allow Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to remain at a Ukrainian port beyond 2017, when a lease agreement expires.

Mr Yanukovich insists he will try to make Ukraine a “bridge” between Russia and the west, in part by forming a consortium controlled by Moscow and Europe to manage Kiev’s strategic natural gas pipeline system.

Mr Yanukovich’s opponents also fear his plans for Kiev to join Russia and other former members of the Soviet republic in a customs and economic union could jeopardize free trade talks with Brussels.

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