Putin supports new from-scratch vote in Ukraine


KIEV, Ukraine - President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia waded deep into Ukraine's electoral crisis yesterday, dismissing the challenger's demand for a repeat of the disputed presidential runoff election and criticizing European efforts to mediate.

Putin made his remarks during a meeting with President Leonid D. Kuchma, who made an unexpected trip to Russia even as Ukrainian lawmakers wrangled over the details of holding new elections and the Supreme Court heard arguments to nullify the results of the Nov. 21 vote for widespread fraud.

The meeting - at an airport outside Moscow as Putin prepared to fly to India for a state visit - came only hours after Kuchma and his chosen successor, Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych, the nominal winner, had met with the Western-leaning challenger, Viktor A. Yushchenko, and with European diplomats.

That meeting, Wednesday night, yielded several agreements meant to settle the increasingly bitter and tense impasse over the runoff.

The election imbroglio has exposed Russia's desire to maintain its influence over its former czarist and Soviet domains. Putin's direct interference underscores his keen desire to keep Ukraine, in particular, Russia's historical and cultural partner, from tipping toward the West and further diminishing Moscow's reach.

The impact of Putin's remarks remains to be seen, but he clearly threw his political prestige behind Kuchma, hardening what emerged yesterday as starkly divergent positions on how to hold a new vote.

Among the agreements announced Wednesday night was one to swiftly rewrite Ukraine's election law to allow a new vote, assuming the Supreme Court invalidates the results declaring Yanukovych the winner.

During a day of backroom negotiations at the parliament - which reportedly included talks between Yushchenko and Kuchma - Yushchenko reiterated his call for a new runoff.

Kuchma, however, insisted on a new election from scratch, throwing open the door for a new pro-government and pro-Moscow candidate other than Yanukovych. Putin backed Kuchma, ridiculing Yushchenko's position.

"A rerun of the second round may also produce nothing," Putin said in remarks broadcast on Russia's state television, which also appears in Ukraine. "What happens then? Will there have to be a third, a fourth, a 25th round until one of the sides obtains the necessary result?"

Yushchenko, appearing before thousands of supporters in Independence Square in Kiev, dismissed the idea of a whole new election. "We are not taking part in negotiations if they are about new elections," he said.

Putin's role - and Russia's more broadly - in the election has provoked sharp criticism in Ukraine, in Europe and even in Russia. He all but endorsed Yanukovych, who promised to carry on Kuchma's policies of centralized power and to improve social and economic relations with Russia.

Putin visited Ukraine before each round of the election, meeting with Yanukovych. He also invited Yanukovych to his birthday party in Moscow. State television in Russia, as well as Russian political analysts with ties to the Kremlin, ignored or vilified Yushchenko.

Putin again found himself in opposition to European leaders, highlighting the Cold War-like divisions exposed by the election in Ukraine. President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, who oversaw the effort Wednesday to mediate, backed Yushchenko's call for a new runoff.

The Bush administration chose to emphasize the positive aspects of Putin's comments, particularly his support of the idea that the election in Ukraine had been flawed and that it was important to retain the country's territorial integrity.

Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said Russia and the United States were "pretty much on the same track" regarding Ukraine.

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