Transfer of Ukrainian troops at center of struggle

( LatWp ) - Amid a bitter political standoff, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko issued a decree Friday transferring control of Interior Ministry troops into his hands and away from a minister loyal

to his longtime rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

The prime minister said the president's action was unconstitutional. Parliament, which is controlled by the prime minister's allies, passed a resolution declaring the decree legally void, and Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko said he would try to keep control of the troops. It appeared, however, that Yushchenko had succeeded in firming his authority over security forces, because the direct commander of the

Interior Ministry troops, Gen. Oleksandr Kikhtenko, is considered his ally. As commander-in-chief, the pro-Western Yushchenko already had control over the army and the country's national security apparatus.

The current crisis pits roughly the same political camps that faced off in the 2004 Orange Revolution, which saw Yushchenko defeating Yanukovich for the presidency after street protests led to the overturning of the results of rigged balloting.

The new decree covers Interior Ministry troops with military training, who can be used for anti-riot operations, and does not include police. The ministry has about 32,000 troops and 220,000


Yushchenko's decree ``can be both interpreted as legal and not quite so, depending on who is doing the interpretation,'' Alexander Dergachyov, a senior researcher with the Institute of Political and

Ethno-National Studies, a Kiev think-tank, said in a telephone interview.

The latest confrontation erupted last month when the president accused the prime minister of using unconstitutional means to try to cement his power. Yushchenko issued an early April decree dissolving

parliament and calling elections, but parliament and Yanukovich refused to accept that action, describing it as unconstitutional.

Early in May, Yushchenko and Yanukovich said they had agreed to resolve the struggle by holding parliamentary elections, but they did not set a date. Since then, the president has pushed for elections to

be held this summer, while Yanukovich says they should come in the fall. Most polls have shown the two camps evenly divided, leaving the likely election results too close to predict.

While the contest for control of Interior Ministry troops added to concerns that the confrontation could yet bring bloodshed, the two camps were generally seen to be maneuvering for advantage in a battle to be decided at the ballot box.

``I still think that what is going on is not preparation for a real violent clash but rather building up better positions for the elections,'' said Dergachyov, the analyst.

Yushchenko's base of support is among voters in the western part of the country or Kiev who want faster integration with Western Europe. Yanukovich, who says he wants good ties with both the European Union

and Russia, draws much of his strength from eastern Ukraine, home to many ethnic Russians or Ukrainians who speak Russian as their first language.

The key players in the contest met Friday evening in another attempt to hammer out a deal. Both sides have stressed that force must not be used to break the deadlock.

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