KIEV, Ukraine – Western-leaning reformer Viktor Yushchenko's (search) long and tension-filled drive to become Ukraine's president cleared its final hurdles before dawn Thursday when the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the losing candidate and government newspapers printed election results.
After deliberations that stretched to 2:30 a.m., the court announced it had rejected the appeal of Viktor Yanukovych (search), the former prime minister who was seen as likely to bring Ukraine closer into Russia's sphere of influence. The top judge said there was insufficient evidence to support the appeal.
But the verdict came only after government newspapers went to press with the election results — clearing the way for the inauguration. Parliament planned to meet later Thursday to set a date. Yushchenko's camp wants it to be Friday or Saturday.
Yushchenko won a Dec. 26 election that was a court-ordered rerun of a fraud-ridden ballot in November in which Yanukovych, who was then Prime Minister, was declared the winner.
The court annulled that election's results after Yushchenko's camp appealed, and as tens of thousands of pro-Yushchenko demonstrators massed in downtown Kiev.
About 45 minutes before the court announced its verdict, a top Yushchenko aide, Petro Poroshenko, brought test copies of the gazettes' Thursday editions to the court, where supporters cheered and autographed the papers.
"This means the presidential campaign, which should have been over last year, is finally over," Poroshenko said.
At the tent village on Kiev's (search) main street where a core of several hundred Yushchenko supporters have remained camped since late November, the results publication was greeted with delight.
"Now nobody can steal victory from us," said Bohdan Yakubchyk, 25.
"I'm proud for our country, which will become a part of Europe," said 30-year-old Pavlo Levchuk.
Under Ukrainian law once the results were published, the high court could not have rescinded them. The court a day earlier had ruled that the results could be published on Thursday, but it had not been clear that the official newspapers' editorial boards would agree to do so.
Although an inauguration date has not been set, Yushchenko on Tuesday plans to appear before the European Parliament to present plans for bringing Ukraine into the European Union, aide Oleh Rybachuk was quoted as saying by the news agency Interfax.
"The newly elected president has a five-year plan of action which will bring Ukraine and the EU closer. Full-fledged membership in the EU has been and remains a strategic goal," Rybachuk said, according to Interfax.
Yushchenko's interest in pursuing closer relations with the West has raised concern that Ukraine would slight Russia, its giant and economically critical neighbor to the East. Russian officials had strongly favored Yanukovych, who was seen as likely to nudge Ukraine more into the Kremlin's sphere of influence.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (search) said he believes tensions will be overcome.
"Relations between our two countries are immeasurably deeper and wider than any momentary developments during the election campaign in Ukraine. We have no other choice than to further bolster our bilateral relations," Lavrov said at a news conference, adding that Russia would welcome Yushchenko's intention to make Moscow his first foreign destination.
On Wednesday, Yanukovych representative Nestor Shufrich said Yushchenko would be "an illegitimate president. Yushchenko's staff is interested only in crowning him and inaugurating him."
"The only remedy after such an inauguration would be an impeachment process," said another Yanukovych representative, Taras Chornovyl.
The Yanukovych appeal was based on contentions that massive numbers of Ukrainians were denied their right to vote in the Dec. 26 election because of election-law reforms that canceled the use of absentee ballots. That reform was overturned by the Constitutional Court just a day before the vote, leaving many elderly and physically disabled Ukrainians no time to make voting arrangements.
Abuse of absentee ballots was cited by international observers as a key problem with presidential elections on Nov. 21 in which Yanukovych was declared the winner but that were later annulled by the Supreme Court due to widespread vote fraud.
Presiding Justice Anatoliy Yarema said Yanukovych's appeal was rejected because of insufficient evidence, but in the reading the decision did not give specifics of the court's deliberations.
The Yanukovych appeal consisted of more than 600 volumes of documents, including statements about procedural violations in the December election and other complaints.
But Svetlana Kustova told the court that the veracity of many of the documents was in doubt, saying that many of the complaints were written in suspiciously similar format.