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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine Prime Minister Ousted

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KIEV — Ukraine's parliament voted overwhelmingly Thursday to oust Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko and his government in a move likely to hobble faltering economic reforms and deepen the country's political crisis.

The decision outraged thousands of Yushchenko supporters who clogged streets near parliament in the biggest demonstration yet during more than three months of political turmoil and protests against President Leonid Kuchma.

"Shame, shame! Kuchma out, Kuchma out," the crowd roared outside parliament. Police estimated 15,000 people had joined the protest. Inside, Yushchenko vowed to fight on.

"I am not leaving politics. I am leaving so I can return," he said. Members supporting him yelled "Yushchenko, Yushchenko!"

Thursday's mass show of support for Yushchenko, seen as a reformer who encouraged closer links with Europe, was twinned with renewed calls for Kuchma to go.

Kuchma has been under pressure to resign for his alleged role in the kidnap and murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze last year, a charge he fiercely denies.

Many in the crowd accused Kuchma of using his influence over parliamentary parties with big business links to ease out a prime minister whose popularity has for months outstripped his own.

"Who dismissed the prime minister? The president did of course!" shouted one woman after the vote, sponsored by the Communist Party and backed by parties accused by opponents of being run by powerful businessmen.

"The people who voted against him are the oligarchs and the Communists," said Artyom Myrhorodsky, 22, an economics student. "The Communists want to join their Russian brothers and the oligarchs have close business ties to Russia."

But Kuchma, visiting the region around the Chernobyl nuclear plant on the 15th anniversary of the disaster, insisted he was not happy about the ousting of his prime minister.

"As head of state, I may not like the decision taken by parliament. But it happened," he told reporters.

The Ukrainian constitution requires the prime minister to hand his resignation to the president, and Kuchma is unlikely to reject it. The Cabinet will then become a caretaker government for a maximum 60 days, until the president names a prime minister and the parliament approves his choice.

Kuchma declined Thursday to speculate on who might succeed Yushchenko.

With parliamentary elections looming early next year, analysts have said the job of acting prime minister could be a poisoned chalice. Many of Kuchma's Cabinet are expected to accept portfolios as acting ministers, but Yushchenko has said he will not.

The crowd cheered as Yushchenko emerged from parliament, flanked by his colleagues and wiping tears from his eyes. "I said this government would be for the people and for all the citizens of Ukraine. Thank you to all those who supported me and my government for the past 1 1/2 years," he said.

A wooden coffin daubed with the names of the parties that opposed Yushchenko was set down at the steps of parliament as people chanted for Kuchma's impeachment.

Around 3,000 protesters marched on Kuchma's administration building and set up a barricade on an adjacent road. Most later dispersed, as did those outside parliament.

"The police are with the people, the filth are with Kuchma," chanted the crowd, some waving blue and yellow national flags.

Russia's response was muted, with the Foreign Ministry issuing a terse statement affirming that Yushchenko's ouster was an "internal affair."

"The Russian side is convinced that the change of the Ukrainian Cabinet will not influence the substance of Russian-Ukrainian relations, which are developing constructively and successfully independent of who heads the Ukrainian government," the ministry said.

Deputies voted in two stages to oust the prime minister. In the final stage, the 450-seat parliament voted 263-69 against Yushchenko, a former central banker appointed in December 1999.

Western investors and the International Monetary Fund are expected to be alarmed by the demise of Yushchenko, whom they regard as Ukraine's best hope for reform.

Polls showed Yushchenko's popularity was based on his reputation for honesty in a corrupt country.

Maria Pitrivna, a 55-year-old pensioner, said that was the reason she came to support him: "He raised our pensions and is a decent man who works for the people."

(Reuters, AP)