UPDATE 3-Ukraine's Tymoshenko Drops Legal Challenge On Election

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on Saturday dropped her legal case challenging the election of rival Viktor Yanukovich as president, saying the court could not be trusted to reach a fair verdict.

Tymoshenko said she had lost faith in Ukraine's supreme administrative court.

The about-turn by the fiery Tymoshenko left the way clear for Yanukovich to be inaugurated as president on Feb. 25 as scheduled. His first announced trip abroad as president will be to Moscow, according to comments by his party and the Kremlin.

The charismatic 49-year-old prime minister, who had alleged vote cheating by her opponent in the Feb. 7 runoff and had been pressing for a new round of voting, said she withdrew her case as the court had refused to study the evidence put before it.

She insisted Yanukovich had not been legitimately elected.

"It became clear to us that the court has not given itself the aim of establishing the truth," she told the Higher Administrative Court.

"Under these circumstances, we simply do not see the reason for continuing with this case being considered. We are withdrawing our suit."

Yanukovich, 59, has denied any vote-rigging by his side. He beat Tymoshenko by 3.5 percentage points in the vote.

Few commentators had expected Tymoshenko to win the court action, which she launched on Friday with a plea to the 49 judges to "study carefully" the evidence before it. But her sudden announcement on Saturday took most by surprise.

With her hair plaited in her trademark peasant braid, she looked tired and tense on Saturday as she announced her climb-down after months of battling with Yanukovich for the leadership of the former Soviet republic of 46 million.

Tymoshenko had been pressing for a new presidential vote as took place in the 2004 "Orange Revolution" which ended with President Viktor Yushchenko being elected. Yanukovich was denied the top job then by protests against electoral fraud.

"A fraudulent vote took place and the will of the people was fraudulently handled. Sooner or later, an honest prosecutor's office and an honest court will come to the view that Yanukovich was not elected president of Ukraine and that the will of the people was falsified," she said.

The court later confirmed it would cease studying the case.

"The court is deprived of the possibility to continue examination of the suit and is obliged to leave the case without its examination," Judge Oleksander Nechytaylo told a closing hearing. "This decision is final and cannot be reviewed."

MOSCOW VISIT

Yanukovich is expected to tilt Ukraine towards Russia after relations with Moscow deteriorated under Yushchenko.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke to Yanukovich on the telephone and congratulated him on his "complete and final, legitimate and internationally recognised victory in Ukraine's presidential election", the Kremlin said.

Yanukovich will visit Moscow in the first 10 days of March.

Yanukovich has said he wants to renegotiate a gas deal with Russia struck by Tymoshenko after a three-week stand off with Moscow that led to supply cuts to Europe.

There has been talk of Russia's participation in a group to run Ukraine's pipeline network and of a loan from Moscow. Russia also wants to extend the stay of its Black Sea fleet, stationed on Ukraine's territory under a lease that runs out in 2017.

Ukraine now badly needs to return to stability -- its economy took a battering in the global downturn with valuable steel exports losing markets and the state has relied on a $16.4 billion bail-out programme from the International Monetary Fund.

This has been suspended because of breached promises, and the fund will return only once a stable government emerges.

After a bitter campaign of smears and insults, Yanukovich has ruled out any alliance with Tymoshenko and has asked her to quit. She has refused and can be replaced only if the Yanukovich camp forges a new coalition among the fickle deputies in parliament -- normally a long and tricky task. If he fails to do this, he may be forced to call early parliamentary election.

Source: The New York Times

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