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Ukraine Rivals Agree To Reforms

Ukraine's opposition and pro-government factions reached a compromise Monday on changes in the election law and constitutional amendments, enabling the new Dec. 26 presidential runoff to go forth.

Stepan Havrysh, a senior pro-government lawmaker, said that the parliament's coordination committee had reached a deal. Lawmakers will vote on the package Tuesday.

As part of the agreement, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma may also fire his Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whose victory in the disputed Nov. 21 runoff was canceled last week by the Supreme Court, Havrysh told The Associated Press.

The hard-fought compromise followed the parliament's failure Saturday to pass a package that includes the opposition-initiated bills to avert fraud in the Dec. 26 runoff as well as pro-government-backed constitutional changes intended to give some presidential powers to parliament.

The deal fell through when supporters of Western-leaning opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko refused to back constitutional changes. Yushchenko told his supporters that Kuchma fears he would win the new runoff against Yanukovych and wants to weaken his presidency and cling to power using his allies in parliament.

Yushchenko demanded that Kuchma stop blocking changes in the electoral law, reshuffle the Central Election Commission and fire Yanukovych. The parliament has already approved a nonbinding, no-confidence motion in Yanukovych's Cabinet.

Havrysh said that Kuchma may come to parliament Tuesday to sign the package of legal changes, dismiss the prime minister and appoint a successor.

Earlier Monday, said he would honor the Supreme Court's call for a repeat presidential runoff election, attempting to allay fears that he would stage a last-minute stand to prevent a new vote.

"I am ready for further steps to ease the absolutely baseless tension in society," Kuchma said in televised comments. He proposed parliament consider introducing changes in the electoral law and the constitution, saying "I am ready to sign them both in the session hall."

Kuchma also was quoted as saying by The New York Times that if he were Yanukovych, he would not run in the upcoming vote.

"Though Yanukovych said he would run, I don't know," Kuchma told the newspaper in an interview published in Monday's editions. "If I were he, I would not, from any point of view. I do not exclude that we shall have a plebiscite instead of elections, with one candidate."

"I do not want to say it is final, but this is how the situation is developing," he added.

Yanukovych remained out of sight. One of his political allies told The Associated Press Monday that the prime minister had the flu and was taking a day or two to recover. Yanukovych also was helping prepare for the campaign, the politician said on condition of anonymity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backed Yanukovych, strongly warned against foreign interference in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

"Only the people of any country — and this includes Ukraine in the full sense — can decide their fate," Putin told reporters in Turkey. "One can play the role of a mediator but one must not meddle and apply pressure."

Moscow, which considers this nation of 48 million people part of its sphere of influence and a buffer between it and NATO's eastern flank, fears Ukraine will tilt further to the West under Yushchenko.

Passions appeared to cool on Kiev's streets Monday, with dozens of government employees walking past Yushchenko's supporters to return to work — the largest number of bureaucrats allowed into the building since protesters blockaded the entrance late last month to demand a repeat runoff vote.

Protesters in orange hard hats and ponchos stood shoulder to shoulder to create a corridor for about 60 low-ranking employees to pass through. Self-appointed security personnel among the demonstrators checked identification badges and other documents before allowing the group to enter the building.

The country's defense minister also reaffirmed his promise that the military will remain neutral in the political crisis.

"The army does not serve an individual but the entire people," Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk said. "I do not believe that anyone will order the use of force against people ... if that happens we will follow the constitution."