President Viktor Yushchenko dissolved Ukraine's parliament and called early elections, but parliament refused to acknowledge the order and vowed to continue meeting as the country slipped further into political turmoil.
The deadlock follows months of maneuvering by Yushchenko and his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and signals the possible return of competing protests, tent camps and political rallies to the streets of Kiev — two years after mass protests helped propel Yushchenko to power.
After holding more than seven hours of talks with top lawmakers on Monday, Yushchenko accused Yanukovych's parliamentary majority of seeking to expand its power base in violation of the Constitution by recruiting members from pro-presidential factions.
"My actions are dictated by the strict necessity to save the state's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Yushchenko said in a live televised address. "It is not only my right, it is my obligation."
As Yushchenko spoke, parliament met in extraordinary session, where it voted to block money for the new election, which he set for May 27. Parliament Speaker Oleksandr Moroz said Yushchenko had no legal basis to make such a decision, and lawmakers adopted a statement calling Yushchenko's decision baseless.
"The people's deputies have enough courage to withstand blackmail, threats and ... ultimatums," Moroz said, reading from the statement.
Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych said the parliament "will not fulfill a law that contradicts the constitution."
Yanukovych's Cabinet convened later in a special session, where he appealed to Yushchenko to cancel the dissolution and go back to the negotiation table. "In this case, the state will live calmly, in a civilized way and develop ... all other actions will cause the situation in the country to significantly deteriorate," a very-tired looking Yanukovych said in remarks televised live. He suggested that his coalition was ready for major compromises.
Earlier, Yanukovych's party members said they also were likely to pursue an appeal to the Constitutional Court, which played a key role in the bitter 2004 presidential race between Yushchenko and Yanukovych.
"The political situation in the state is under control and stable," Yushchenko insisted.
"I am calling on the Ukrainian people to make a fair, conscious and responsible choice which will end this stage of political conflict and will open a new stage for Ukraine," he said.
Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko called Yushchenko's decision "courageous," and insisted that the coalition's refusal to accept the decision would have no impact.
"Nothing depends on what they are doing," she told supporters on Independence Square — the Kiev square that was the main rallying point during the 2004 Orange Revolution. "They are sitting in parliament or in their offices. The day after tomorrow, the election campaign starts."
The stakes are high for the nation of 47 million, which had counted the last parliamentary elections as its freest and fairest yet but later saw politicians resort to back-stabbing maneuvers during coalition talks.
Anna Skarpenka, a 45-year-old teacher, said she supported the president's decision, arguing that Yanukovych's party had given him no choice.
They "backed the president into a corner and in this situation he could only act radically," she said.
Yanukovych's backers had set up a tent camp near parliament to pressure the president and several hundred supporters milled around, laying out sleeping bags and setting up cooking facilities.
If new elections were held, it is unclear how much parliament's make-up would change. Polls suggest that Yanukovych's party and Tymoshenko's bloc would run an almost head-to-head race, with Yushchenko's party a distant third.
In the days leading up to the decision, Yushchenko came under great pressure, particularly after his party joined opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in leading a massive rally this past weekend. Tymoshenko warned that protesters could stage a replay of 2004 Orange Revolution protests and "we won't disperse until the president signs the order."
11 lawmakers defected last month
The standoff between Yushchenko and Yanukovych arose after 11 lawmakers allied with the president defected to Yanukovych's coalition last month, in violation of the Constitution, which says the coalition can be expanded only by the addition of entire factions, not individual lawmakers.
Yanukovych became premier last August after his party won the most votes in last year's parliamentary election, capitalizing on divisions within Yushchenko's team and widespread disappointment in the slow pace of reforms. Yanukovych put together a ruling coalition, which nominated him to be premier.
Yushchenko reluctantly agreed to accept Yanukovych as premier after Yanukovych agreed to sign a document with Yushchenko that laid national and international policies. Yushchenko has since accused Yanukovych of violating that agreement, and attempting to sideline the president.
Yushchenko came to power after hundreds of thousands flooded onto Kiev's Independence Square in 2004 to protest Yanukovych's fraud-marred election victory. The Supreme Court later overturned Yanukovych's victory and called new elections, which Yushchenko won.