Supporters of the Ukrainian opposition were celebrating on the streets of Kiev last night after the Supreme Court ruled the presidential election result invalid and ordered a new poll.
The decision comes almost two weeks after allegations of widespread
vote rigging drove tens of thousands of protesters on to the streets and
sparked a stand-off between Russia and the West.
Delight: the 'real heroes' of the movement celebrate in Kiev
Just hours before the decision, President Vladimir Putin showed his increasing anger at the situation by accusing America of pursuing a dictatorial foreign policy. He has seen the Ukraine, crucial to his plans to re-establish a Soviet-style bloc of loyal states, slip from his grasp.
The court's verdict was greeted as a huge victory by supporters of Viktor Yushchenko. The opposition leader is widely expected to win the new poll, which should take place in the next few weeks.
He was quick to greet his supporters, calling them the "real heroes" of the movement. "Thank you all," he said. "Not just the hundreds of thousands gathered here, but the millions all over the country. Ukraine is now a democratic country."
Mr Yushchenko, a pro-western candidate, was initially defeated by Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russia prot?g? of outgoing president Leonid Kuchma.
But European observers declared the vote to have been rigged by mass fraud, prompting calls by Mr Yushchenko for his supporters to reject the official result and take to the streets. For the past two weeks they have heeded his words in vast numbers.
Such was the extent of the protest that both sides in this dispute, which divided the country between the pro-European west and pro-Russian south and east, eventually came around to the idea of a new poll.
But while celebrations got under way among ecstatic Yushchenko supporters, who have dominated the streets of Kiev, the Supreme Court decision has not ruled out the risk of a national split.
In recent days, two eastern regions that traditionally look to Russia have threatened to make bids for autonomy if Mr Yushchenko were decreed president, and millions of voters loyal to Mr Yanukovich could react angrily to the annulment.
Mr Yushchenko called for a repeat only of the election's fraudulent second round; President Kuchma wanted an entirely new poll - which could have taken months.
That potential delay was seen as a chance for Mr Kuchma to find a new, more charismatic candidate than Mr Yanukovich.
Last night, however, the court handed the opposition its dream result - ordering a re-run of only the second phase - prompting the orange-clad demonstrators to throng the streets in greater numbers than ever.
For five days they had waited outside the Supreme Court building and the excitement was overwhelming as the verdict was announced.
"This is a decision that sees Yushchenko on the way to becoming president," said Ivan Pahomov. "With this decision Kuchma is finished, and so is Yanukovich."
"He will be our president now," said Valery Ilyin among the crowds in independence square. "We have not won yet. But by the end of the year we will have."
2 December 2004: Ukraine turmoil deepens as MPs sack government