KIEV - Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko claimed Wednesday he was the victim of a "coup" attempt after parliament approved laws trimming presidential powers ahead of a visit by US Vice President Dick Cheney.
"A political and constitutional coup d'etat has started in the parliament," Yushchenko said in a televised speech on Wednesday, a day after parliament passed laws reducing his powers and making it easier to impeach him.
Members of parliament from the president's Our Ukraine party earlier pulled out of the ruling coalition with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's party after her Tymoshenko Bloc and the pro-Moscow opposition passed the laws.
Tymoshenko, Yushchenko's partner in the 2004 "Orange Revolution," said the governing coalition had been "destroyed" thanks to the president, adding however that the government would stay in place for now.
In a challenge to his prime minister, Yushchenko threatened to dissolve the parliament and call early elections if a new coalition between the Tymoshenko Bloc and the pro-Moscow opposition was not formed within 30 days.
Tymoshenko has previously ruled out the possibility of a coalition between her pro-Western party and the pro-Russian Regions Party. Yushchenko's threat may therefore be an attempt to force a repeal of the new laws trimming presidential powers.
Yushchenko appeared to warn against Moscow's influence, saying: "The Tymoshenko Bloc has accepted union with the Regions Party and the Communists. The basis of this formation is not Ukrainian, I underline not Ukrainian."
The leader of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party, Vyacheslav Kirilenko, said the laws were changed "in order to take powers away from the president... just what the Kremlin has been asking certain political forces to do."
He also referred to the Regions and Tymoshenko Bloc as a "pro-Kremlin majority."
The political crisis in Ukraine comes amid worsening relations with Russia over its conflict last month with Georgia, a key US ally in the region like Ukraine and a fellow aspirant NATO members.
"De facto, a new parliamentary coalition has been created," Yushchenko said referring to the Tymoshenko Bloc's decision to vote with the Regions Party, led by former prime minister and key Moscow ally Viktor Yanukovych.
Before the Ukrainian president's announcement, Tymoshenko was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying: "I regret that the president is behaving in such an irresponsible way. The coalition has been destroyed on his request."
The decision by lawmakers from Yushchenko's party to pull out of the coalition would come into force in 10 days if sustained. It was approved on Wednesday by a majority of 39 out of the party's 72 deputies in the parliament.
Despite sharing his pro-Western political goals including accession to NATO and the European Union, Tymoshenko has often been sharply at odds with the president and there is intense personal rivalry between the two.
The sudden flare-up in Ukraine came a day ahead of a planned visit to Kiev by Cheney, a trip seen as a show of Washington's backing for the pro-Western policy course pursued by Yushchenko, often against strong domestic opposition.
Cheney arrived earlier Wednesday in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan and was due to meet Thursday in Tbilisi with Georgia's US-backed president, Mikheil Saakashvili, whom Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has declared a "political corpse."
In a sign of deepening divisions in Ukraine, the governing coalition on Tuesday also failed to agree a joint declaration on the conflict between Russia and Georgia, which like Ukraine is bidding to join NATO and the European Union.
Yushchenko recently accused Tymoshenko of "high treason and political corruption" for allegedly siding with Moscow over the conflict with Georgia last month, a charge she has denied.
Tymoshenko abstained from a vote in Ukraine's Security Council last month imposing restrictions on the movements of Russia's Black Sea fleet, which is based in southern Ukraine and was involved in military action against Georgia.
European officials including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn have warned Ukraine could be the next target of political pressure from Russia in its mounting stand-off with the West.