Ukraine plunged into fresh political turmoil today when its pro-Western government collapsed amid recriminations over Russia's war with Georgia.
The Speaker of Parliament formally dissolved the coalition between the party of Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and that of her former Orange revolution ally, President Viktor Yushchenko. The announcement ended hopes that the two sides could patch up their differences after Mr Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party withdrew from the coalition 10 days ago.
The Speaker, Arseny Yatsenyuk, said that parties now had 30 days to try to build a new majority in parliament or face elections, just a year after Ukraine last went to the polls. He said: "I would not call this an apocalypse. It is a challenge for democracy, but I hope we will overcome this challenge together."
The crisis has exposed deep fissures within the pro-Western forces who came to power after the 2004 revolution as the rival leaders jockey for advantage ahead of presidential elections expected late next year. The divisions could open the way for the pro-Russian Party of Regions, led by their bitter rival Viktor Yanukovych, to return to power and tilt Ukraine towards Moscow once again.
Last month's war in Georgia sparked a sharp escalation in tensions after aides to President Yushchenko accused Mrs Tymoshenko of "high treason" for not condemning the Kremlin's actions. Mr Yushchenko openly backed Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili and restricted the movement of Russia's Black Sea Fleet from the port of Sevastopol during the conflict.
Mr Yushchenko then accused Mrs Tymoshenko of a "political and constitutional coup d'etat" after her party sided with the Party of Regions to vote through restrictions on presidential powers. Our Ukraine's parliamentary leader described the alliance as a "pro-Kremlin majority" and said that the new legislation was "just what the Kremlin has been asking certain political forces to do".
Mrs Tymoshenko rejected the allegations and blamed the President for "destroying" the coalition, saying that he was seeking to damage her popularity with voters to weaken her chances of succeeding him.
Their split comes at a time of heightened concern in the European Union and Nato that Ukraine could be the next target of Russian interference as the Kremlin flexes its muscles in its former Soviet neighbours. Tensions are already running high over the future of the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, a region whose population is strongly pro-Russian.
Mr Yushchenko insists that the fleet must leave when a lease agreement expires in 2017. But Rear-Admiral Andrei Baranov, deputy head of the fleet, said yesterday: "We are not planning to go anyway. There are no options."
Mrs Tymoshenko will continue as Prime Minister while she seeks to build a fresh cabinet, though she has previously ruled out any coalition with the Party of Regions. She will have to resign if a new majority is not in place by the middle of October.
Ukraine would then face its third parliamentary election in two years, extending the political crisis that has paralysed the country's drive to seek membership of Nato and the EU. Nato countries are due to decide whether to offer Ukraine a Membership Action Plan in December, at about the same time as elections would be taking place.
Russia is bitterly opposed to Ukraine's Nato aspirations and has threatened to target nuclear missiles at its neighbour if it joins the alliance. Europe and the United States fear that the Kremlin may seize the opportunity to stir up anti-western sentiment, particularly in Crimea, during the elections.
The US Vice President Dick Cheney met Mr Yushchenko and Mrs Tymoshenko during a visit to Ukraine's capital Kiev this month and urged them to unite in the face of threats to the country's security. He told them that Ukraine's best hope was to be "united with other democracies".