RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report Vol. 2, No. 4, 25 January 2000

A Survey of Developments in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team.


SUBDUING THE PARLIAMENT WITH REFERENDUM. Russia resolved its parliamentary crisis in 1993 with tanks. Ukraine, in a similar situation, resorted to a referendum. Nonetheless, the parliament fiercely opposes this choice. That's how the pro-presidential Kyiv-based "Segodnya" commented on President Leonid Kuchma's decree to hold a constitutional referendum on 16 April, which may result in an ouster of the current uncooperative legislature. The implication of the comment is obvious: Ukraine is far more moderate than Russia regarding the use of methods for developing democracy, so there is no ground for apprehensions. However, one almost automatically starts having such apprehensions as soon as one recalls the 1996 constitutional referendum held by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Will Kuchma fall in Lukashenka's steps?

Taken at its face value, the constitutional referendum-- decreed by the president following some 4 million signatures collected by citizens in its support--is aimed at creating a legislature with a workable majority. The government needs such a majority very urgently. First, the parliament must pass an austerity budget, which is a necessary condition for the IMF and other Western lenders to resume providing credits to Kyiv. Ukraine is obliged to repay more than $3 billion this year and another $3 billion next year, and faces an immediate default without Western money. Second, Kuchma wants to capitalize on his recent election success by introducing as soon as possible the market-oriented reforms he had long pledged to the West. Again, this can be done only with prompt and reliable legislative support.

Ukrainians on 16 April will be asked as many as six questions. Each of those questions, if answered in the affirmative, will entail essential changes in the constitution. The first question will be a vote of no confidence in the current parliament. Ukrainians will also be asked to give the president the right to disband the parliament if it fails to form a majority within a month or adopt a budget in three months; to abolish lawmakers' immunity from criminal prosecution; to reduce the 450- seat parliament to 300 seats; to split the parliament into two chambers; and to provide for the possibility to adopt a constitution via a referendum.

All Ukrainian commentators tend to agree that Kuchma will win the referendum on all points, including the question about a bicameral parliament, which is an almost completely mystifying idea for the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians. The governmentcontrolled media, those commentators argue, have already ingrained the conviction in the broad masses that the current Supreme Council is a stronghold of unpunished "thieves and bandits." There will be no difficulties for those media--as last year's presidential elections amply testified--to air more messages favorable to Kuchma and detrimental to his parliamentary foes, notably to speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko and the Communist Party parliamentary caucus led by Kuchma's presidential rival Petro Symonenko.

Anticipating the president's move, more than 300 parliamentary deputies voted to introduce a temporary ban on referendums in Ukraine, but Kuchma paid no attention to it. Then 241 deputies from center and right-wing caucuses and groups formed a majority, claiming that they will support the government. This move sparked a full-scale parliamentary crisis and a split of the legislature into two irreconcilable factions. Some 180 leftist deputies remain loyal to Tkachenko, while the 241-strong majority is lead by former President Leonid Kravchuk. Both factions already held separate session, claiming to be legitimate parliaments, and no immediate resolution of the impasse is in sight. Such a situation benefits primarily the president.

Kuchma told the 15 January "Zerkalo nedeli" that he is not interested in dissolving the parliament if it proves to be "able to function" [deesposobnyi]. However, some Ukrainian political analysts argue that following the referendum, which is expected to overwhelmingly endorse the vote of no confidence in the Supreme Council, the parliament will be doomed. The president will be carried away by the course of events and will have to dissolve the legislature that is not trusted by the people. What is more, some analysts even say that Ukraine's current constitution may be called in question if the decreed referendum provides a yes answer to the question about approving the country's basic law via a referendum. Thus, Ukraine may likely face early parliamentary elections and a referendum on approving a new constitution following the 16 April plebiscite.

Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz called Kuchma's referendum decree a "constitutional coup d'etat." It should be noted that a similar view is shared not only by Kuchma's leftist foes, but also by many politicians far from the left. When the opposition is deprived of free access to the media (as was the situation in Belarus's notorious referendum of 1996), the parliament may be easily made the only scapegoat for the failures of socioeconomic policies in Ukraine under Kuchma and, as a consequence, popularly voted out. Consequently, the balance of power in Ukraine may be irreparably spoiled or even eliminated, confirming many pessimists' much-publicized belief that democracy is good for the West, while the East prefers autocracy. Ukraine-- after what seemed to be a nine year period of trudging toward Western democratic values--now appears to be taking a step backward.

"Like many other countries in transition, Ukraine is threatened by economic decline, corruption and crime. Lower living standards have undermined respect for government and dampened public morale. Relations between the executive and legislative branches have been strained. Wealthy oligarchs have used their political contacts to expand their empires, and the independent press has been intimidated and harassed." -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on 18 January at Johns Hopkins' Paul Nitze School of Advanced and International Studies, Washington, D.C. Quoted by RFE/RL.

"It is in America's national interest that Ukraine succeed. To this end, we will continue to help our partner move down the path to deeper reform, fuller freedom, and sustained growth." -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on 18 January at Johns Hopkins' Paul Nitze School of Advanced and International Studies, Washington, D.C. Quoted by RFE/RL.

The 15 January Kyiv-based Russian-language "Zerkalo nedeli" carried an interview with President Leonid Kuchma. Excerpt:

ZN: Do you really believe that today's parliament is able to create a stable and constructive pro-government majority? Kuchma: I would put this in the following way: Ukraine needs a parliamentary majority to implement the program with which the president won the elections. The government is [only] a tool for implementing this program. I believe that such a majority will be stable. True, one condition is necessary for this--a sword hanging permanently over the parliament's heads. ZN: Are you speaking about the referendum? Kuchma: No, I'm speaking about results of the referendum.

"All those majorities are necessary not for the Ukrainian people, but for the president. As for parliamentary deputies, they say 'yes' to his decisions at every opportunity. He proposed Yushchenko [for prime minister]--they stood firm for Yushchenko. It seemed they had satisfied the president, but he has launched a referendum all the same. Deputies are trembling with fear because of such a prospect. First, they will lose their parliamentary seats. Second, if the referendum cancels their immunity, harm will be done primarily to pro-presidential caucuses. Practically all of their members are afraid of tax inspections and criminal investigations. Therefore, I see [the creation of] this majority as a desperate attempt at avoiding the referendum. They are ready to dismiss both [parliamentary speaker Oleksandr] Tkachenko and [his deputy] Martynyuk, and to change the leadership of committees. In short, they will do everything to please Leonid Kuchma. I look at them--this majority and the president--and am very curious about what will happen next." -- Progressive Socialist Party leader Natalya Vitrenko, commenting on the newly created center-right parliamentary majority. Quoted by "Khreshchatyk" on 20 January.

RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report is prepared by Jan Maksymiuk on the basis of a variety of sources including reporting by "RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. It is distributed every Tuesday.

UKRAINE'S TKACHENKO SAYS HE IS 'ACTING' SPEAKER. Oleksandr Tkachenko told the Kontynent radio station on 24 January that he is "acting head of the Supreme Council," Interfax reported. Last week the center-right, pro-presidential majority voted to oust Tkachenko from the post of parliamentary speaker (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2000). Tkachenko confirmed that he has been deprived of official bodyguards and disconnected from business telephones in the parliament. He did not rule out that the dismissal of the Supreme Council leadership may be put on the agenda of the session scheduled for 1 February. According to him, 150 votes are sufficient to submit such a motion for parliamentary consideration. JM

UKRAINIAN LEFTISTS BRAND PARLIAMENTARY SPLIT AS 'COUP D'ETAT.' The Progressive Socialist Party on 24 January said the recent parliamentary split in Ukraine is an "unconstitutional, criminal coup d'etat" that is being perpetrated "to please foreign capital in order to enslave Ukraine," Interfax reported. The Communist Party also disseminated a statement saying that "under the patronage of President Leonid Kuchma an unconstitutional, criminal coup d'etat is taking place in the Supreme Council and around it." Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz told the Kontynent radio station that the parliamentary split is "an attempt at a coup d'etat," adding that its goal is to install "an authority of oligarchs" in the country. Moroz also said the parliamentary majority "does not realize what it is doing" and warned the majority deputies about criminal responsibility for exceeding their constitutional powers. JM

KUCHMA TO RUN FOR THIRD PRESIDENTIAL TERM? Oleksandr Volkov, a parliamentary deputy and former aide to President Leonid Kuchma, has suggested that Kuchma may run for a third term as president, Interfax reported on 24 January. "When Kuchma was elected the first time, there was no constitution. It is the 1997 constitution that stipulates that the president may not hold its post longer than two terms. And the law cannot be retroactive," Volkov told a Kyiv weekly. Volkov is seen by the anti-Kuchma opposition as an "oligarch" who helped collect some 4 million signatures in support of a constitutional referendum through the Social Protection Fund network he heads. The "Financial Times" reported last week that the U.S. government had requested that Kuchma remove Volkov from the process of decision making in the presidential entourage, but Kyiv has not confirmed this report. JM

CZECH REPUBLIC, SLOVAKIA TO IMPOSE VISAS ON POST-SOVIET STATES? Czech Interior Minister Vaclav Grulich said the government will soon decide whether to impose visa restrictions on Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, "Hospodarske noviny" reported on 24 January. The newspaper reported that Foreign Minister Jan Kavan, who opposed the imposition of visas on those countries last year, now supports the move. The move comes after the government imposed a tougher border regime aimed at "problem countries," such as the three former Soviet republics, which has caused delays at border crossings. Meanwhile, Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan on 24 January said his government would like to coordinate its visa policy with the Czech Republic vis-a-vis former Soviet republics, CTK reported. VG