AZERBAIJAN, GEORGIA FAIL TO AGREE ON OIL TRANSPORT TARIFFS. During talks in Ankara on 21-24 January, Azerbaijani and Georgian representatives failed to resolve their dispute over transit tariffs that Georgia will receive from the export of oil via the planned Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, Caucasus Press reported. Nor did the Azerbaijani side agree to the Georgian demand that it be allowed to keep 2-3 percent of the crude transitting its territory for domestic use. Also on 25 January, Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze told Ukrainian Premier Viktor Yushchenko in Moscow that Georgia will support the proposed export of some Caspian oil via the Odesa-Brody pipeline, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY MAJORITY TO PROPOSE NEW SPEAKER. The center-right parliamentary majority will hold a vote on whom to propose for the post of speaker during the parliamentary session that is scheduled to open on 1 February, Interfax reported on 25 January. According to Leonid Kravchuk, who temporarily coordinates the majority, the candidacies of Ivan Plyushch from the Popular Democratic Party and Viktor Medvedchuk from the Social Democratic Party (United) will be subject to that vote. Plyushch was parliamentary speaker in 1991-94, while Medvedchuk is currently deputy speaker. Kravchuk announced that the leftist minority deputies will not be allowed to head any of the parliamentary committees. He also said the majority has already expanded to 261 lawmakers. JM

UKRAINE CALM OVER UNPAID BONDS. The Ukrainian leadership "is not inclined to dramatize" the situation over the Finance Ministry's nonpayment by 20 January of $18 million on Eurobonds issued by Chase Manhattan Bank Luxembourg S.A., Interfax reported on 25 January. Ukraine's payment on those bonds was already postponed 18 months ago. "We are neither the first nor the last [among those not paying on time]," the agency quoted President Leonid Kuchma as saying. Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko said Kyiv is conducting negotiations with its creditors, intending to show that "Ukraine acknowledges its debt obligations," according to the "Eastern Economist Daily." JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT CROSS AT RUSSIA OVER CIS FREE TRADE ZONE. On his return from the CIS summit in Moscow on 25 January, Leonid Kuchma warned that the CIS will remain an inert and loose grouping if it does not create a free-trade zone, Reuters reported. "If every country proceeds only from its national interests, especially such a huge country as Russia, while tackling such an important issue as free-trade zones, then the CIS has no prospects for the future," Kuchma noted. Most CIS members say they would benefit from a common freetrade zone, while Russia has delayed joining free-trade agreements, saying that they might undermine revenues to its state budget. JM

Russia resolved its parliamentary crisis in 1993 with tanks. Ukraine, in a similar situation, opted for 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 the ouster of the current uncooperative legislature. The implication of the comment is obvious: Ukraine is far more moderate than Russia regarding its choice 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 follow in Lukashenka's footsteps?

Taken at face value, the constitutional referendum-- decreed by the president following the collection of some 4 million signatures by citizens--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 create a second chamber; 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 government-controlled media, those commentators argue, have already ingrained the conviction in the broad masses that the current Supreme Council is a hotbed 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 261-strong majority is temporarily coordinated by former President Leonid Kravchuk. Both factions already held parallel sessions, 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 into 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 damaged 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.