End Note: UKRAINE MOVES TOWARD AUTOCRACY xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

BELARUS, UKRAINE MOVE TO IMPROVE RELATIONS. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk visited Minsk on 7-8 February in an effort to improve the countries' strained relations. "It is necessary to keep up a dialogue and cooperation with [Belarus]," AP quoted Tarasyuk as saying after the visit. Belarus claims Ukraine owes it more than $200 million, but Kyiv questions this sum. Belarus's legislature has not ratified the 1997 border treaty with Ukraine, thus hindering Kyiv's European integration attempts. Moreover, the two countries' presidents, Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Leonid Kuchma, have criticized each other's policies, and last year they canceled planned meetings. Tarasyuk said Kuchma will meet with Lukashenka in Minsk in the first half of this year. JM

UKRAINE'S PARLIAMENTARY MAJORITY CONTINUES WITH SESSION, DESPITE MINORITY HULLABALOO. Following its seizure of the parliamentary hall on 8 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2000), the 254-strong majority in the legislature held a session amid shouting and banging on the tables by the leftist minority, which refused to register for the debate. Speaker Ivan Plyushch appealed to the leftists "to stop this nonsense," but Communists and progressive Socialists responded with shouts of "Infamy!" and "Judas!," Interfax reported. Despite the ongoing uproar, the majority adopted a session agenda for the next two weeks, passed a bill introducing the concepts of a parliamentary majority and minority, and amended the parliamentary procedures for passing resolutions. Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz did not rule out that his caucus may register for the 9 February session. JM

UKRAINIAN COMMUNISTS, PROGRESSIVE SOCIALISTS TO CONTINUE PROTESTS. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko told journalists on 8 February that the leftist majority is planning "various protests to put the Supreme Council's activity back on to a legitimate path," but he gave no details. He called the tumult in the session hall a "natural form of protest" against the majority's refusal to seek a compromise. According to Progressive Socialist Party leader Natalya Vitrenko, only early legislative elections can help overcome the parliamentary crisis in Ukraine. Vitrenko said she will work only with former speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko and will "continue the fight for the restoration of constitutional order in the country." Speaking to a crowd of leftist backers outside the parliamentary building, Vitrenko called for a popular revolt in support of the parliamentary minority (see also "End Note" below). JM


By choosing Ivan Plyushch as new parliamentary speaker on 1 February, the center-right majority made the standoff in the Ukrainian parliament even worse. A compromise between the two warring factions seems very unlikely, since the leftist minority--composed of the Communist Party, Socialist Party, Progressive Socialist Party, and Peasant Party caucuses--is demanding that the majority revoke all former decisions and submit them to a repeat vote by the entire house. The majority, meanwhile, wants its opponents to accept a fait accompli.

The standoff advanced even further down an irreversible path on 4 February when President Leonid Kuchma signed into law two bills passed by the majority three days earlier--one abolishing the holiday commemorating the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the other renumbering independent Ukraine's legislatures to make the current Supreme Council the third rather than the 14th one. The latter bill is believed to be a ruse on the part of the majority to avoid the dissolution of the parliament should the 16 April constitutional referendum result in a popular vote of no confidence in the Supreme Council. In such a situation, some commentators suggest, the vote will affect only the "old" legislature, that is, the leftist minority. In other words, the president will "dissolve" the leftist faction, leaving the center-rightist one untouched.

Whatever Kuchma's true intentions, both factions of the parliament are now fully at the mercy of the president. If they fail to reconcile their differences by mid-February, Kuchma may disband the legislature under the constitutional provision stipulating such a punitive measure if lawmakers are unable to convene a session within 30 days. Even if both factions were to unite for a session, the parliament will still face a dissolution threat in two months, following the April referendum (which many regard as a mere formality in passing a vote of no confidence in the legislature as a whole). This dual threat is sufficient to make the majority deputies approve all bills required by the executive.

However, the current parliamentary crisis seems in danger of going far beyond the immediate need to create a docile legislature that can approve a 2000 budget and vote for a number of reforms. Many analysts argue that not the only the current parliament but also the future of parliamentarism in Ukraine may be doomed if the constitutional referendum gives Kuchma the go-ahead to amend the constitution. What is more, collateral damage in the standoff and the referendum may take the form of growing public distrust in independent Ukraine's constitutional system. In fact, that system may be subject to significant reconstruction without having had a chance to secure its foundations.

There are even some majority deputies who feel that the resolutions adopted by their faction, including those on the parliamentary leadership, are unconstitutional and unlawful because they were adopted without consent of the legally elected speaker and outside the parliamentary building. If those decisions are enforced by the president in practice, they may spark a crisis of the legislative power's legitimacy similar to that in neighboring Belarus. The only difference will be that whereas Belarus has removed its center-rightist opposition from the political process, Ukraine will seek to do the same with its leftist forces.

If Kuchma decides to disband the parliament and call new elections, the country--which is under the immediate threat of financial bankruptcy and social upheaval--will become engaged in yet another turbulent political campaign, meaning that the resolution of urgent socioeconomic problems will once again be postponed, if not dropped altogether. In that case, it will become highly probable that a presidential dictatorship will be introduced in Ukraine. The idea that it is possible to move toward a market economy with the help of a dictatorship is not new, but it has so far not been put to the test in the post-Soviet area. Indeed, the example of Belarus suggests that a post-Soviet dictatorship would serve to push the country backward as far as possible.

On the other hand, many in Ukraine, including both political elites and ordinary citizens, may be longing for the rule of a "strongman," especially as Ukraine's "experiments with democracy" over the past nine years have proved so ineffective in the economic sphere. But with Kuchma in Kyiv (like Lukashenka in Minsk) running the country by means of decrees and edicts, Ukraine will put itself at risk of losing the West's material and moral support. Some cynics may argue that since Kuchma's policy of seeking rapprochement with the West is not Lukashenka's "back-to-the-USSR" drive, the West will not abandon Kyiv as quickly as it did official Minsk. Therefore, in the short term, autocracy for Ukraine might not prove as bad as some fear. Unfortunately, the country's problems cannot be resolved in a year or two. And this means that autocracy in Ukraine could become not only an emergency measure but a preferred way of ruling for many years.

URALMASH POISED TO ENTER JAIL RATHER THAN STATE DUMA. Sverdlovsk Oblast's prosecutor has launched criminal proceedings against the crime group known as Uralmash on suspicion of murder and other crimes, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 4 February. According to the agency, the band operates on the territory of Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk Oblasts, Moscow, Sochi, Hungary, and Ukraine. Its members, 32 of whom are facing charges, allegedly committed 25 contract murders. Uralmash's leader, Aleksandr Khabarov, recently lost in a district in the oblast in 19 December State Duma elections. The majority of voters in that district selected none of the above, causing elections to be rescheduled there for 26 March 2000. JAC