UKRAINE FAILS TO MAKE BOND PAYMENTS. The Ukrainian Finance Ministry confirmed on 28 February that the country failed to make payments on a German mark-denominated bond issue over the weekend, AP reported. The head of the ministry's foreign debts department Vitaly Lysovenko said he expects foreign investors to accept Ukraine's offer to exchange outstanding Ukrainian bonds for seven-year Eurobonds denominated in euros or U.S. dollars rather than declare a default on the bonds. He said the offer is valid until 15 March. In other news, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko has reportedly postponed a trip to the U.S. scheduled for this week owing to the IMF's decision to suspend its credits until April, according to ITAR-TASS on 28 February. VG

FUEL IMPORTS TO UKRAINE SLOW DOWN. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on 28 February that traders have imported only 126,000 metric tons of gasoline in the first two months of this year, compared with 235,000 during the same period last year, Reuters reported. In a bid to improve the situation, deputy parliamentary speaker Ivan Havrysh said the parliament will probably pass a bill temporarily lifting all excise and customs duties on fuel on 1 March. Officials and traders said the decline in imports resulted from the parliament's recent repeal of tax breaks for joint ventures, according to the agency. Tymoshenko also blamed export tariff hikes in Russia, the "Ukrainian Eastern Economist Daily" reported. "Russia is making policy as if it did not need the Ukrainian market," she said. VG

ETHNIC RUSSIAN GROUP WANTS REFERENDUM ON LANGUAGE IN UKRAINE. Slavonic Party Chairman Aleksandr Bazilyuk said on 28 February that his party has forwarded a request to the Central Electoral Commission for a referendum on official recognition of the Russian language in Ukraine, ITAR-TASS reported. He said he is confident his party can gather the 3 million signatures required to call a referendum. In other news, the third reactor at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant was restarted on 28 February after four days of repairs to a faulty safety valve (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2000). VG


Ukrainians might have an unprecedented chance in April to express both their lack of faith in a split parliament and their confidence in the newly re-elected president.

A national referendum, called by President Leonid Kuchma last month, is due to ask voters if they agree to express no confidence in the parliament. If approved by the public, six major changes to the constitution would strip parliamentary deputies of their immunity from prosecution and create a second chamber of the parliament. Those amendments would also allow the president to dismiss the legislature if a majority is not formed within one month of elections or if a budget is not passed within three months.

Recent opinion polls indicate Ukrainians will approve all six points if the referendum goes ahead.

Kuchma has said he hopes the proposed changes will end the years-long stalemate between the parliament and the presidency. But opponents say he is trying to impose rule by Ukraine's oligarchs--a small group of extremely wealthy individuals who are said to use their seats in the parliament and stakes in the media to further their own ends. Opponents also say that the referendum would violate the constitution and would allow the quick passage of far-reaching legislation ostensibly endorsed by the electorate.

Those arguing that the referendum is unconstitutional say that, under the law, the president can call a direct popular vote on constitutional changes only after the parliament has approved the proposals. The only relevant law, dating back to 1991, says a referendum can be called only by parliament.

Those concerns have been echoed in a letter sent to Kuchma by the president of the council's Parliamentary Assembly, Russell Johnston, and in the comments of two assembly rapporteurs who visited Ukraine two weeks ago. At the time, rapporteur Hanne Severinsen told journalists in Kyiv that Kuchma had not been very sympathetic to their concerns.

"We are very concerned in the Council of Europe what influence this referendum will have for the democracy of Ukraine, " she said. "The president of our assembly launched an appeal two weeks ago to your president not to continue with the referendum if it is not in accordance with the ruling of the Venice Commission [the council's chief legal consultative body]. Unfortunately we have got no promise. On the contrary, Kuchma said he would not follow this advice."

The Council of Europe's Venice Commission is due to issue a report on the referendum at the beginning of April, only two weeks before the vote is scheduled. At the same time, more than 100 Ukrainian deputies have appealed to the country's Constitutional Court to rule on the referendum's legality. Kuchma has said that he will respect the court's ruling.

The proposed referendum has prompted comparison with Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka used a direct popular vote to disband the parliament and extend his term in office. Belarus was then an associate member of the 41-nation Council of Europe, which asked Minsk not to carry out the referendum after the Venice Commission had found it undemocratic. Lukashenka refused, and Belarus lost its associative status.

By contrast, Moldova--a Council of Europe member--sought to carry out a similar referendum but later heeded the council's advice and cancelled the vote.

Severinsen said she does not want Ukraine to go down the same path as Belarus, which under Lukashenka has one of the poorest human-rights records in Europe: "We don't like to compare the situations, but there are some similarities [to Belarus] and we think therefore it's very important for [Ukraine] that what the Venice Commission is saying about legality is also followed, so we don't run the risk of having a referendum that is unconstitutional."

The Council of Europe has some leverage if Kuchma refuses to heed a Venice Commission ruling against the referendum. Since Ukraine joined the organization in 1995, the council has threatened to suspend Ukraine's membership several times because Kyiv has not fulfilled many of its obligations as a member. This time, it could carry out the suspension threat.

One of Kuchma's arguments for holding the referendum is that the long-standing conflict between the president and the parliament--where leftist deputies have blocked all government-sponsored draft laws--has to be resolved.

But the mere proposal of the referendum, which Kuchma characterized as "an axe hanging over the head" of lawmakers, may have already broken the deadlock in parliament. After Kuchma called for the referendum, the parliament formed a pro-government majority. Some lawmakers have already dubbed that breakthrough Ukraine's "velvet revolution."

The author is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Kyiv. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

               Copyright (c) 2000 RFE/RL, Inc.
                     All rights reserved.