End Note: COUNCIL OF EUROPE TO DEBATE UKRAINE'S SUSPENSION xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

BELARUS, UKRAINE SIMPLIFY PROCEDURE FOR CHANGING CITIZENSHIP. Minsk and Kyiv on 30 March exchanged the ratification instruments of a 1999 agreement on a simplified procedure for changing the citizenship of Belarusians permanently residing in Ukraine and of Ukrainians in Belarus. "This procedure will take no more than a month and will be free of charge," Belarusian Television quoted Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus Anatol Dron as saying. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT AMENDS REFERENDUM DECREE... Leonid Kuchma on 30 March signed a decree excluding two questions from the 16 April referendum ballot in line with a Constitutional Court ruling earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 March 2000), Interfax reported. He refused to comment on the ruling, saying that "as the president I should not comment on but [rather] implement Constitutional Court decisions." Kuchma added that referendum decisions will be binding on the authorities (see also "End Note" below). JM

...PLEDGES TO CLOSE CHORNOBYL IN 2000. Kuchma on 30 March told journalists that the Chornobyl nuclear power plant will be closed "no later than December this year," in line with the government's decision earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2000), Interfax reported. Kuchma added that he has ordered the establishment of a working commission "to consider the problem of Chornobyl's closure from all points of views." JM

UKRAINE TO INTRODUCE VISAS FOR SLOVAKS. Ukraine has informed Slovakia that Kyiv will introduce "an appropriate travel regime" for Slovaks in response to Bratislava's decision to introduce visas for Ukrainians beginning 28 June 2000, Interfax reported on 30 March. JM


Ukraine will learn next week whether the Council of Europe will start moves to suspend its membership. The council's Parliamentary Assembly will debate and vote on the issue on 4 April.

The Council of Europe is responding to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's recent decision to press ahead with plans for a referendum on constitutional changes that Parliamentary Assembly members have strongly criticized. The referendum has been modified since the council expressed its disapproval, but it has not been canceled.

In January, Kuchma said that he wanted to hold a referendum on 16 April to seek popular approval for extending his powers and remodeling the parliament to introduce a second chamber. He said the changes are needed to press ahead with economic reforms that have often been blocked by a bitterly divided, single-chamber legislature.

A month later, two members of the council's Parliamentary Assembly visited Ukraine to examine the proposed referendum. They found that there was no basis for it in Ukrainian law and that it encroached on the existing parliament's powers. They also said the move would be bad for Ukrainian democracy.

The two council members publicly warned that Ukraine might be suspended from the council if the referendum went ahead. In response, Kuchma said he would allow Ukraine's Constitutional Court to decide whether the referendum could be held.

Earlier this week, that court excluded two out of the six questions Kuchma had wanted to ask in the referendum but allowed the other four to go forward. On 30 March, Kuchma agreed to the changes and his spokesman said the referendum would be held.

Danish parliamentary deputy Hanne Severinsen, one of the two assembly members who visited Ukraine, told RFE/RL that on 31 March, a Council of Europe advisory body of constitutional experts--known as the Venice Commission--will examine the Ukrainian court's decision. She said she believes the referendum still violates council principles and doubts she will alter her draft proposal to suspend Ukraine, whatever the Venice Commission advises.

"The draft resolution, which has already been [drafted], will still be our suggestion to the [assembly's] monitoring committee," Severinsen commented. And that also means the suggestion to the Parliamentary Assembly [on 4 April]--that if this binding referendum is carried through, we ask the [council's] Committee of Ministers to start preparations for suspension."

The Committee of Ministers is the organization's chief executive body and as such is empowered to suspend a member on the recommendation of the Parliamentary Assembly. In its 51-year history, the Council of Europe has never suspended a member-state, although Greece was severely criticized for human-rights abuses by its military regime in the 1970s and voluntarily ceased participation in council organs.

A few years ago, however, the Parliamentary Assembly came close to recommending Ukraine's suspension because that country had not fulfilled its commitment to end capital punishment. Kyiv has since outlawed the death penalty.

Assembly member Severinsen told RFE/RL that Ukraine might be able to avoid suspension if the referendum results are merely advisory, rather than binding. But a spokesman for the Constitutional Court, Pavlo Yehrafov, said on 29 March that the referendum is binding. "Government bodies will be obliged to take [those results] into account and adopt the appropriate measures about those questions addressed in the referendum," he commented.

The two referendum questions rejected by the Constitutional Court dealt with granting the president the right to dismiss the parliament if a majority of respondents expressed no confidence and allowing the results of referendums to alter the constitution.

The four remaining questions include one on permitting the president to dissolve the parliament if it cannot form a working majority within one month. The other three deal with reducing the size of the parliament, creating a second parliamentary chamber, and reducing deputies' immunity from prosecution.

The referendum is opposed by parliamentary deputies across Ukraine's political spectrum. The leader of the center-right Rukh party, Yury Kostenko, said it would be seen by other countries as a threat to Ukraine's democratic development and will cause domestic problems as well.

Serhiy Holovaty, a member of Ukraine's delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly, strongly opposes the referendum. He praised the Constitutional Court decision because, he said, it barred the two questions that most threatened democratic practices:

"The possibility of introducing a new constitution in Ukraine by using this referendum has been eliminated," he noted. "That's a blow against those forces that wanted to put Ukraine on the same track as [Belarusian President Aleksandr] Lukashenka. Because of this decision, Ukraine will not go down the Belarusian path. Through its decision, the Constitutional Court has supported parliament as an institution."

A recent opinion survey conducted for Ukraine's Institute of Politics found that less than 50 percent of Ukrainians surveyed plan to vote in the referendum. If less than half the electorate does not cast a ballot, the referendum will be declared invalid.