End Note: DOUBTS REMAIN OVER UKRAINE'S 16 APRIL REFERENDUM xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

UKRAINIAN PREMIER PLEDGES TO PAY PENSION ARREARS THIS YEAR. Viktor Yushchenko pledged on 11 April that the government will repay all overdue pensions within "five to seven months," Interfax reported. Yushchenko said pension arrears are "the greatest disgrace for the authorities," adding that the debt has now reached some 1.2 billion hryvni ($220 million). JM

UKRAINE ISSUES NEARLY $1 BILLION WORTH OF DOMESTIC T-BILLS. The government has approved the issue of 5,17 billion hryvni ($954 million) worth of domestic Treasury bills, Interfax and UNIAN reported on 11 April. The issue is the main source of state budget revenues in 2000, which are expected to be used to reduce foreign loans and help implement the zero-deficit budget. The face value of one bill is 100 hryvni. JM

UKRAINE, RUSSIA AGREE ON GAS DEBT SUM. Ukraine's Naftohaz monopoly head Ihor Dydenko on 11 April said Kyiv and Moscow have officially agreed that Naftohaz's debt to Gazprom for gas deliveries amounted to $1.38 billion as of 1 April, Interfax reported. Dydenko added that this sum does not include the "disputed" fine of $60-80 million for Ukraine's failure to pay for Russian gas in 1998. JM


The Constitutional Court's 29 March resolution to strike two questions from Ukraine's 16 April constitutional referendum appears to have alleviated fears of an immediate introduction of authoritarianism in the country. The court ruled that questions on the vote of no confidence in the parliament and on the possibility of adopting the country's constitution via a referendum are unconstitutional. The four remaining questions were deemed constitutional and, if approved in the plebiscite, will be binding. The ruling, however, has not dispelled the many other doubts, both abroad and at home, about the possible consequences of the 16 April ballot.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recommended earlier this month that President Leonid Kuchma postpone the plebiscite until the parliament adopts a new law on referenda. Kuchma decreed the current referendum on the basis of a Soviet-era law that does not take into account the legal and political realities of independent Ukraine. Second, PACE warned Kyiv that it may seek suspension of Ukraine's membership in the council if the referendum results are implemented by unconstitutional means.

PACE's warning was clearly based on the suspicion than Ukraine's Supreme Council might be reluctant to approve constitutional amendments limiting lawmakers' rights and prerogatives, particularly stripping them of immunity from criminal prosecution. Even if the current parliamentary majority unanimously supported possible constitutional amendments, it would still be some 30 votes short of the 300 needed to change the constitution. Thus not without reason, PACE feared that Kuchma might seek to amend the constitution by decree, as Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka had done in 1996, following a constitutional referendum of a consultative nature.

Some Ukrainian commentators also point to ambiguities in the formulation of referendum questions, which may lead to tensions between the parliament and the president. In particular, the questions about reducing the number of lawmakers to 300 and introducing a bicameral parliament in Ukraine do not specify to which entity that number applies--the parliament in its entirety or its lower chamber. There is also no mention on the referendum ballots of how the second chamber should be formed if Ukrainians decide on a bicameral legislature.

Many sarcastic comments have been elicited in the Ukrainian media by the court's decision to approve the question about stripping lawmakers of their immunity from criminal prosecution. The question proposes leaving in place the constitutional formulation that Ukrainian lawmakers' immunity "is guaranteed" but excluding the provision that people's deputies may not be tried for criminal offenses, detained, or arrested without the approval of the Supreme Council. How much is such "immunity" worth if a police officer can arrest a people's deputy at any time and under any pretext, many Ukrainian publications have wondered.

There is also a discrepancy between the current constitution and the court's ruling that referendum results should be binding. According to the constitution, only the Supreme Council can change the country's basic law. On the other hand, the Supreme Council is a sovereign branch of power and no Ukrainian court has the right to order the legislature to approve any laws.

Is there a way to untangle this web of contradictions? The easiest way would be to regard the 16 April referendum as consultative. Such an option has been suggested by PACE and would be the best approach for Ukraine, which urgently needs political accord following the parliament's approval of the ambitious reformist program of Viktor Yushchenko's cabinet. Too much is at stake now, and any further political confrontation could easily extinguish the glimmer of hope Ukrainians perceived this year.

The worst scenario would be the parliament's refusal to comply with the referendum (which is expected to approve at least three of the questions) and Kuchma's possible decision to dissolve the legislature and call for new parliamentary elections. In such a case, the country, beleaguered by social and economic problems, would once again be plunged into a election campaign that might alter the balance of power but would hardly result in any economic improvement for the pauperized population. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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