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END NOTE: WILL POLITICAL REFORM LEAD UKRAINE OUT OF CRISIS? xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

KYIV VOICES 'CONCERN' OVER LOOMING IRAQ WAR... Ukraine views the U.S. ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with "deep concern," a Foreign Ministry spokesman told Interfax on 18 March. Ukraine will oppose a U.S. war against Iraq in the absence of UN approval, the spokesman added. "Ukraine expresses its concern over the failure to reach a consensus [on Iraq] within the framework of the United Nations Security Council," Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said in a statement released the same day. Both announcements came after a meeting of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council to discuss the Iraq crisis, among other issues, and were the first strong indication of Ukrainian opposition to Washington's policy in Persian Gulf. AM

...AS PRESIDENT ASKS PARLIAMENT TO APPROVE NBC BATTALION FOR KUWAIT. Kuchma asked the Verkhovna Rada on 18 March to approve of sending Ukraine's anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) battalion to Kuwait (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2003), UNIAN reported, quoting presidential spokeswoman Olena Hromnytska. Kuwait requested the battalion's presence, Ukraine and Kuwait subsequently agreed on the dispatch of those troops, and the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council approved the move, the spokeswoman added. AM

U.S. APPRECIATES UKRAINE'S READINESS TO DEPLOY TROOPS IN PERSIAN GULF. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Kuchma by telephone on 18 March that he appreciates Ukraine's readiness to deploy the NBC battalion to the Gulf region to help in the event of an Iraqi attack with chemical or nuclear weapons, Reuters reported, quoting the Ukrainian president's press office. "Such a step by Ukraine will help deepen cooperation and put relations on a new level," the president's office quoted Armitage as saying. Relations between Ukraine and the United States deteriorated last year after Washington accused Kuchma of approving the sale of a Kolchuga radar system to Iraq. AM

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER IN LITHUANIA. Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze told Lithuania's parliament on 18 March that the invitations the Baltic states have received to join NATO gives Georgia hope that it might also be admitted to the alliance some day, ELTA reported. Burdjanadze met with President Rolandas Paksas and also held talks with Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas during which they discussed expanding bilateral relations and the possibility of extending to Georgia the newly established freight-train route between Ukraine and Lithuania. She thanked Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius for Lithuania's support in military matters and called for further cooperation. On 17 March, Burdjanadze held separate meetings with parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas and his deputy Ceslovas Jursenas that primarily focused on Lithuania's experience in obtaining the withdrawal of Russian military bases from its territory and in joining Western international organizations. SG


Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma submitted draft political reforms to the Verkhovna Rada on 6 March, but those proposals are unlikely to overcome Ukraine's profound political crisis.

The need for change was highlighted by the findings of an opinion poll reported by "Ukrayinska pravda" on 11 March, according to which 45 percent of respondents backed radical change, 38 percent supported revolutionary reform, and 11 percent backed revolutionary changes. Only 6 percent believed changes were unnecessary.

That level of discontent notwithstanding, the authorities are continuing to put on a brave face on things. Looking to next year's presidential elections, presidential administration head Viktor Medvedchuk is convinced that "the authorities firmly believe in their victory in the future political battles."

Such optimism is largely unfounded. Kuchma's popularity is at an all-time low, hovering at 5-8 percent. In contrast, the presidents of Russia, Moldova, and Belarus enjoy popularity ratings of 72, 67, and 27 percent, respectively. A November-December poll by Democratic Initiatives Fund found that 55 percent of Ukrainians distrust Kuchma, while three-quarters would like to see him step down early.

The political crisis has its roots in the delegitimization of Ukraine's ruling class, the former Communist Party of Ukraine elite who became "sovereign communists" in the late Soviet era and "centrists" after Ukraine won its independence. This delegitimization makes it impossible to arrange a transfer of power similar to the one that occurred in Russia in 1999-2000, when Boris Yeltsin passed the torch to Vladimir Putin. In that Kuchma is widely perceived as "an extremely unpopular and incompetent leader," his endorsement would prove "a heavy weight that could drown" any potential presidential candidate, Razumkov Center President Anatoliy Hrytsenko wrote in the weekly "Zerkalo Nedeli" of 8-14 March.

Pro-presidential leaders are unpopular because of the public perception of the elites as corrupt, amoral, and indifferent to the needs of the population. Not surprisingly, therefore, a Razumkov Center poll found that 81.6 percent are opposed to Kuchma standing for a third term, while a similar figure opposes any potential attempt at granting him immunity from prosecution.

The front-runners from the first round of the 1994 presidential elections who went on to the second round were Leonid Kravchuk (37.27 percent) and Kuchma (31.27 percent), while Kuchma (36.49 percent) and Symonenko (22.24 percent) advanced in the 1999 elections. In opinion surveys, pro-presidential figures poll 5-8 percent, making it difficult to see how they could increase this figure to the more than 20 percent needed to win a place in the second round of the 2004 elections.

By contrast, opinion polls since 2000 have consistently indicated that opposition Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko wins ratings of 23-30 percent, with Communist leader Piotr Symonenko in second place with 11-16 percent. Yushchenko is also the only candidate with a consistently higher positive than negative rating.

With such public support, Yushchenko would be virtually guaranteed a place in the second round of 2004 elections, where he might face Symonenko, whom he would presumably defeat (as Kuchma did in 1999). As Hrytsenko concluded, "If this leadership carries on with its policies, it is doomed, and none of its candidates will get as far as the second round." Medvedchuk's claim in an interview in the newspaper "2000" that "the authorities are now stronger than ever before" therefore rings hollow.

But despite the clear need for radical reform, the changes that Kuchma has proposed as a means of defusing the crisis are merely a reworking of those put to a referendum in April 2000, the results of which were not recognized by either the Council of Europe or the OSCE. In 2000, voters were asked to approve or reject four proposals: a reduction in the size of parliament from 450 to 300 deputies; the creation of an upper house comprising regional representatives; the president power to dissolve parliament if no majority is formed within a month or no budget is passed within three months; and abolition of deputies' immunity from prosecution. Kuchma's new proposals include the first three of the 2000 proposals, but not the question of deputies' immunity.

In addition to reintroducing three of the four 2000 referendum questions, Kuchma has added fully proportional elections to the lower house. In 1994 and 1998, 50 percent of parliamentary deputies were elected in single-mandate constituencies, while the other 50 percent won seats under a proportional (party-list) system. In 2002, Kuchma opposed holding fully proportional elections, but changed his mind after the elections were over. Under his most recent proposals, elections to the lower house would be conducted under a proportional system.

Kuchma's proposals for a fully proportional election law were discussed in the Verkhovna Rada in February but failed to win the required number of votes for approval. The draft was backed by the ideologically driven left (Communists, Socialists) and the right (Our Ukraine, Tymoshenko). Most of the pro-presidential and ideologically amorphous "centrist" parties voted against the draft -- the one exception being the Social Democratic Party united (SDPUo), which is the only "centrist" party to have invested resources in developing a nationwide party structure, as a result of which it became the only "centrist" party to surmount the 4 percent threshold in the proportional vote in the 2000 elections.

Under Kuchma's proposals, the upper House of the Regions would include three representatives from each of Ukraine's 24 oblasts, the Crimean autonomous republic, and the two cities (Kyiv, Sevastopol) with all-union status, as well as former presidents. This would allow Kuchma to become a senator for two additional years after he leaves the president's office, tiding him over until the next lower-house elections in 2006.

When similar proposals were discussed in the 1990s, eastern Ukrainian elites rejected the creation of an upper house, saying it would give the less populous and rural western Ukraine an equal standing with the more populous east. As Kuchma opposes introducing elections for regional governors' posts, the appointed upper house would act as a pro-presidential body -- a counterweight to the lower house. (A similar model is in place in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Russia.)

The 2003 proposals thus reintroduce what Kuchma wished to obtain in the 2000 referendum, when Yushchenko was prime minister and there was a non-left majority comprising the "center" and the center-right. This unity was irrevocably destroyed by the so-called Kuchmagate crisis that began eight months later, in November 2000. After the 2002 elections, Kuchma sought to create a majority purely from the "center" to revive the 2000 reforms and ensure his own immunity from prosecution. One factor in the aim to transform Ukraine from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary-presidential republic is ensuring that if elected, Yushchenko would not inherit the extensive powers that Kuchma now wields.

Kuchma's reforms are to be the subject of Soviet-style public discussion throughout the country. As in the Soviet era, the authorities already claim that telegrams have been received from workers' collectives in support of the proposals. But Ukrainian journalists have pointed out that a free discussion is impossible because the media (especially television) are controlled by the state and oligarchs.

21 March: A working group of representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan will meet in Astana to prepare a concept for the creation of a single economic space by June of this year