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KAZAKHSTAN INCREASES GRAIN EXPORTS TO 5.7 MILLION TONS. Kazakhstan's Agriculture Ministry has released figures on the country's grain exports from January through mid-December 2003, showing that the country increased its export volume to 5,629,900 tons from 4,209,000 tons in 2002, reported on 22 December, citing the Kazakh weekly "Panorama," No. 49. Forty countries purchased Kazakh grain this year, up from 37 in 2002. The report noted that drought in grain-growing regions of Ukraine and Russia prompted those countries to increase their purchases of Kazakh grain. Russia bought 726,000 tons this year, up from 278,000 tons in 2002. Ukraine bought 1,733,200 tons this year, up from 51,000 tons in 2002. Exports to Iran declined as a result of a new food program in that country. Likewise, exports to the neighboring countries of Central Asia fell because of a doubling of the price of Kazakh wheat from $55-$65 a ton in 2002 to $110-$130 in 2003. BB

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UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SIGNS POLITICAL-FINANCE BILL INTO LAW. President Leonid Kuchma signed a bill into law on 22 December that introduces the state funding of political parties' activities and parliamentary campaigns, Interfax reported, quoting the president's press office. State-funded activities may not be linked to the party's participation in elections, but the law also provides for reimbursing campaign expenses for parties that reach the 4 percent threshold for parliamentary representation. The annual allocations for political parties under the new law are defined as 1 percent of the average minimum wage multiplied by the number of registered votes in the most recent regular parliamentary elections. The law will come into force on 1 January 2005. AM


The Verkhovna Rada was expected on 23 December to consider three political-reform bills that were drafted to introduce crucial amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution of 1996. According to a majority of Ukrainian observers, one bill, registered in the parliament under No. 3027-1 and authored by an ad hoc parliamentary commission (which included opposition activists Oleksandr Moroz and Anatoliy Matviyenko), stands no chance of being approved. The real parliamentary debate is expected to focus on bills No. 4105 (prepared by the presidential administration headed by Viktor Medvedchuk and preliminarily approved by Communist leader Petro Symonenko, therefore referred to as the Medvedchuk-Symonenko draft) and No. 4180 (prepared by a group of pro-presidential lawmakers, the so-called Havrysh draft).

The Medvedchuk-Symonenko and Havrysh bills propose that the president be elected by parliament instead of by direct ballot, but they differ in their suggested dates of implementation for such a move. The Medvedchuk-Symonenko bill wants the president to be elected by a universal ballot in October 2004 and to serve until a new president is elected by the Verkhovna Rada in 2006, within a month after the inauguration of a newly elected legislature (since the regular parliamentary election is expected by the end of March 2006, such an "interim president" would serve for some 18 months). The Havrysh bill proposes that the parliament elect the president already in October 2004, the current Verkhovna Rada's term be extended by one year, and a new president be elected again by lawmakers in 2007.

The Medvedchuk-Symonenko bill was reportedly supported by 292 lawmakers (300 votes are necessary to change the Ukrainian Constitution). Ukraine's Constitutional Court recently ruled that both bills conform to Articles 157 and 158 of the constitution, which set a number of general restrictions on constitutional amendments.

The procedure for amending the Ukrainian Constitution by the Verkhovna Rada comprises two steps. First, the amendments need to be approved "in the first reading" by a simple majority (at least 226 votes). Second, they must be approved by a two-thirds majority (at least 300 votes) at the legislature's next regular session. Thus, if the Verkhovna Rada wants to apply new rules to the October 2004 presidential election, it must endorse either the Medvedchuk-Symonenko bill or the Havrysh bill (or both of them, or a combination of the two) by at least 226 votes on 23 December, before its winter-holiday recess.

The mustering of 226 votes for the Medvedchuk-Symonenko draft by the pro-presidential parliamentary majority seems to be an easy task, since the Communist Party is essentially in favor of strengthening the parliamentary prerogatives at the expense of presidential ones. The Communists are offering their support for the constitutional reform in exchange for the introduction of a fully proportional, party-list system of parliamentary elections.

What else may change in Ukraine's political system apart from the way of electing the country's president if the Medvedchuk-Symonenko bill is adopted in its current form? The president's right to propose the entire Cabinet of Ministers will be limited to four officials: prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and head of the Security Service. The prime minister will propose all other cabinet members as well as the heads of state committees. The prime minister will also nominate all regional governors. The parliament will be given the right not only to approve cabinet members and other high-ranking officials, but also to dismiss them. The president will receive the right to dissolve the parliament if it fails to form a pro-government coalition within 30 days, form a cabinet within 60 days, elect a president within three months, or convene for more than 30 days during the ongoing session. A people's deputy may be stripped of his/her parliamentary mandate if he/she fails to participate in plenary sitting for more than 60 days, quits the caucus of the party that placed him/her on the ballot, or fails to suspend his/her salaried activity outside the parliament.

There is little doubt that the constitutional reform was primarily devised by the presidential administration either to prevent Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko -- the country's most popular, Western-oriented politician -- from becoming the president in 2004 or to limit his possible presidential term to a year and a half. The presidential administration is seemingly aware that none of the potential candidates from the "party of power" -- be it Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, or National Bank head Serhiy Tyhypko, for instance -- is able to beat Yushchenko in a nationwide presidential ballot.

On the other hand, President Leonid Kuchma and his aides turned out to be masters of backstage maneuvering when after the 2002 parliamentary election, which was won by Our Ukraine, they managed not only to form a fairly viable pro-government coalition without the Communists, but also to reduce the role of Yushchenko's bloc in parliament to that of political extras. Apparently, the presidential entourage expects that it will be able to retain its current leverage in the country through controlling the future parliament as well.

No less surprising than Kuchma's ingenuity in developing different schemes to diminish the political clout of his adversaries is Yushchenko's lack of a vision of what is he going to do in Ukrainian politics and with whom. To the disappointment of many in Ukraine, he failed to create a parliamentary coalition and run a government in 2002 following the victory in the parliamentary election. Now many fear that he is set to lose the fight for a full-fledged presidency.

One of his most natural potential allies, Yuliya Tymoshenko, is becoming more and more impatient and irritated by his reluctance to strike a cooperation deal with her bloc (possibly, Yushchenko is afraid that Tymoshenko's public image of an oligarch involved in dubious financial machinations may do him more harm than good). Another potential ally, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, has apparently received no reasonable proposal of cooperation from Yushchenko, since the Socialists seem to be generally in favor of the Medvedchuk-Symonenko constitutional-reform plan, even if some of them object to electing the president by parliament.

And judging by the hostile reception Yushchenko recently received in eastern Ukraine, he has failed to convince any of the country's influential oligarchs to take his side in politics. On top of that, there have been no reports testifying that Yushchenko tried or even signaled his willingness to strike a kind of Yeltsin-Putin deal with Kuchma, whereby he would guarantee the current Ukrainian president (and some of his aides) quiet retirement from politics and immunity from prosecution in exchange for his smooth takeover in 2004.

Instead, Yushchenko is apparently pinning his hopes on ordinary voters. He has launched a campaign to collect signatures in support of the demand that the president continue to be elected in a universal ballot. The petition reportedly has so far been signed by more than 3 million people. Public surveys show that more than 80 percent of Ukrainians want to exercise their right to elect the president directly.

But what will happen if the authorities fail to heed this demand? The Kyiv-based Razumkov Center found in a poll in November that if the authorities launch a campaign of repression against the opposition and abolish the direct presidential election, no more than 27 percent of respondents would find the courage to provide "active" support to the opposition. Some 27 percent were unable to answer what they would do in such a situation, while 30 percent said they would do nothing at all. As shown by the "Ukraine Without Kuchma" and "Rise Up, Ukraine" opposition protest campaigns in 2000-02, the political apathy of Ukrainians, or their reluctance to publicly demonstrate their discontent with the authorities, was even greater than that suggested by the above-mentioned poll.

There is no reason to believe at the present moment that the implementation of the Medvedchuk-Symonenko constitutional overhaul may provoke an uprising against the Ukrainian authorities. On the other hand, this possible overhaul also will not spark any significant public enthusiasm or instill the nation with new hope for a better life. The planned reform is not about a better life for the people but for their rulers.