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MISSING PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE RESURFACES TO FIND HIMSELF IN HOT WATER. Former Duma Speaker and presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin, who was reported missing on 5 February, phoned home on 10 February to say that he had spent the last four days in Kyiv with friends, unaware of the current "hysteria" in Moscow about his whereabouts, Interfax reported. "I have the right to two or three days of a private life," Rybkin said. "I came to Kyiv with my friends, had fun, turned off my mobile phones, and did not watch television." Albina Rybkina, Rybkin's wife, told the agency that she "pities poor Russia that such people want to lead it," and confirmed that she was speaking of her husband. Ksenia Ponomareva, the head of Rybkin's election headquarters, said that she is likely to resign, but that she first wanted to hear Rybkin's explanation. When greeted by reporters upon his arrival back in Moscow, Rybkin did not deny that he might withdraw his candidacy, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 11 February. Rybkin said he returned from a difficult round of talks on Chechnya, but that he was not detained against his will. No other media mentioned any talks on Chechnya. Asked what happened, Rybkin said "no comment," but admitted that he was very upset to hear his daughter crying over the phone. He then said he was glad to be back in his native land and that he had nothing more to say on the matter. JAC


MINSK STILL AT ODDS WITH MOSCOW OVER SINGLE CURRENCY, GAS SUPPLIES. During talks in Moscow on 10 February, Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kasyanov apparently failed to reach agreement over the planned introduction of the Russian ruble as a single currency in the Russia-Belarus Union or Gazprom's halt of gas supplies to Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. "We have reached an understanding on this issue [gas supplies]," Sidorski said after the meeting. But Kasyanov qualified Sidorski's statement, saying, "We have not reached any specific agreements on cooperation in the gas sphere." The Gazprom press service told RFE/RL the same day that the company has not resumed gas supplies to Belarus that were halted following failed contract talks and a lingering dispute over the sale of Belarus's Beltranshaz gas-pipeline operator to Gazprom (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 13 and 27 January 2004). Kasyanov also said the two sides made no progress toward introducing the Russian ruble in Belarus in 2005, adding that a "political decision" by the Belarusian leadership is required to make such a step. JM

UKRAINIAN POPULATION STILL SHRINKING. The State Statistics Committee announced on 10 February birth and mortality figures for 2003 that suggest the country's population is contracting, according to Ukrainian news agencies. Statisticians recorded 408,591 births and 765,408 deaths in Ukraine over the course of last year, thus reducing the country's population to 47.6 million people. JM

PROMINENT LAWMAKER SUSPENDS MEMBERSHIP IN OUR UKRAINE BLOC. Lawmaker Taras Chornovil, son of the late nationalist leader Vyacheslav Chornovil, has suspended his membership of the Our Ukraine parliamentary caucus, citing a disagreement over the bloc's tactics, Ukrainian media reported on 10 February. "We missed the opportunity for a Georgian scenario in 2001, and we missed the opportunities we had after the parliamentary election victory [in 2002]," Chornovil told Radio Kontynent the same day. "Now we are, in fact, losing the opportunity to win the presidential election [in 2004]." Chornovil told the "Ukrayinska pravda" website that Viktor Pynzenyk, leader of the Law and Order Party, is among those who should be blamed for Our Ukraine's failures. Last week, one lawmaker suspended his membership of Our Ukraine and another quit the bloc's parliamentary caucus. JM


A Council of Europe group of rapporteurs headed by Hanne Sevirensen visited Ukraine on 18-20 January. They reported their highly critical findings to the Council of Europe on 26 January, and, on the basis of their report, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted to hold a debate on "the political crisis in Ukraine." (The planned topic had been "the constitutional crisis in Ukraine.") Following PACE debate on 29 January, delegates adopted in a 46-13 vote a damning resolution on Ukraine.

That PACE resolution expressed support for Kyiv's "sincere aspirations" to conduct democratic reforms. But at the same time it made clear that PACE and other Western organizations and governments view the reforms currently being implemented as an attempt at blocking a victory by leading opposition candidate and former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko in the presidential election to be held in October 2004. The PACE resolution questions the timing of political reforms in an election year.

The resolution asked Ukraine to begin cooperating with the European Commission for Democracy Through Law (the so-called Venice Commission), whose advice parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn requested, but subsequently ignored, regarding proposed constitutional amendments that would pave the way for parliament to elect the president in 2006. Ukraine's parliament effectively ignored the commission's advice to retain the system under which Ukraine's president is elected by popular vote by approving on 24 December those draft constitutional amendments. PACE condemned this action in its resolution, stating in point 50 its resolution that the authorities "had no intention whatsoever to follow any of the recommendations of the Venice Commission" adopted on 13 December. This, the resolution points out, "casts serious doubt as to the real willingness of the Ukrainian authorities to cooperate with the Venice Commission in any meaningful way.

The second point of the PACE resolution expressed regret that Ukrainian authorities, including President Leonid Kuchma and the Foreign Affairs Ministry, "consider the activities of the Council of Europe, namely the assembly's monitoring procedure, the visits of the co-rapporteurs of the Monitoring Committee, and their statements" as "'interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine.'" In response, the resolution reminded the Ukrainian leadership that it voluntarily accepted the obligations of the Council of Europe when it joined in 1995. Consequently, "the assembly finds such a stand of the Ukrainian authorities...groundless and unjustified."

Other issues raised in the resolution dealt with the lack of independence of the judiciary, the need to hold presidential elections as scheduled this year, and called on the secretary-general of the Council of Europe to appoint a special representative for Ukraine. The resolution criticized the removal of Mukachevo Mayor Vasyl Petyovka, who was aligned with the opposition bloc Our Ukraine. The resolution ended by threatening to suspend Ukraine if it does not hold elections this year or if it continues to force through constitutional changes.

During their January visit to Ukraine, the Council of Europe rapporteurs also focused on two other issues. First, they called on Kuchma not to run for a third term. Both Poland and the United States have declared their disagreement with the 30 December Constitutional Court decision allowing Kuchma to do so based on their ruling that he is only in his first term.

Second, the rapporteurs criticized the lack of any progress in the investigation into the killing in autumn 2000 of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. The media situation in Ukraine has considerably worsened since Gongadze's killing, with the opposition excluded from appearing on state- and oligarch-controlled television. Point 12 of the PACE resolution called, among many other things, for a "nationwide popular discussion" on constitutional changes, especially on television and radio. This is a welcome call, as television coverage of what the Ukrainian authorities call political reform has been conducted in traditional Soviet style, with workers collectives and other state bodies being forcibly made to sign petitions in support of such "reform" and in condemnation of the opposition.

The PACE resolution therefore presented the Ukrainian authorities with a difficult dilemma, particularly as it was followed by strong statements and comments from the EU (backed by acceding countries and European Free Trade Association members), NATO, Poland, and the United States. Faced with this widespread Western condemnation, the Ukrainian authorities had two choices. The first was to continue to ignore the Venice Commission and to continue to condemn Western "interference" in Ukraine's internal affairs, as well as carry on railroading constitutional changes through parliament. Such a step would have possibly led to Ukraine's suspension from the Council of Europe and a deterioration of relations with the United States, EU, and NATO. Ukraine would have de facto become a second Belarus. Social Democratic Party-united parliamentary faction head and former President Leonid Kravchuk recently warned that following such a path of isolation from the West could lead to the undoing of his work in 1991-92 that brought Ukraine's independence.

Ukraine's second option was to yield to PACE pressure and drop the most contentious issues in the proposed constitutional changes, under which the procedure for choosing the president would be changed from popular vote to election by parliament.

The authorities responded by taking the second option, with parliament voting on 3 February to remove the articles pertaining to electing the president by parliamentary vote and also approving a resolution to hold elections this year through popular vote for a five-year term. These reworked constitutional changes would continue to transfer power from the executive to the prime minister, meaning that the president elected this year might merely turn out to be a figurehead. The pro-presidential majority in parliament would therefore continue to hold real, effective power through their control of parliament and government, while the opposition would inherit a highly weakened executive.

This scenario permits Kuchma to continue to maintain a modicum of balance between Russia and the West. Lytvyn promised to cooperate with the PACE special representative on Ukraine once that official is named, and with the Venice Commission.

Unlike the 24 December vote, which was only backed by the pro-presidential majority and the Communist Party, the 3 February vote was also backed by the Socialists, who argued that political reform should be undertaken before the presidential elections. The opposition is therefore now even more divided, with only the right (Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc) continuing to insist that political reform be undertaken after only the elections. This position is backed by PACE, the European Union, and the United States.