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UKRAINIANS RALLY FOR PRESS FREEDOM, OPPOSITION WARNS OF 'CRIMINAL AUTHORITY.' An estimated crowd of 5,000-7,000 people gathered near a statue to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Kyiv on 9 March, the 190th anniversary of the poet's birth, to protest authorities' perceived attacks on freedom of expression in Ukraine, local and international news agencies reported. The rally, under the slogan "Freedom to the Word," was organized by Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, and a number of media representatives. "The authorities persecute freedom of speech even more impudently than the Okhrana [tsarist secret police] persecuted the publication of Shevchenko's works," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( quoted from a resolution adopted by the rally. Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko told the rally that current efforts at constitutional reform represent a "coup d'etat" intended to install incumbent President Leonid Kuchma as Ukraine's prime minister after the 2004 presidential election. "Ukraine is living under a criminal authority," Yushchenko added. Yuliya Tymoshenko called on demonstrators to be ready for a "serious civic uprising" in the event that the pro-Kuchma camp pushes its constitutional reforms through. JM

WILL UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION FIELD JOINT PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE? Our Ukraine leader Yushchenko told the same 9 March rally in Kyiv that his bloc has reached "complete understanding" with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc regarding joint actions by opposition parties in the 2004 presidential election, Interfax reported. "Three weeks ago we proposed a political manifesto, which gives an answer to how the three political forces [Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party] should prepare for the October presidential election with a single platform and a single candidate," Yushchenko said. "I am telling you now that we have reached complete understanding with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc within the framework of this document. I hope the Socialist Party will give the same reply." JM

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT URGES CLOSER INTELLIGENCE COORDINATION WITH ROMANIA. President Vladimir Voronin on 9 March told visiting Romanian Foreign Intelligence Service Director General Gheorghe Fulga that the two countries' intelligence services should cooperate in their efforts to combat international terrorism, organized crime, human trafficking, and illegal migration, Flux and Infotag reported. Voronin said the authorities in Moldova seek to promote cooperation among the intelligence services of Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia to improve regional security. MS

The Verkhovna Rada voted 262 to seven on 5 March to adopt in its first reading a bill postulating a fully proportional party-list system for parliamentary elections. The document -- referred to in the Ukrainian media as the Rudkovskyy-Klyuchkovskyy bill after the names of its main authors, Mykola Rudkovskyy from the Socialist Party and Yuriy Klyuchkovskyy from Our Ukraine -- calls for the election of 450 lawmakers in 225 constituencies from the lists of those parties and blocs that win at least 3 percent of the national vote, instead of the existing 4 percent voting threshold. The adoption of a purely proportional system is a sine qua non for the Communist Party and the Socialist Party to support the constitutional reform that is being promoted by the presidential administration.

It is noteworthy that essentially the same bill was put to a vote in the Verkhovna Rada in February 2003, when it was supported by 217 deputies (nine votes shy of the required majority for approval) from Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Social Democratic Party-united, that is, from the parties that easily cleared the 4 percent voting threshold in the March 2002 parliamentary ballot in the nationwide constituency, in which 225 parliamentary mandates were contested under a proportional party-list system. This time Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc did not take part in the vote. Even one of the authors of the bill, Our Ukraine lawmaker Yuriy Klyuchkovskyy, did not support it.

Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko explained that his bloc -- which won more than 100 parliamentary seats in 2002 primarily owing to a proportional election system applied to the half of the contested mandates -- did not participate in the vote because it cannot accept the lowering of a threshold for parties and blocs to make it into the Verkhovna Rada. "The issue of the threshold is of principal importance," Yushchenko said. According to him, the vote on the proportional election law was a "ticket to a coup" that will eventually lead -- through the subsequent adoption of a constitutional reform bill -- to the installation of an "emperor" in the post of prime minister. Yushchenko also argued that lowering the voting threshold will fragment the legislature even further than it is now, thus making it very problematic to form a viable pro-government coalition consisting of six to eight factions.

Yuliya Tymoshenko said her bloc refused to support the proportional election bill for reasons of principle. "The law on the proportional election [system] that was adopted today [5 March] is a banal bribe that was offered to opposition forces to ensure their support for the anticonstitutional mutiny," she charged. "I am stating that we have never accepted bribes and will never vote for laws that are democratic by name but in essence do not leave a stone standing in the people's power. The law on the proportional election [system] gives power to the clans.... Pretending to be witty and worrying about election innovations while the independent press is being destroyed in this country is the same as worrying about the temperature of tea in a train that is going off the rails."

Could Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc prevent the final adoption of the proportional election bill and thus block the constitutional reform, which they see as a ploy to maintain Ukraine's current political establishment in power irrespective of who wins the 2004 presidential election? It seems that the chances of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko to persuade the Socialists, let alone the Communists, into voting against the proportional election bill in its current form have been lost once and for all. But there is still a glimmer of hope that the support for the bill will be dropped by some deputies from the pro-government parliamentary coalition who were elected in 2002 in single-mandate constituencies under a first-past-the-post system. Reportedly, far from all of them are happy with the all-proportional election system, fearing that they may fail to secure an "electable place" on some party list in 2006.

UNIAN reported on 5 March that nearly 60 deputies elected primarily in single-mandate constituencies have appealed to President Leonid Kuchma to initiate a referendum to learn the electorate's opinion about an all-proportional election system. They reportedly pledge their support for the constitutional reform promoted by the pro-presidential camp but simultaneously warn that an all-proportional election system will be a "step back under today's circumstances" and will lead to "monopolization of the country's political life." The appeal also warns that a fully proportional election law will deform the representation of regions in the Verkhovna Rada and reduce the accountability of lawmakers to the local electorate.

It is not clear if the signatories of the appeal are sufficiently determined to vote against the fully proportional election bill in its second reading. If they did so, then of course the passage of the constitutional-reform bill would be thrown into doubt. Therefore, it is not out of the question that now, when the preliminarily approved election bill is being reviewed by the parliamentary Constitutional Committee, the committee may introduce some "regional modifications" to the fully proportional electoral procedure in order to address the fears of deputies elected in single-mandate constituencies and thus stifle their potential rebellion. But that, in its turn, could raise objections on the part of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, whose readiness for compromise on the election bill seems to have been exhausted by their consent to the lowering of the election threshold to 3 percent. These two faint possibilities of parliamentary defiance seem to be the only chances of Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc for blocking the constitutional reform they see as a threat to democracy in Ukraine. True, there still is a chance that the Constitutional Court may agree with their appeal and rule that last year's vote on the constitutional reform bill was illegal, thus effectively killing the entire reform plan in 2004. But this last option is much more unlikely than the preceding two.