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OUR UKRAINE STAGES ANTIGOVERNMENT RALLY. Some 9,000 people turned up for an antigovernment protest rally organized by Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine in front of government headquarters in Kyiv on 31 March, Interfax and UNIAN reported. Yushchenko told the rally that poverty is the single biggest problem in Ukraine, and demanded that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet raise wages and pensions. He also appealed to Ukrainians to continue protests if the government fails to heed that demand. According to Yushchenko, the government is hiding 10 billion hryvnyas ($1.9 billion) in budget revenues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2004). "Today we have to secure a victory -- to make the government bring 10 million hryvnyas out of the shadow," Yushchenko said. JM

SOROS RECEIVES COOL RECEPTION IN UKRAINE. U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros, who is currently on a visit to Ukraine, said on 30 March that he bears no grudges for obstacles he faced to holding a roundtable on human rights in Yalta, Crimea, earlier the same day, Interfax reported. The management of the Livadiya Palace, where the roundtable was scheduled to take place, announced on 29 March that the palace will be closed until 1 April because firemen are using it for training. The palace eventually hosted the event only after an order from Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Soros said the inhospitality with which he was confronted was inspired by presidential-administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk. On 31 March, before the inauguration of a forum of human rights activists in Kyiv, two assailants claiming to belong to the organization Brotherhood splashed water and glue on Soros. JM

'YEAR OF POLAND IN UKRAINE' INAUGURATED. President Kuchma and his Polish counterpart Aleksander Kwasniewski inaugurated the "Year of Poland in Ukraine" in Kyiv on 30 March, Ukrainian and Polish news agencies reported. "You will see Poland attached to its tradition and boldly looking forward, a successful country entering the EU, but above all Poland that is open and friendly toward its neighbors," PAP quoted the Polish president as saying at the inauguration. "There is no independent Poland without an independent Ukraine, and no independent Ukraine without an independent Poland," Kwasniewski added, according to Interfax. JM

IMF APPROVES $605 MILLION LOAN TO UKRAINE. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has approved a one-year, $605 million credit facility to Ukraine, Interfax reported on 30 March. "Ukraine has achieved a broad-based and sustained economic recovery, and has subdued inflation following the 1998-99 financial crisis," IMF acting Managing Director Anne Krueger said, praising Ukraine for macroeconomic stability, a strong balance of payments, and the replenishing of international reserves. The Ukrainian government will use the loan primarily to cover high-interest government bonds issued during the late 1990s, dpa reported, quoting Finance Minister Mykola Azarov. Meanwhile, Our Ukraine leader Yushchenko commented that the IMF decision on the loan is "groundless," adding that "shadow turnover in the fiscal-policy sphere" has become the official course of Ukrainian government policy, according to Interfax. JM

UKRAINIAN MINISTER SAYS MISSING MISSILES COULD NOT FLY. Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk said on 30 March that the missiles that went missing in the 1980s pose no threat because they could not fly, Interfax reported. Marchuk was commenting on his revelation last week that the Ukrainian military cannot account for "several hundred missiles" (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 30 March 2004). JM

MOLDOVAN POPULAR PARTY CHAIRMAN UPBEAT ABOUT ROMANIAN, BULGARIAN NATO ACCESSION. In an interview with the Flux news agency on 30 March, Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca said Bulgaria's and Romania's accession to NATO will have a major impact on Moldova's internal politics. He added that he hoped Moldova, together with Ukraine, Georgia, "and even Belarus," could also become a NATO member in the near future. Rosca also said he hoped that the Transdniester issue could be solved with "NATO's full involvement." ZsM


The Verkhovna Rada voted 255 to four on 25 March to pass a bill prescribing parliamentary elections under a fully proportional party-list system. The bill was backed by lawmakers from the pro-government coalition, the Communist Party, and the Socialist Party. Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc did not take part in the vote.

Ukrainian media reported that there were 305 deputies registered in the session hall but did not clarify how the remaining 46 of them behaved during the vote, that is, either they abstained from the vote or refused to vote at all or, as some reports suggested, failed to vote because of a malfunction of the electronic voting system in the Verkhovna Rada. This piece of information could be of great interest, since the adoption of a proportional-election law is widely seen as the removal of the last obstacle -- at least for the Socialist Party and the Communist Party -- on the path toward the final promulgation of the constitutional reforms that are being pushed by the pro-presidential camp in Ukraine.

The adoption of bill No. 4105, which provides for major constitutional amendments shifting the balance of power in Ukraine from the presidency toward the prime minister and parliament, requires at least 300 votes. Summing up the votes controlled by the pro-government coalition (officially, 234 deputies), the Communist Party (59), and the Socialist Party (20), we obtain a total of 313 votes. In other words, the pro-government coalition, along with the Communists and the Socialists, in theory have enough votes to pass the constitutional reforms without any difficulty.

Why the support for the proportional-election bill -- a sort of "rehearsal vote" before the upcoming vote on the constitutional-reform bill -- was well below 300 votes is quite intriguing. One of the most plausible explanations is that a considerable number of pro-government deputies, who were elected to the Verkhovna Rada in 2002 under a first-past-the-post system, do not actually like the idea of fully proportional parliamentary elections, fearing that they may not be re-elected in 2006 under the new election law. These deputies, some Ukrainian observers argue, refused to vote on 25 March and are potentially likely to create a nasty surprise for the pro-government coalition by refusing to vote on the constitutional-reform bill, simply because they resent the pressure that is reportedly being exerted on them by the presidential administration in order to induce them to support the reform devised by presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk.

It is not clear when the voting on the constitutional-reform bill will take place. Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn predicted last week that the constitutional-reform bill will be passed in its final reading in early April. Meanwhile, lawmaker Oleksandr Volkov, formerly a close associate of President Leonid Kuchma, said the constitutional-reform bill will be adopted no earlier than in mid-May. Volkov asserted that promoters of the reform are facing "a lot of work" to persuade deputies elected under the first-past-the-post system to adopt a fully proportional election law. Since the proportional-election bill has already been passed and needs only to be signed by President Kuchma to start the final phase of parliamentary maneuvers around the constitutional reforms, Lytvyn seems to be closer to the truth than Volkov.

If signed by the president, the bill will take effect on 1 October 2005, that is, six months before the next regular parliamentary election. The bill stipulates that Ukrainians will vote in 2006 in 225 constituencies for party lists, not for individual candidates. Other innovations in the parliamentary election system include lowering the current 4 percent voting threshold for parliamentary representation to 3 percent, lengthening the election campaign from 90 to 120 days, increasing the amount of the deposit that a party must submit before an election from 255,000 hryvnyas ($48,000) to 512,500 hryvnyas, and mandating the use of transparent ballot boxes.

Also, the bill bans representatives of nongovernmental organizations from monitoring the electoral process at polling stations and during the vote count. The votes given for the parties that will fail to clear the 3 percent threshold will be completely wasted. The bill stipulates that only the votes given for the parties that exceeded the 3 percent threshold will be taken into account during the distribution of parliamentary mandates -- these votes divided by 450 (the number of seats in the Verkhovna Rada) will determine how much votes a party will require to obtain one mandate.

Many Ukrainian observers believe -- echoing Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz -- that the adoption of the fully proportional election bill is a historic step on Ukraine's path toward a more democratic state. The bill, they assert, will contribute to building a viable party system consisting of only several potent parties and eliminating the "administrative resource" in elections -- that is, the use of illegal administrative leverage in campaigning for a parliamentary seat, which was reportedly widespread in former elections with regard to mandates contested under the first-past-the-post system. It is noteworthy that a proportional election system was formerly also advocated by Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, which seem to have lost interest in it after President Kuchma launched a constitutional reform last year and made the adoption of an all-proportional election law a carrot offered to the Communists and the Socialists to muster their support for the reform.