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RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN KYIV. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Kyiv on 13 April and met with President Leonid Kuchma and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko, Interfax reported. Lavrov and Hryshchenko reportedly discussed the situation in Iraq and relations with NATO. Hryshchenko told journalists that the recently endorsed memorandum giving NATO the right of quick access to Ukrainian territory (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 23 March 2004) pertains to technical issues related to international military maneuvers. "We hope that Russia will take part in such maneuvers as it has done before," Hryshchenko added. "We considered the issue absolutely calmly and there are no big problems about it," Lavrov said about the memorandum, adding that "such episodes can hardly affect relations between Ukraine and Russia." JM

UKRAINE HAS NEW FUEL AND ENERGY MINISTER. President Kuchma on 13 April appointed Serhiy Tulub, who has headed the state-run atomic energy company Enerhoatom since June 2002, as the new minister for fuel and energy, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Tulub, who served as minister for fuel and energy in 1999-2000, will replace Serhiy Yermilov, whom Kuchma sacked in early March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004). JM

UKRAINIAN SOCIALISTS TO RUN OWN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE. Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz has announced that his party intends to participate in the 2004 presidential election "on its own," Interfax reported on 13 April, quoting the party's press service. Moroz also declared that the Socialist Party will strive to implement political reform before the election. According to him, Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc did not support a constitutional-reform bill last week (see "End Note" below) because they oppose any changes in the country's political system and want "to lay their hands on the existing authoritarian system of power." JM

USAID WANTS TO SPONSOR TWO ELECTION PROJECTS IN UKRAINE. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is discussing with Ukraine's Central Election Commission the prospect of conducting two projects that would cost a total of $10 million, Interfax reported on 13 April. USAID administrator Andrew Natsios stated this following a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in Kyiv the same day. One project would provide training for election committee members at all levels, while the other would seek to increase the role of nongovernmental organizations in the election process, Natsios added. The projects, which could be implemented within two to three years, are currently being considered by the Ukrainian side. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on 8 April voted on a controversial constitutional-reform bill, falling six votes short of the 300 votes required for approval. The bill was supported by 294 lawmakers from the pro-government coalition, the Communist Party, and the Socialist Party, as well as by some independent deputies.

The opposition Our Ukraine and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, which did not take part in the vote, met its result with jubilation and sang the Ukrainian national anthem in the session hall. "[The vote was] possibly one of the first victories of the democratic forces in this parliament," Interfax quoted Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko as saying. Yushchenko, who is the most popular contender approaching the 31 October presidential ballot, staunchly opposed the bill that provided for significant cuts in the president's powers. "This is not a victory of the opposition, this is a failure of the authorities," Stepan Havrysh, coordinator of the parliamentary pro-government majority, commented shortly after the abortive vote.

However, a few hours later, following a conference with presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, who is widely believed to be the main architect of the constitutional reforms, Havrysh changed tack. Havrysh said on Inter Television that the Verkhovna Rada will hold a repeat vote on the constitutional reforms since, he argued, lawmakers voted not for bill No. 4105, which provided for these reforms, but for unregistered bill No. 1674-4, which was announced by speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn before the vote. To support his argument, Havrysh quoted a relevant passage from the official minutes of the session that actually mentioned Lytvyn proposing bill No. 1674-4 for the vote.

Verkhovna Rada staffers subsequently explained that the numbers 4105 and 1674-4 refer to the same piece of legislation -- under the first the constitutional-reform bill is registered with the Verkhovna Rada; under the second it is registered with the Justice Ministry. However, the bill submitted to the vote on 8 April included an addendum by Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz stipulating that the legislation will come into force only after the 2004 presidential election. In other words, the bill was somewhat different from the one endorsed by the Constitutional Court last month, following its preliminary approval in December and February.

Moreover, the Verkhovna Rada on 7 April adopted a procedure for voting on the constitutional-reform bill that banned the introduction of any amendments to it during its second and final reading. Thus, there are formal reasons for the pro-government coalition to demand a repeat vote. True, it is not clear yet whether the constitutional restriction that forbids amending the country's constitution twice within one year may be applied to the 8 April vote.

It is another question whether the parliamentary pro-government coalition will actually push for a repeat vote. Some Ukrainian observers argue that after 8 April the number of supporters of the constitutional reforms in the Ukrainian parliament can only be fewer than 294. According to this line of reasoning, some of the pro-government and independent deputies who were elected under a first-past-the-post system in 2002 did not appear in the session hall on 8 April or voted against the constitutional-reform bill, thus withstanding the pressure reportedly applied upon them by the presidential administration.

They purportedly disliked not only the pressure but also the all-proportional parliamentary-election law that was adopted last month as the pro-government coalition's concession to buy support for the constitutional reforms from the Socialist and Communist parties. Thus, there is absolutely no reason for those deputies to be more enthusiastic about the constitutional reforms after 8 April.

Whatever the final outcome of the constitutional-reform controversy in Ukraine, it is already perfectly clear that the essentially democratic proposals in the reform bill -- the presidency with fewer powers as well as a stronger government and parliament -- have been pursued by the forces grouped around President Leonid Kuchma as a way to preserve the positions of the antidemocratic ruling elites in the country. Faced with the threat of losing the presidential election on 31 October to Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Kuchma camp devised the reforms that would strip the presidency of several important prerogatives and shift the center of power toward the government controlled by the current political establishment.

The position of Yushchenko in the constitutional-reform dispute is also far from crystal clear and honest. Yushchenko advertised a constitutional reform as one of his main programmatic goals before the 2002 parliamentary elections, but has abandoned the idea after opinion polls began to suggest that he may win the 2004 presidential ballot. His main slogan now is not to change the defective power system but to replace defective people in power. Which, of course, does not provide an unambiguous answer to the question whether he will tackle reforming this system once he and his people take control of it.

If the constitutional reform collapses completely, then the 2004 presidential-election campaign may be one of the harshest and toughest political campaigns in the country. The political stakes will be very high indeed. It is not out of the question that Kuchma may choose to run for the post of president a third time. Such an option has been made possible for him by a ruling of the Constitutional Court in December. Kuchma's popularity is very low at present, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who is currently supported by some 15 percent of the electorate, seems better equipped as the single candidate of the pro-Kuchma camp to challenge Yushchenko.

However, many Ukrainian analysts assert that pro-Kuchma oligarchs are very unlikely to unite behind Yanukovych against the Yushchenko threat. According to those analysts, the oligarchs are likely to support Kuchma as a guarantor of the stability and continuity of the current political establishment in the country. Yanukovych in the post of president is for Ukrainian oligarchs allegedly no less a risk than Yushchenko himself.