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DUMA RATIFIES AGREEMENT ON SINGLE ECONOMIC SPACE. The Duma on 20 April ratified by a vote of 408-7 with one abstention an agreement on the creation of a Single Economic Space signed by the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus in September, RIA-Novosti and reported. The agreement calls for the formation of a free-trade zone comprising the four states and a high level of the political coordination of their economic and financial policies. Ukraine and Kazakhstan also ratified the agreement on 20 April. VY

RATIFICATION OF ACCORDS WITH UKRAINE LEADS TO WALKOUT... During its 20 April session, the Duma approved two contentious accords with Ukraine, RTR,, and reported. The first, which stipulates that the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait are internal waters of both Ukraine and Russia, passed by a vote of 311-1 with one abstention, and a border agreement passed by a vote of 310-2 with one abstention. Representatives of the left-nationalist Motherland bloc and the Communist Party walked out of the session after lobbying against the bills, and did not participate in the vote, reported. Motherland faction head Dmitrii Rogozin argued that the treaties should not be approved until Ukraine rejects a recommendation by its National Council for Television and Radio that state television halt its broadcasts of Russian-language programs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 April 2004). The Communists opposed the measures because they believe it will pave the way for Ukrainian accession to NATO. Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii said before the vote that the border treaty would "return Russia to its 17th-century borders." VY

...AS FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS ACCORDS WILL REMOVE OBSTACLES. Sergei Lavrov said on 20 April that the new accords will remove "several irritants" and allow Ukraine and Russia to coordinate their positions on important international issues, reported. Lavrov said Russia is not satisfied with all aspects of its relations with Ukraine, singling out Ukraine's closer relations with NATO, but he said that bilateral relations have nonetheless become increasingly stable. VY


UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT RATIFIES BORDER ACCORDS WITH RUSSIA... The Verkhovna Rada on 20 April voted 352-16 to ratify a treaty on the state border with Russia, Ukrainian media reported. The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc did not participate in the voting. Subsequently, the legislature voted 274-59 to endorse an accord on the joint use with Russia of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, and Our Ukraine refused to vote. The accord stipulates that the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait are internal waters of both Ukraine and Russia. Under the accord, ships of third countries will be allowed to transit the Kerch Strait and enter the Azov Sea only following the invitation of one of the signatories and permission of the other. The accord leaves the delimitation of the Russian-Ukrainian border in the Azov Sea for a future bilateral agreement. JM

...AND AGREEMENT ON SINGLE ECONOMIC SPACE OF FOUR CIS COUNTRIES. The Verkhovna Rada on 20 April also ratified an agreement on the creation of a Single Economic Space of Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Ukrainian media reported. The agreement was approved by a vote of 265-60, following a dozen abortive attempts by lawmakers from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, and Our Ukraine to vote it down. In particular, the agreement calls for the formation of a free-trade zone of the four states and a high level of political coordination of their economic and financial policies. Opponents of the agreement argue that its full implementation, which entails the creation of a full-fledged customs union of the four states, will deprive Ukraine of any prospects of joining the European Union in the future. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT INSTRUCTS PROSECUTOR-GENERAL TO PROBE MAYORAL ELECTION. President Leonid Kuchma has instructed Prosecutor-General Hennadiy Vasylyev to investigate, jointly with the Ukrainian Security Service, possible irregularities in the 18 April mayoral election in the town of Mukacheve, Transcarpathian Oblast, Interfax reported on 20 April, citing presidential spokeswoman Olena Hromnytska. According to Hromnytska, the alleged irregularities may include the beating of lawmakers, the disappearance of election documents, dismissals of government employees, and illegal actions by law-enforcement officers. Earlier the same day, Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko met with Kuchma to demand the dismissal of the interior minister, the presidential-administration chief, and the Transcarpathian Oblast governor over what he described as gross violations in the Mukacheve election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 April 2004), UNIAN reported. Yushchenko reportedly presented documentary proof to Kuchma that Our Ukraine candidate Viktor Baloha was robbed of a decisive victory over Ernest Nuser, who was supported by the head of the presidential administration. Yushchenko claims that according to polling station records, Baloha received 19,385 votes, that is, 5,500 more than Nuser, whom the local election commission pronounced the winner JM


The leaders of pro-government groups in the Verkhovna Rada decided at a meeting on 14 April to field Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych as their joint candidate in the presidential election slated for 31 October. The decision was communicated to the public by Stepan Havrysh, coordinator of the parliamentary pro-government coalition.

"There were no long discussions, and the decision was made unanimously," Havrysh said, adding that the meeting was attended by Yanukovych and President Leonid Kuchma, along with the leaders of the Agrarian Party, the Popular Democratic Party, the Party of Regions, the Industrialists and Entrepreneurs/Labor Ukraine caucus, the Social Democratic Party-united, the Democratic Initiatives group, the Popular Choice group, and the People's Power group. Havrysh also said Yanukovych was selected as the joint candidate of "democratic forces" on the condition that he will finalize the constitutional reform that suffered a setback in the Verkhovna Rada on 8 April.

The rather inconspicuous nomination of Yanukovych has spawned a lot of disparate comments in the Ukrainian media, all of which, however, include the same explicit or implicit question: is this true? Has President Kuchma really decided to throw his support behind Yanukovych in the presidential race? Have other heavyweights of the pro-Kuchma camp really decided to relinquish their political ambitions and back the presidential bid of the "Donetsk don," as some nonstate media refer to the Ukrainian prime minister?

One explanation for Kuchma's move may be his intention to react in a politically impressive manner to the discouraging rejection of the constitutional-reform bill by the Verkhovna Rada on 8 April. By fielding Yanukovych for the presidential race and making him pledge to push for a political reform despite the recent failure, Kuchma may have wanted to show that he still knows what to do and remains in control of the political game in Ukraine.

Likewise, by making Yanukovych a "guarantor" of further reformist efforts Kuchma may want to prevent the pro-government parliamentary coalition from splitting up and, possibly, fielding an uncoordinated number of presidential candidates to challenge Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko. The threat of such a split became clearly visible on 8 April, when the constitutional-reform bill promoted by Kuchma was supported by 212 deputies from the pro-government opposition, which was significantly below the majority of 226 votes required to adopt most decisions in the Verkhovna Rada. Besides, Ukrainian media have reported that an unspecified number of pro-government coalition lawmakers elected under a first-past-the-post system in 2002 decided to set up a separate caucus in the legislature.

If Kuchma is serious about promoting Yanukovych as a joint candidate of the pro-government coalition, not as a tactical figurehead who may be dumped at some moment in the future, then of course Kuchma has made a reasonable choice. Yanukovych, with surveys giving him nearly 15 percent support among the electorate, is by far the most popular politician in Kuchma's entourage. And the post of prime minister is widely believed to be the best springboard for launching and conducting a highly efficient election campaign in Ukraine.

The behavior of Yanukovych's potential allies -- oligarchs from the pro-Kuchma and, in theory, pro-Yanukovych coalition -- is a different question. One of them, former Prime Minister Valeriy Pustovoytenko, has already announced that he does not like Yanukovych as a presidential candidate. Pustovoytenko, who leads the Popular Democratic Party, suggested on 19 April that his party may field a different presidential candidate. "I think that a joint candidate [of the pro-government coalition] should be the one who is supported not by individual party leaders and political figures but by the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens," Pustovoytenko said in a public statement on 19 April.

Thus, there is a big question mark over Yanukovych's political fate. Most parties that belong to the pro-government coalition will reportedly decide whether to support Yanukovych in the presidential election during their congresses planned for June. And they may simply refuse such support if they are instructed by Kuchma to do so.

By supporting the government's action plan for 2004 last month, the pro-government parliamentary coalition has stripped itself of the right to vote Yanukovych out of his office within the next year and thus deprive him of administrative leverage in the presidential election campaign in the event he decides to run on his own, without the support of coalition allies. But Kuchma may sack both Yanukovych and his cabinet any time he likes, without consulting anyone on such a step. In other words, Kuchma still remains the crucial political figure in the country and determines the rules of the game, despite an apparent glitch in his constitutional-reform efforts.

Earlier this year, Yanukovych reportedly asked Kuchma to replace several regional governors. This is quite understandable -- the premier wants to have his own people in the provinces for the upcoming election campaign. Kuchma has so far not reacted to Yanukovych's request. That may be an indicator that he has not yet decided whether Yanukovych is the right man for the presidential job. At any rate, closely watching Kuchma's behavior in the following month or two seems to be a more sensible and enlightening task than reading the plethora of speculations, assumptions, and rumors carried by the Ukrainian press in connection with political reform and the upcoming presidential ballot. For the time being, nobody seems to know anything for sure in Ukraine, Kuchma included.