Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 67

On March 29, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court gave a green light to the constitutional referendum President Leonid Kuchma scheduled for April 16 (see the Monitor, January 21, February 23). At the same time, the court struck down the two most controversial of the six referendum questions. The proposal to allow the president to disband the current Verkhovna Rada (parliament) if the voters express no confidence in it was ruled unconstitutional. The Rada will therefore most likely work for its full constitutional term, that is, until 2002. The question on approving Ukraine’s constitution by referendum was also vetoed. This, referendum opponents had argued, would have made a “Belarusan scenario” possible for Ukraine, in essence allowing the president to amend the constitution at will. Four referendum questions remain: (1) allowing the president to dissolve the Rada if there is no majority in it within one month or if it fails to pass the state budget within three months; (2) decreasing the number of lawmakers from 450 to 300; (3) introducing a bicameral parliament; and (4) limiting deputy immunity. Because the referendum will be binding, the Rada will need to introduce constitutional amendments to formalize the referendum results.

Kuchma is perfectly happy with the Constitutional Court’s verdict. The recently formed center-right pro-presidential parliamentary majority makes that body no longer a potential hindrance to Kuchma, thus removing any need for power to disband it. At the same time, should the four remaining questions be answered in the affirmative, Kuchma will gain a pocket parliament, in which the lower chamber will exist under a constant threat of dissolution should the pro-presidential majority erode, and the higher chamber will most probably consist of Kuchma appointees representing Ukraine’s twenty-five regions. Restricting deputy immunity, the government says, will curb official corruption; referendum opponents, however, argue that the restriction could be used as a license to persecute the opposition as the government might see fit.

The March 29 ruling was hailed by Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) President Lord Russell-Johnston and Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer. On March 31 the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission also dropped its reservations concerning the referendum. Earlier, PACE threatened Ukraine’s suspension from the council on the basis of the referendum. PACE had objected especially strongly to the two questions which the Constitutional Court annulled (Den, March 10; Kyiv Post, March 16; UNIAN, March 21, 29, April 1; Inter TV, March 29; AP, March 31).