The Ukrainian opposition has blocked parliament since the end of January, demanding a referendum on NATO membership. The Party of Regions (PRU) and the Communist Party (CPU) are confident that Ukrainians will say no to NATO. They believe public support for membership in the Alliance has hardly ever been higher than 25%, so a referendum would postpone the membership issue indefinitely. The ruling coalition of President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) reject the referendum. The impasse may lead to yet another early parliamentary election, as several big players have already declared their readiness for it, apparently not seeing any other way out.
The blockade of parliament was prompted by a joint letter from Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, and parliament speaker Arseny Yatsenyuk to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, declaring Ukraine’s readiness to advance to a Membership Action Plan (MAP) and requesting a decision to that end by the Alliance’s Bucharest summit in early April. The letter was apparently written in early January, but it was not made public until a visit to Kyiv by U.S. Senator Richard Lugar nearly two weeks later. The opposition seized the opportunity to disrupt parliament’s work.
Opposition forces insist that they learned about the letter from Lugar, rather than from the government. This, they argue, means that the government probably tried to conceal the letter from the public, and that NATO membership is being imposed on Ukraine by the West. “It was outrageous that we learned about this [the letter] after ten days from an American senator,” said Borys Kolesnykov, one of PRU’s leaders.
On January 25, the last day of parliament’s work before winter vacation, the opposition blocked entrance to the session hall to protest the MAP letter. An inexperienced Yatsenyuk, who became speaker just this past December, did not know how to behave in the situation. He unconvincingly threatened to deny parliament salaries to opposition MPs, many of whom are multimillionaires, and he failed to adjourn the session properly.
This only added to the opposition’s self-assurance. Parliament was scheduled to resume work on February 5, but this did not happen, as the opposition resumed its blockade of the session hall. They demanded that Yatsenyuk recall his signature from the MAP letter, arguing that parliament did not authorize him to sign it, and that parliament should set the date for a NATO membership referendum. Opposition leaders said they are determined to block parliament until their demands are met.
The deadlock prompted several prominent parliamentarians to recall that the constitution gives the president the right to disband parliament if it does not work for more than 30 days. Former justice minister Roman Zvarych, who represents NUNS, said that the constitutional provision forbidding the president to disband parliament for a year after the previous election (which took place in September 2007) can be circumvented. This idea was supported by Volodymyr Lytvyn, leader of the eponymous caucus in parliament.
The PRU said that was not against an early election, but it added that it was the coalition, not the PRU, that was pushing for an early ballot. PRU leader Viktor Yanukovych told a meeting of his shadow government on February 6 that an early election is probably unavoidable because “in its current composition, the coalition is unable to work.”
This must be the key to the problem. NATO membership is not a matter of principle for the opposition, at least for its dominant part, the PRU. The PRU never actively opposed Ukraine’s integration into NATO, and in 2003 it backed a law providing for NATO membership in the future. Rather, the opposition is using the letter on MAP as a pretext for testing the fragile coalition’s unity and ability to push laws through parliament when the coalition controls 227 seats in the 450-seat chamber, just one ballot more than a simple majority.
Tymoshenko and Yushchenko have rejected the idea of another early election, saying that they did not see constitutional grounds for such a move. The opposition is objectively interested in another election, to try to perform better than in 2007 and to form a coalition government. Tymoshenko should be interested in preserving the status quo, as she will hardly carry on as prime minister if the PRU performs better in an election than the BYuT. NUNS may be the coalition’s weak link. Their performance in the previous election was far from perfect, and many people in NUNS are apparently in favor of trying their luck again.
In the most recent attempt to break the deadlock, Yatsenyuk on February 11 suggested calling a referendum on NATO membership, but only if Ukraine is invited to join at the Alliance’s Bucharest summit. The opposition unblocked parliament on February 12, but just for a few hours, explaining it by the need to pass several social protection laws.
(Channel 5, January 25, February 11, 12; Ukrayinska pravda, Segodnya, 1+1 TV, February 6)