Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 139

On July 13, Ukraine’s parliament (the Verkhovna Rada) made a first, if tentative and ironic, step toward reducing its own powers. The proposed constitutional amendments–which President Leonid Kuchma introduced to, and were endorsed by, a nationwide referendum on April 16–are not yet ratified, however. The constitutional process is a two-part one. Last week’s introductory vote, which passed thanks to 251 votes from the pro-presidential Rada majority, was the first. Ratification is the second, and requires a 300-vote majority.

Kuchma’s proposals envision three primary changes. The first is to give the president the right to dissolve the Rada in two circumstances: (1) if no stable majority within it holds power for longer than a month, or (2) if it fails to pass the draft state budget within three months of submission. The second reduces the parliament from 450 to 300 seats. The third limits deputy immunity from prosecution. The draft, however, does not make mention or allowance for a bicameral legislature, though more than 80 percent of the population supported the idea in the April referendum.

On the same day as the preliminary Rada vote, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court rejected an alternative draft of constitutional amendments. This document, which was submitted jointly by Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz and right-wing MP Serhy Holovaty, included introducing a bicameral legislature and formally incorporating variants of Kuchma’s proposed amendments. The amended amendments, however, did not reduce the powers of the Verkhovna Rada. Further, this draft deprived the president of his power to appoint the government.

The Court–which had received both documents on May 11 and was to determine the constitutionality of each–was under considerable pressure from both the president and the parliament. On June 28, Kuchma openly pressed the judges to approve his amendments. The Moroz-Holovaty document, he said in an interview, was nothing more than “gibberish.” Asked what would happen if the Court were to approve it, Kuchma replied, stern-faced, “in that case we have no Constitutional Court.” The interview was broadcast several times that day by every the state-controlled TV and radio stations. On June 29, the Court ruled that the draft amendments, as submitted by Kuchma, were constitutional. It postponed decision on the alternative draft. And it announced that ruling only several hours before the Rada was scheduled to vote on Kuchma’s draft on July 13. Observers, understandably enough, questioned the Court’s impartiality.

The center-right majority currently numbers fewer than 280 deputies, something shy of the required 300. Kuchma may therefore bypass the Rada altogether, and introduce the amendments by decree this fall. “I will be forced to fulfill the peoples’ will,” he threatened on July 6, answering a question on what he would do were his amendments not passed. Such a development would definitely make Ukraine a pariah in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which criticized the referendum and has been wary about the dispute between the Rada opposition and Kuchma regarding how the referendum results should be implemented. Constitutional amendments which violate the spirit or letter of the constitution are no small matter. They belittle the role of parliament and flirt with autocracy (UT-1, June 28; UNIAN, June 29, July 6, 13; Zerkalo nedeli, July 1; see the Monitor, April 26).