Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 7

By Oleg Varfolomeyev

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has come up with a plan seemingly designed to reduce the powers of the president and to boost those of the parliament. But the parliament, which is torn by factional rivalries and hosts several presidential hopefuls, is unlikely to buy the plan now, when so little time remains before the 2004 presidential poll. What Kuchma may achieve with his draft constitutional amendments is to split the opposition by instigating a dispute over the range of powers of his successor.

Kuchma told the nation in a televised address on March 5 that his draft constitutional amendments, if passed into law, would bring Ukraine closer to the parliamentary model of government prevailing in Europe. On the following day, Kuchma submitted his proposals to parliament. Kuchma gave the political parties, the Cabinet, think tanks, and the mass media two months to discuss the amendments, after which he expects parliament to adopt his plan.

Addressing students in Kharkiv on March 14, Kuchma said that he wants the amendments to be adopted by the time he leaves office. In accordance with the constitution, that is to happen next year, when Kuchma’s second and last term in office expires. “The president elected in 2004 should work in a reformed political system and therefore exercise new powers,” he said.

If all of the proposed constitutional amendments are approved:

–Both presidential and parliamentary elections will be held every five years, and during the same year (under the 1996 constitution, parliament serves four years, and the president five years).

–Decisions adopted by national referenda will not need approval by parliament to become law.

–The unicameral 450-seat legislature will be replaced by a bicameral parliament with a 300-seat lower chamber and a higher chamber consisting of three representatives from each of Ukraine’s twenty-seven regions.

–All seats in the lower chamber will be elected from party lists (currently half come from party lists, and half from single-seat constituencies).

–The prime minister and most government ministers will be appointed by parliament (and not by the president, as now).

–The president will appoint and dismiss only four key ministers: Interior, foreign affairs, emergencies, and defense.

–The president will have the right to dissolve the lower chamber if it fails to form a majority within one month after its election, if it fails to appoint the Cabinet in two months after the previous Cabinet’s resignation, or if it fails to adopt the state budget by December 1 of each year (currently the president can dissolve parliament only if it fails to gather within one month after its session started).

For many years the Ukrainian left has been insisting that parliament, not the president, should appoint the Cabinet, and that parliament should be elected from party lists. Kuchma indicated his support for these proposals for the first time in his Independence Day address to the nation on August 24 of last year. The proposals to cut parliament to 300 seats, introduce a bicameral legislature, and allow the president to dissolve parliament if it fails to form a majority or adopt a budget were approved by a legally dubious referendum in April of 2000. The referendum was prepared by Kuchma, but parliament did not pass the proposals.

Most of Kuchma’s ideas are therefore not new. He advanced them on the eve of a nationwide protest planned for March 9, which called for the resignation of the scandal tainted president. The left and right wings of the opposition brought tens of thousands of people out onto the streets in an impressive display of unity and determination. It was the largest such event that Ukraine has seen.

The fact that Kuchma timed his proposals to preempt the protests prompted even representatives of the governing elite to view them with skepticism. Lawmakers elected from single seat constituencies–and they are the majority in the pro-Kuchma camp–obviously have a vested interest in questioning the wisdom of a shift by which the lower chamber would be filled exclusively from party lists. The majority of lawmakers, irrespective of their political affiliation, also tend to believe that it would be unwise, and potentially disruptive, to introduce a bicameral parliament into a unitary state.

The opposition suspected Kuchma of evil intentions. “The president will only strengthen his authority, by obtaining the right to dissolve parliament,” Kuchma’s bitter opponent, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, told the Forum website. “The president appoints [regional] governors who will constitute the higher chamber. This means that the president will directly rule parliament,” Moroz warned. The proposal to hold parliamentary and presidential elections during the same year has prompted the opposition to suspect that Kuchma may be plotting to prolong his term in office. To hold the elections simultaneously, either the parliament elected only last year will have to exit office prematurely next year, or, in order to step down together with the current parliament, Kuchma will have to stay in office until 2006. Kuchma may play on the lawmakers’ reluctance to shorten their term in order to prolong his own, the opposition warned.

Kuchma’s constitutional reform proposals may indeed be driven by a fear of losing power. But he is hardly so naive as to believe that such a complex and controversial bill will be quickly approved by 300 lawmakers in the 450-seat parliament, as the constitution requires for constitutional amendments. The current parliament is divided nearly equally between Kuchma’s supporters and the opponents both of his government and of the elites he represents.

Kuchma is confronted not simply by the private fears of a man who could be indicted–once his presidential immunity is lost–for wrongdoings committed while in office. He is, rather, reflecting the fears of the entire ruling class, which faces the opposition’s growing popularity and its proclaimed determination to rid Ukraine not just of the current president, but also of the entire class of corrupt elites whose interests he represents. Kuchma’s constitutional proposals are apparently aimed at splitting the opposition over the issue of presidential versus parliamentary governance and thereby diverting them from their reform agenda.

Kuchma’s mouthpiece, the Epicenter Sunday TV news, indicated on March 9 that Kuchma is open to bargaining over his proposals with opposition factions in order to persuade them to accept his constitutional reform plan. But the four major opposition forces–the Communists and the Socialists on the one side, and Viktor Yushchenko’s liberals and nationalists and Tymoshenko’s right wing populists on the other–have different views on the main point in Kuchma’s plan. That is the proposal to increase parliament’s powers at the expense of the president’s.

In his March 5 TV address, Kuchma said that his call for the president to retain the right to appoint the four key ministers–and also regional governors and heads of executive agencies such as the State Tax Administration–was intended “to calm those who fear that the presidency will be made overly weak.” Tymoshenko’s bloc is among those harboring that fear. Yushchenko, confident of his presidential victory next year, is also against curtailing presidential powers. Yushchenko argues that a shift to parliamentary rule would be premature in a country lacking a strong civil society. But the Communists and the Socialists disagree. They favor a transition to a strong parliamentary system, one ruled by a prime minister answerable to parliament and a president with only a ceremonial role.

Well aware of just how highly sensitive an issue the presidential election is, the opposition has so far managed to avoid disputes over the question. It has concentrated its efforts instead on anti-Kuchma protests. The four major opposition forces are deliberately abstaining from discussing the possibility of nominating a single candidate for the presidency. But if they eventually fail to nominate one or if they split, the ruling elite will “appoint” its own. This is what happened three years ago in Russia.

Kuchma’s constitutional reform proposals are evidently designed to exacerbate the old enmity between the Communists and the nationalists, which are the opposition’s two largest forces. The Communists do not conceal that they are jealous of Yushchenko’s high level of popularity. At present the two are together against Kuchma in the streets. But Communists and nationalists remain bitter ideological rivals. It would therefore be natural for the Communists to embrace Kuchma’s plan of weakening the presidency if Yushchenko is to be the next president. One should not forget that the Communists, the most numerous and best organized political force in Ukraine, refused to support the anti-Kuchma protests that ensued after journalist Georgy Gongadze’s disappearance in late 2000. As a result, the protests withered away. Yushchenko seeks presidential powers that are no weaker than those of the current officeholder. If the Communists back Kuchma’s plan to curtail presidential authority and thereby break with Yushchenko, it will end the opposition’s fragile unity and constitute a victory for Kuchma’s team.

As was the case with the abortive constitutional referendum of April 2000, the March 2003 reform proposals of President Kuchma are an ingenious weapon aimed at his opponents, not a serious plan to improve the Ukrainian system of government. In 2000, Kuchma tamed a disobedient legislature by organizing a referendum on boosting his powers at the expense of the legislature. Now he is using seemingly radical proposals on decreasing presidential powers in order to spoil the game for the rivals of the governing elite in the upcoming presidential race.

Oleg Varfolomeyev is a freelance journalist based in Kyiv.