The April 2 release of ardent oppositionist and former Deputy Premier for Fuel and Energy Yulia Tymoshenko (see the Monitor, April 3) has seemingly consolidated Ukraine’s antipresidential protesters. The National Salvation Forum (NSF), which Tymoshenko had co-founded before her arrest in February, has approved her idea of a referendum of no confidence in President Leonid Kuchma and taken other oppositionist groups under its organizational wing.
On the day of her release, Tymoshenko announced that her main goal would be to oust the president from office. “Ukraine must understand clearly that it has no future with President Kuchma,” she said, speaking from the hospital, to which she had been admitted for a stomach ulcer. Some papers explained her ostentatious radicalism and haste to action by a desire to disperse rumors attributing her release to a backstage agreement with the president. They were wrong. On April 3, Tymoshenko gave a no-less-radical interview to Moscow’s Izvestia, saying that she would participate in the presidential election. The wording was deliberately vague, however, and it was not clear whether she wants to run herself or back another candidate. She also spoke against the anti-Kuchma street protests, saying that they were not enough to make him resign. She then announced a new, more sophisticated action plan: to remove the president through popular referendum.
Other oppositionist leaders embraced this suggestion. On April 5, two radical wings of the noncommunist opposition–Ukraine Without Kuchma, the organization coordinating street protests, and For Truth, the student forum–agreed that NSF would henceforth coordinate their activities. On April 7, this united democratic opposition announced a change of strategy, dropping the idea of negotiations with Kuchma as unrealistic (see the Monitor, April 3), and announcing a no-confidence referendum as its goal. Tymoshenko, who came to the forum from the hospital, called on the NSF to organize referendum headquarters “in every condominium, at every university and factory.”
Such a decisive change of course might narrow the basis of support for the opposition. It might leave the far-right organizations such as the Ukrainian National Assembly, which put a strong emphasis on street protests, disinterested in further cooperation with the NSF. It might also scare off the moderate right-wing NSF sympathizers in parliament, such as the Rukh and the Reforms and Order party, who are still, albeit only formally, members in the pro-presidential majority. These moderate groups supported the calls for dismissal of certain Kuchma’s henchmen–Prosecutor General Mykhaylo Potebenko and Tax Administration Chief Mykola Azarov, for example–but may be not ready to back a presidential impeachment.
At the same time, a referendum strategy will streamline the noncommunist antipresidential opponents, who so far have had no clearly defined strategy. The street protests lost momentum after the violence in Kyiv on March 9 (see the Monitor, March 14), and were not popularly supported anywhere outside Kyiv, except in Lviv. Various polls show that, on the one hand, Kuchma is very unpopular, but that, on the other, Ukrainians are wary about radical means of protest, such as demonstrations. In launching a referendum, the NSF will try both to make the anti-Kuchma movement nationwide and to de-radicalize it. The opposition will certainly use a referendum as a campaign tool for the upcoming March 2002 parliamentary elections. This was most likely the driving consideration behind the NSF decision. A referendum campaign is likely to boost the popularity of NSF leaders and the parties they represent, Tymoshenko and her Motherland party in particular. As to ousting Kuchma, Ukrainian laws make it virtually impossible to impeach president through a referendum. According to the constitution, signatures of no less than 3 million people in at least eighteen of Ukraine’s twenty-seven regions, with no less than 100,000 signatures in each region, should be collected to launch a referendum. The NSF hardly has financial or human resource for that. Moreover, it is up to the president to launch a referendum by signing a corresponding decree. It would be naive to expect that Kuchma, who has recently confirmed that he would not resign until the next presidential elections (scheduled for 2004), would sign any such document (Russia TV (RTR), April 2; Izvestia, April 3; Ukrainska pravda, April 5; New Channel TV, April 7).
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