Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 168

The Party of Regions (PRU), led by Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, has come up with a plan for a referendum touching on the sensitive issues of language, NATO membership, and local governance. The party’s rivals have been skeptical about the referendum: President Viktor Yushchenko has rejected it, and there is apparently no unity on the referendum even within the PRU. A referendum campaign, however, may help the PRU mobilize its electorate ahead of the early parliamentary election scheduled for September 30.

Borys Kolesnikov, the leader of the PRU’s election campaign headquarters, announced the start of a campaign to organize the referendum, addressing a press conference in Kyiv on September 5. He said Ukrainians will be asked to decide whether Russian should be a second official language, along with Ukrainian; whether the regional governors and heads of districts within regions should be popularly elected rather than appointed by the president, as is now; and whether Ukraine should preserve its non-aligned status. The last question is clearly about NATO membership, of which the PRU has been less than enthusiastic.

Kolesnikov admitted that organizing a referendum in Ukraine is a very complex process. It requires the collection of at least three million signatures and approval by parliament, the president, and the Constitutional Court. He, however, optimistically estimated that it should be possible for the PRU to organize the referendum within 60-75 days, which would be after the parliamentary election, but before the end of 2007.

The PRU is apparently confident that the referendum will be a success. Popular support for NATO membership in Ukraine has hardly ever been higher than 25-30%; various polls show that about half of Ukrainians or more are in favor of raising the status of the Russian language; and the idea of electing governors should not be rejected by the people.

Yushchenko has warned that the issues raised by the PRU are too sensitive and accused the PRU of trying to destabilize Ukraine by calling the referendum. Yushchenko’s negative reaction was predictable, as the goals pursued by the referendum contradict the goals he has been pursuing as president. Yushchenko’s vision of Ukraine is that of a NATO member, and a monolingual state with strong presidential power, where he handpicks regional governors.

Yushchenko’s key ally, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT), also rejected the PRU-proposed referendum. Oleksandr Turchynov, Tymoshenko’s right-hand man, said this was “a dangerous election campaign trick,” “divisive for this country and its people.” He noted that the PRU, although it has been in power for more than a year, it had waited until now to raise the issues of the Russian language and NATO.

The Socialists, the key allies of the PRU in the outgoing parliament, have been rather skeptical about the referendum proposal. Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko, who is number two on the Socialists’ election list, called it “political bluff” and said that it is “unlikely to be held.” There is no unity even within PRU ranks. Taras Chornovil, one of the PRU’s unofficial spokespersons, told RFE/RL that the language issue should be probably dropped from the referendum, as it is too divisive. Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych, who runs on the PRU’s list in the election, noted that any initiative to hold a referendum is dubious because the Ukrainian referendum legislation is very imperfect.

The referendum can be only non-binding, as the implementation of its results would require new amendments to the constitution, Yuriy Myroshnychenko, head of the PRU’s legal service, admitted. Amending the constitution requires 300 votes “in favor” in the 450-seat Ukrainian legislature, which the PRU and its allies will hardly command after the election. Nevertheless, the PRU launched a signature campaign for the referendum on September 7, simultaneously in Kyiv and several of Ukraine’s largest cities, where the Russian language dominates, NATO is unpopular, and Yushchenko is not liked: Donetsk, Kharkiv, Simferopol, Odessa, and Poltava.

By launching the referendum campaign, the PRU mobilizes its electorate ahead of the September 30 vote, most of whom are Russian-speaking and wary of NATO membership. At the same time, it weakens the PRU’s possible allies in the next parliament, the Communists and the radical leftist Progressive Socialists, who compete for the like-minded electorate in the east and south of Ukraine. The PRU’s referendum initiative may also spoil the campaign for the BYuT, overshadowing the BYuT’s own referendum initiative on changing the constitution (see EDM, September 6). Compared to the PRU’s simple questions on highly controversial matters, the BYuT’s constitutional ideas may be too abstract and difficult for an ordinary voter to grasp.

(Channel 5, September 5, 7; Interfax-Ukraine, September 5-7; UNIAN, RFE/RL, September 6; Ukrainski Novyny, September 7)