Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 15

On January 15, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma signed a decree scheduling a long-promised constitutional referendum for April 16 (see the Monitor, June 29, July 19, October 29). The plebiscite will decide the issues: (1) passing a no-confidence vote in the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada), (2) allowing the president to dissolve parliament if its members do not form the majority Kuchma has in mind or the parliament fails to pass the state budget within three months of the draft submission, (3) decreasing the number of MPs from 450 to 300, (4) introducing a bicameral legislature, (5) canceling the deputy immunity from prosecution, and (6) adopting the constitution by national referendum.

Still on the crest of a wave after his November election victory, Kuchma wants to deliver a decisive blow to the opposition by shaping the legislature to his design. There is little doubt that his proposals will pass. The current parliament is very unpopular and public opinion is ripe for canceling the deputy immunity after the embezzlement scandal involving fugitive former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko. Should the referendum succeed, the Rada could be dissolved and the elections be held early–before the next constitutionally scheduled ones of 2002 and most probably this fall. With a bicameral parliament–in which the higher chamber would consist of regional representatives and which could be dissolved even for a failure to pass the budget in a timely fashion (this, after all, can be the government’s fault)–Kuchma hopes to obtain a docile legislature with a diluted opposition. A constitution by referendum would enable Kuchma to boost his constitutional powers at the expense of parliament (in particular), to prolong his authority (which expired last summer), and to issue decrees on economic issues unregulated by provisional clauses of the 1996 constitution.

On January 11, hoping to prolong its own existence, the Rada adopted a law, by a vote of 309-24, which introduced a temporary moratorium on referendums. The legality of this regulation is in question; clearly, the president will veto it. Kuchma argued that this law contradicts the constitution and then mocked the deputies for fearing “the people’s will.” The referendum is backed by pro-Kuchma oligarchs and centrists in parliament. At the same time, it is heavily criticized by both the left and right wings. The left-leaning Rada Speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko accused Kuchma of harboring dictatorial ambitions; the Socialist leader, Oleksandr Moroz, believes that the referendum may result in “legal chaos.” A similar opinion was expressed by the leaders of Yury Kostenko’s right-wing Rukh, the Reforms and Order Party and the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, who on January 17 issued a statement calling the referendum a “threat to constitutional order in Ukraine” and claiming that it is only in the interest of “the clans who are resisting real reforms.”

The promptness with which the 3 million signatures in support of the referendum were collected across Ukraine is astonishing. The first initiative group to collect those signatures was registered with the Central Electoral Commission less than a month ago, on December 24. The key figure in this campaign was Kuchma’s indispensable aide, “oligarch” Oleksandr Volkov, who had also steered Kuchma’s two successful presidential campaigns in 1994 and 1999. The signatures were collected by Volkov’s Democratic Union–a rising star in Ukrainian party politics, registered only in May 1998, but already having immense resources and Kuchma’s backing. In December, the Democratic Union elected Volkov and several natural gas tycoons–including Ihor Bakay, chief of the Naftohaz Ukrainy state oil and gas conglomerate–into its governing body. The signature collection for the constitutional referendum was a propitious occasion for the gas tycoons to demonstrate their loyalty to Kuchma, in view of the imminent redistribution of influence in the domestic gas market on the appointment of Yulia Tymoshenko, a former gas tycoon herself, as deputy premier for fuel and energy (Den, December 21; Ukrainian agencies, January 11-12, 15, 18; Inter TV, January 15; Kievskie vedomosti, UNIAN, January 17).