Two weeks ago, the government of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma launched a nationwide preparation of the presidential election referendum. The election will be held this weekend, on October 31. It is planned that the plebiscite will be on three major issues: cancellation of the deputy immunity, creation of a bicameral legislative body and adoption of the constitution of 1996. According to the constitution, at least 3 million signatures must be collected in at least seventeen of Ukraine’s twenty-five regions, with no less than 100,000 signatures of each of the seventeen for the president to call a referendum. The collection of signatures began across several Ukrainian regions last week.
Kuchma’s victory in the elections would strengthen chances that the referendum will be approved nationwide. At the same time, Kuchma’s team is using the populist issue of cancellation of deputy immunity as a campaign tool in the current elections. The notion that deputy immunity should be canceled is very popular among ordinary Ukrainians. The perverted understanding of this privilege as a legal license to engage in criminal activities and avoid accountability is propagated by government-controlled electronic media. It is fueled by the saga of the fugitive former premier and current MP, Pavlo Lazarenko, who fled to the United States from embezzlement charges in Ukraine and Switzerland (see the Monitor, February 23). The crusade against this immunity adds to Kuchma’s campaign image of a corruption fighter.
The second question to be decided at the plebiscite–the constitution adoption–is actually about amendments concerning presidential authorities in the economic sphere. The Ukrainian constitution was adopted in the summer of 1996 by the parliament, which won against Kuchma, who wanted the constitution to be adopted by a referendum. The president wanted to have more constitutional powers at the expense of parliament, especially in the economic sphere. Parliament’s adopting the constitution dashed those hopes. Now Kuchma wants to prolong his authority to issue economic decrees by constitutional amendment. This authority, which helped Kuchma override the parliament’s opposition to liberal reforms, was for three years provided by transitional clauses of the constitution. It expired this past summer (see the Monitor, June 29).
The nationwide collection of signatures is organized by the Ukrainian Association of Leaders of Local and Regional Bodies, an organization created by the government last July, which consists of local leaders ranging from village heads to MPs of the Crimean parliament. These leaders are genuinely interested in establishment of a bicameral parliament. Such a body would increase their authority vis-a-vis the current unicameral Verkhovna Rada–which would be the lower chamber according to Kuchma’s design, while the upper house would consist of regional governors. This would boost the role of the regions. The leftist opposition is hostile to the idea. Verkhovna Rada chairman, Oleksandr Tkachenko, who initially cautiously supported it (see the Monitor, July 19), later announced his opposition to a bicameral parliament. This is only natural, as the upper house would inevitably diminish his authority. Communist leader Petro Symonenko spoke against a bicameral body enhancing the role of regions, arguing that Ukraine is a unitary state by constitution. The communists have the largest faction in the Verkhovna Rada, so they are not happy at the prospect of losing a portion of their current influence on lawmaking either. It is interesting that Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, who was defeated by Kuchma in the elections of 1994, but who is currently backing Kuchma, also looks askance at a bicameral parliament. Speaking on October 23, Kravchuk argued that the upper chamber, defending regional interests, would favor an “artificial division” of Ukraine. The idea of introduction of elements of federalism is not new to Kuchma: In 1993 he supported federalism for Ukraine as one of the founders of Interregional Bloc of Reforms, an organization close to Russia-oriented “red directors” from the East of Ukraine, who wanted to be more independent from Kiev in the economic sphere.
Now the motivation is different. Regional leaders are seen by Kuchma as natural allies against the opposition-dominated Verkhovna Rada. The governors in Ukraine, unlike in neighboring Russia, are not popularly elected, but appointed by the president. What Kuchma therefore wants is a docile upper house acting as a buffer between the executive and the opposition-minded lower house. It is still unclear what the new chamber might look like. Speaking in the “Epicenter” political show run by Studio 1+1 TV, Kuchma suggested that the upper house should consist of some 100 seats and at least a portion of them will probably be elective, while there are only twenty-five regional governors in Ukraine (DINAU, July 16; Ukrainian radio, September 28; Studio 1+1, October 17; UT-1, October 19, 23; Segodnya, October 21; ICTV, October 22).
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