The opposition Party of Regions (PRU) of former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych has finally backed off its brinksmanship games over Ukraine’s application for a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). The PRU and their allies, the Communists, had blocked the parliamentary rostrum since the end of January, protesting against a letter in which President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and Parliamentary Speaker Arseny Yatsenyuk asked NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to give the green light to Ukraine joining MAP. The PRU returned to the session hall on March 6, realizing that Yushchenko would consider dissolving parliament. The Ukrainian parliament is now back to normal operations.
The opposition had demanded that Yatsenyuk recall his signature from the MAP letter, arguing that parliament did not authorize him to sign it, and that parliament should set the date for a NATO membership referendum (see EDM, February 14). As support for membership in the Alliance has hardly ever been higher than 25%, the opposition believed that a referendum would postpone the membership issue indefinitely. The blockade of parliament suspended the process of forming Tymoshenko’s cabinet, and an early election could even threaten the prospect of WTO entry for Ukraine this year.
The coalition of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine – People’s Self-Defense (NUNS) and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) did not bow to pressure. They declared their readiness for a dissolution of parliament and another early election, despite the fact that Yushchenko dissolved the previous parliament less than a year ago. Yanukovych increased pressure on the coalition, threatening to take his followers to launch popular protests against NATO membership.
The constitution allows the president to dissolve parliament if it fails to assemble for 30 days. Yushchenko said on February 27 that he was not ready to dissolve the assembly, although he admitted that he might eventually do so. Yanukovych responded to that message on March 4, saying that if the opposition’s demands on NATO were not met, the PRU “will address the Ukrainian people and start mass protests.”
This was followed within hours by a warning from National Security and Defense Council Secretary Raisa Bohatyryova, who is ironically still formally a member of the PRU, that Yushchenko might launch the process of parliamentary dissolution if the lawmakers did not resume working within “the next couple of days.” Bohatyryova accused both the coalition and the opposition of disrupting parliament’s work, and she warned against giving ultimatums to the president.
This warning worked. On March 6, all parliamentary caucuses but the Communists agreed to resume normal work. The agreement that they reached read more like an act of capitulation by the PRU, rather than a compromise solution, as Vladyslav Kaskiv, one of the leaders of NUNS, noted. The PRU withdrew its demands regarding the MAP letter and for a resolution saying that “a decision on an international agreement on Ukraine joining NATO shall be taken only as a result of a national referendum,” was passed by 248 votes in the 450-seat body.
Both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko had asserted earlier that Ukraine would join NATO only after a referendum. Yushchenko accepted this PRU demand in 2006, when he signed the National Unit Declaration (Universal in Ukrainian), and Tymoshenko has never been against a referendum. Thus the PRU did not achieve anything by disrupting parliament’s work for more than a month, but its relations with its main partner in parliament, the Communists, worsened, as the Communists did not accept the March 6 resolution and were not against another early election.
Although all of the three major parties – the PRU, NUNS, and BYuT – in February declared readiness for an early election, none of them really wanted it. BYuT is satisfied with its current status as senior coalition partner. The NUNS bloc, weakened by an internal dispute that culminated in an exodus of several influential members from the bloc’s main party, Our Ukraine, including Yushchenko’s main aide Viktor Baloha (see EDM, February 20), was probably the least ready for an election. The PRU is not in the best shape either: public opinion polls show that it is currently less popular than BYuT, and the March 1 congress of deputies in Severodonetsk confirmed that several influential PRU members do not support Yanukovych’s line (see EDM, March 5).
A “Protocol of Understanding” released by parliament’s press service on March 6, stipulated that parliament would shortly consider a new bill on the Cabinet of Ministers, bills for completing WTO entry, and bills limiting deputy immunity from prosecution, it will also discuss an action plan for the Tymoshenko cabinet. Parliament on March 7 voted against including the deputy immunity bill on the agenda, although during last year’s early election campaign canceling deputy immunity was one of the main promises of most of the parties now represented in parliament.
(Interfax-Ukraine, February 27, March 4, 6; UNIAN, Channel 5, March 6, www.rada.gov.ua, March 6, 7)