Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 38

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma may have gone too far in his move to weaken political opposition in the legislature through a constitutional referendum scheduled for April 16 (see the Monitor, January 21). Both domestic and foreign legal experts are pointing out that it is unclear how a second chamber in a bicameral legislature will be formed, how the number of MPs can be slashed from 450 to 300 without dissolving the parliament (Verkhovna Rada) altogether, and how the proposed constitutional amendments will be introduced if the Rada is disbanded. The formula which allows the president to dissolve parliament if it fails to form a majority looks dubious at best. The notion of amending the constitution by plebiscite is even shakier.

Doubts about the constitutionality of the referendum were expressed both in a U.S. Embassy statement on January 29, and by a Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) letter to Kuchma on January 31. The PACE letter–written by its president Lord Russell-Johnston–was apparently unexpected and unwanted. The Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry at first and publicly even denied its existence. The letter, however, was only one of the developments about which rapporteurs of the PACE Monitoring Committee, who were in Kyiv on February 17-18 to study the legal side of the referendum, expressed concern. They tried to persuade Kuchma to suspend referendum preparations until the Venice Commission–the Council of Europe’s legal advisory body–passes a verdict on the referendum’s constitutionality, which they’re scheduled to do in early April. Kuchma refused, arguing first that only the referendum can make parliament function “properly.” This argument is a thin one, because a pro-Kuchma majority in parliament has already been formed. Kuchma’s second basis for refusal was that he cannot disregard “the people’s will”–referring to the 3 million signatures collected in support of the referendum. Ukraine’s Central Electoral Commission, however, has reportedly failed to produce the signature lists when asked to do so by PACE envoys, which raises even more doubts about the legality of the whole affair.

The referendum is unconditionally supported by only one political force–oligarch Oleksandr Volkov’s Democratic Union, which collected those signatures. Volkov, a long-time Kuchma aide, argues that the current Rada majority is merely a “situational” one, having emerged under threat of parliamentary dissolution. As such, he says, it is not viable. All other major political forces, left and right alike, have so far expressed either reservations or open disapproval of the referendum. The Rada–which showed its teeth to Kuchma by slashing the expenditure earmarked for the referendum by 40 percent in the 2000 state budget approved last week–obviously fears its looming dissolution. It would seem that such concerns are not altogether fanciful. A referendum as proposed by Kuchma could pave the way for an autocratic rule–Kuchma’s own perhaps–in Ukraine.

Significantly, the PACE envoys in Kyiv recalled Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rejection of the Venice Commission’s verdict on the illegitimacy of the infamous Belarusan referendum of 1996, in which Lukashenka “won” over the parliament and democracy. Kuchma hardly harbors dictatorial ambitions, but he is in a tight corner. Canceling the referendum would equate both to admitting a blunder and to yielding political initiative to the opposition. Much will now depend on the ruling by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court on the referendum, which is expected by early March. (UNIAN, January 29, February 17, 18; DINAU, February 8; Fakty i kommentarii, February 10; Holos Ukrainy, February 11; Ukraina Moloda, February 18; Vechirny Kyiv, February 19)