Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 7

Signatures have been collected in Ukraine in favor of holding a referendum on membership in NATO and the Single Economic Space — a loose economic union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. The Central Electoral Commission (CEC) has confirmed that the signatures are valid. Pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko is against the referendum, however, because the answer on NATO will most probably be no, as NATO is unpopular in Ukraine. What initially looked like a hopeless campaign by political outsiders may badly affect the country’s NATO membership prospect. The SES membership issue is not as controversial, as apparently neither Yushchenko nor Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is against it in principle.

The signature collection campaign was launched by the Social Democratic Party-United (SDPUo) of Viktor Medvedchuk, a former key aide to former president Leonid Kuchma, in October 2005. The SDPUo, along with the Communists (CPU), used the issue in the run-up to the April 2006 parliamentary election to capitalize on the pro-Russian sentiment in eastern and southern Ukraine. This did not help them much, as the SDPUo lost the election, and the CPU got only 20 seats in the 450-strong parliament. In any case, the organizers submitted to the CEC in March 2006 far more than the three million signatures legally required for a referendum.

At least 200,000 signatures were falsified, and 28 related criminal cases were launched, according to CEC chief Yaroslav Dadydovych. Nevertheless, on December 29 the CEC officially approved the validity of more than four million signatures. Davydovych told a press conference that the commission has done what it legally was obliged to do, and now it is up to Yushchenko to sign the relevant decree to schedule the vote. Yushchenko’s secretariat has not concealed its skepticism. The secretariat will check the authenticity of the signatures once again, Yushchenko’s press secretary Iryna Vannykova announced on December 30.

Yanukovych was less doubtful. “A state body not subordinated to any branch of power [i.e. the CEC] has delivered its verdict, which we have to abide by,” the press service of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions quoted him as saying. Yanukovych noted that this is probably not the best time for a referendum on NATO and the SES, but “if we live according to laws of a democratic society, we have to respect and fully abide by democratic principles, irrespective of the context or individuals involved.” The CPU, predictably, welcomed the development. CPU leader Petro Symonenko urged parliament on January 9 to do all it can to compel Yushchenko to call a referendum.

Segodnya, a newspaper critical of Yushchenko, has quoted analyst Volodymyr Malynkovych as saying that, according to the constitution, Yushchenko will have to call a referendum. But Yushchenko may delay this for as long as he wants, as no law compels him to make a decision immediately, Malynkovych noted. Another expert quoted by Segodnya, former parliament deputy speaker Viktor Musiyaka, pointed to a discrepancy between the constitution and the 1991 law on referenda, which obliges parliament’s presidium — a body scrapped more than a decade ago — rather than the president to set the date for a referendum.

Analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told Segodnya that neither Yushchenko nor Yanukovych are interested in a referendum on NATO and the SES. He suggested, however, that Yanukovych might push for such a referendum if Yushchenko insists on a referendum to reverse constitutional reform. This means that Yanukovych and the majority in parliament, which supports him, may use the NATO and SES referendum threat as a tool to thwart Yushchenko’s plan to reverse the constitutional amendments that significantly weakened the president vis-à-vis parliament (see EDM, November 29, 2006).

Popular support for NATO membership has been hovering around 20% during the past six years or so, according to various opinion polls, so the negative result of a referendum is easy to predict. Another referendum on the same issue may be held only after five years, according to the law on referenda. The same law leaves to parliament the option to override referendum results by a two-thirds vote. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc, which is the only consistently pro-NATO force in parliament, is very far from controlling two-thirds, even if it secures support of the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc. This means that a referendum on NATO could put off Ukraine’s membership bid until at least 2011, when the next parliamentary election is due to be held. It will also strengthen doubts in the West about the seriousness of Ukraine’s NATO choice.

The Declaration of National Unity that both Yushchenko and Yanukovych signed in August 2006 stipulates that a referendum should be held as the last stage of the NATO accession process. The Declaration is more ambiguous on the SES, containing no referendum requirement, linking Ukraine’s membership of SES to World Trade Organization rules and urging a free-trade zone as the prerequisite for full participation in the SES. Opinion polls show that more than half of Ukrainians support SES membership for the country.

(Channel 5, December 29, 30, January 9; Segodnya, January 3; ProUA.com, January 4)