Strasbourg, 12 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Contradictions were apparent in yesterday's European Parliament debate.
One the one hand, speakers said Ukraine deserved a future with Europe. They expressed regret about the opportunities lost during the long decades of Soviet rule, and appeared eager to offer Kyiv closer ties with Brussels.
But the members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were equally strong in their condemnation of Ukraine's president, Leonid Kuchma. They said Kuchma and his administration are increasingly bold in their flouting of basic political rights and democratic principles.
"President Kuchma's belated interest, surely before his term of office expires, in transforming Ukraine's system from an executive presidential to a parliamentary majority one with an appointed executive prime minster raises grounds for suspecting that this is a political maneuver designed to perpetuate his hold on power when he is trailing far behind the opposition leader...in the polls."
Glyn Ford, a British MEP, welcomed Ukraine's aspirations to move closer to the EU. But at the same time he expressed doubts whether partnership is conceivable under current circumstances. "Genuine partnership can only develop on the basis of shared common values -- in particular, democracy, the rule of law and respect of human and civil rights," he said. "At the moment those conditions are not being met in the Ukraine and the situation is deteriorating."
The intensifying clampdown on independent media came under especially fierce condemnation during the debate.
The closures of the newspaper "Silski visti" and Radio Kontynent, which broadcast Radio Liberty and other Western programming, were repeatedly mentioned during yesterday session. So were the recent unexplained deaths of journalist Yuriy Chechyk and other leading news reporters. Both subjects are included in the declaration adopted by the parliament at the end of the debate last night.
MEPs also sharply criticized Kuchma's alleged use of the secret services to spy on journalists, opposition politicians, and even foreign officials involved in Ukrainian matters. Ukraine's abysmal prison conditions and the widespread practice of arbitrary detention were also attacked.
Most speakers condemned the president's campaign to amend the country's constitution ahead of the October presidential elections. Kuchma seeks to change the constitution to drastically diminish the powers of the presidency by boosting the currently weak powers of the prime minister.
Opponents say the proposal is designed to cheat Ukraine's opposition out of real power after the predicted victory of their candidate in presidential elections set for October. The leader of the county's biggest opposition bloc, Viktor Yushchenko of Our Ukraine, is tipped to win.
Speaking yesterday, British MEP Charles Tannock came close to ridiculing Kuchma's attempted constitutional machinations. "President Kuchma's belated interest, surely before his term of office expires, in transforming Ukraine's system from an executive presidential to a parliamentary majority one with an appointed executive prime minster raises grounds for suspecting that this is a political maneuver designed to perpetuate his hold on power when he is trailing far behind the opposition leader, Mr. [Viktor] Yushchenko, in the polls," Tannock said. "The first constitutional amendment vote in this direction on 24 December was strongly criticized by the Parliamentary Assembly to the Council of Europe because it used a show of hands. Some deputies were even photographed with both hands in the air."
Tannock went on to say that the amended constitutional bill presented in February goes some way towards rectifying these shortcomings by restoring some powers to the future president. But he noted that once again, the present government had hurried the bill through the parliament without proper debate. Tannock also said that Ukraine's constitution can only be changed in a referendum.
Pedro Solbes, the EU commissioner for economic and financial matters, stood in for his colleague Chris Patten, the external affairs commissioner, yesterday. Solbes was cautious in his response to the critical views expressed in the debate. He stressed Ukraine's role as an important strategic partner for the EU, and said the bloc must seek to strengthen ties with Kyiv.
Solbes did promise the EU would keep a "watchful eye" over developments in Ukraine and stressed that the October elections must be transparent and fair. He said the European Commission would also "continue to express concern" over the deterioration of media freedoms, which he said raises "serious questions."
In the end, however, Solbes said the EU will continue aiming toward constructive cooperation with Kyiv. He also hinted strongly that Ukraine will be among the new neighbors to receive an EU "action plan" in May for building closer political and economic ties.