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Ukraine: Kuchma Says Reform Plan Would Shift Power To Parliament

  • Jeremy Bransten

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has unveiled a series of proposals he says are designed to shift the balance of power away from the presidency in favor of parliament. Kuchma's constitutional-reform package, outlined in a television address on 5 March, incorporates some ideas initially advanced by the opposition. But Kuchma's opponents say his proposals fall short of what they are seeking and will mean that most power in Ukraine continues to remain with the presidency.

Prague, 7 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, long accused by the opposition of centralizing power and actively stifling reform, set out to prove his critics wrong this week.

Kuchma, in a televised address on 5 March, unveiled a comprehensive package of constitutional amendments that he said would shift the balance of power in Ukraine away from the presidency toward the legislature. Kuchma said his proposals, if approved by parliament, would transform the country into a "parliamentary-presidential" republic, striking a more equitable balance between the interests of the executive and legislature. "What is the point of switching from a presidential-parliamentary model to a parliamentary-presidential model? In brief, the presidential-parliamentary model played a very important historic role, especially in the first years of statehood. It provided stability to both society and the state. But today, it is absolutely clear that the present constitution, in spirit, presupposes a mechanism of checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches of government," Kuchma said.

Under the Kuchma reform plan, the president would retain the right to appoint the ministers of defense, interior, emergency situations, and foreign affairs, often referred to as the "power" seats in the cabinet. All other ministers would be appointed by parliament, giving legislators greater control over such areas as economic and social policy.

The prime minister, while nominated by Kuchma, would continue to require parliamentary confirmation. Parliament itself would acquire a second chamber, which Kuchma said would ensure greater representation of the country's regions. Direct democracy, he said, would be strengthened by the institution of binding referendums, whose results would become law automatically.

Kuchma appealed to citizens directly in his television address to support his plan: "I ask all those who are not indifferent to the future of Ukraine, to all those who are interested in safeguarding democracy and the development of our state: Take an active part in the discussions on this extremely important issue."

But many Kuchma opponents have expressed reservations about the proposal, calling it too little, too late -- a last-minute attempt to avert more protests and resuscitate the president's tumbling popularity.

Kuchma's plan, they say, waters down proposals originally put forward by the opposition and will in fact do little to redress the balance of power away from the presidency.

Maksim Strikha of the Kyiv-based Institute for Open Politics spoke to RFE/RL: "This is not about a switch from a presidential-parliamentary republic to a parliamentary-presidential system but rather about a switch from today's hypercentralized presidential dictatorship to incorporating certain elements of a presidential-parliamentary republic."

Strikha said the fact that under Kuchma's plan, the president would retain most of the key powers he currently has, means the proposal is mostly cosmetic. "The president intends to retain the right to nominate the prime minister for parliamentary approval. This means that no politician can become premier without being first nominated by the president. The president intends to have the right to dissolve parliament. He wants to retain the right to appoint four so-called power ministers without parliamentary approval: the minister of defense, the foreign minister, the interior minister, and the minister for emergency situations. Finally, the president wants to retain the right to appoint regional governors," Strikha said.

By saddling parliament with responsibility for the troubled economy while retaining his grip on the "power" ministries and regional leaders, the president, Strikha argued, might actually strengthen his hand.

In addition, Strikha said, creating a second chamber of parliament -- to be staffed by regional leaders -- could actually serve to weaken the overall power of the legislature, as does the introduction of binding referendums. "With these differences in the way both chambers are formed, this creates -- given Ukrainian conditions -- a constant conflict between the two chambers, which weakens parliament as an institution. In addition, Kuchma's proposal envisages automatically making the results of referendums into binding laws, without parliamentary approval. This means that the president, having retained control over the "power ministries," and having retained his executive chain of command in the regions, will always be able to institute anything he wants through a referendum," Strikha said.

Mykhaylo Pohrebinskyy, adviser to the presidential chief of staff, disagrees. He said the opposition proposal, originally floated by former parliamentary chairman Oleksandr Moroz and his associates, would shift power too radically to the legislature. Kuchma's proposal, he said, is better-balanced. "The proposal put forward by Moroz and others is a proposal to switch to a pure parliamentary system where the president ceases to be an active political player. The president's proposal is a compromise under which the president remains relatively strong and the prime minister becomes relatively strong and independent from the president, drawing his power from the parliamentary majority," Pohrebinskyy said.

Pohrebinskyy said that in future -- if Kuchma's plan is adopted -- the parliamentary majority will be a better reflection of the will of the voters since Kuchma's proposal calls for the lower chamber of the legislature to be elected on a purely proportional basis. At present, only half of the chamber is elected proportionally, with seats assigned to parties according to the percentage of votes they received nationwide, with the other half elected from single-mandate constituencies.

Pohrebinskyy also noted that Kuchma's plan calls for local governors to be nominated by the prime minister before being confirmed by the president, ensuring a closer link between regional leaders and parliament.

Pohrebinskyy said some elements of the president's proposal will likely have to be altered to gain parliamentary approval, notably the idea of a second legislative chamber. But he is optimistic that with some work, the proposal could pass by year's end. "I think that once this proposal is restructured in a more realistic fashion, in a compromise fashion that can suit the parliamentary majority, it may have a chance to pass, but not earlier. I think it unlikely that the idea of a second chamber, for example, will be approved," Pohrebinskyy said.

Kuchma will need 300 votes in the 450-seat parliament for passage, and with some 200 skeptical deputies in opposition ranks, he lacks sufficient votes at present.

Strikha said that perhaps Kuchma's aim is to gain time and goodwill and not necessarily to pass any major reforms before the end of his term in the autumn of 2004. "If he [Kuchma] truly attempts to stick to all the procedures and deadlines, to conduct a national discussion, then to put the proposal to parliament, then present it to the Constitutional Court and await a verdict, then back to parliament for a first reading with amendments, then another reading with amendments, the whole procedure will not be completed before the end of the president's term. And some experts say the aim is perhaps to put the brakes on this reform," Strikha said.

Whether meant in earnest or as a tactical gambit, Kuchma's proposal appears to put the initiative back in the president's camp, posing a challenge to the opposition and protesters trying to unseat him.

(Julia Zhmakina and Alexander Narodetsky of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)

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