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Will Rule of Law Prevail in Ukraine?

(Washington, DC--May 21, 2004) Ukraine stands at the threshold of becoming either a free and liberal democracy or a nation plagued with internal corruption and the erosion of constitutionally guaranteed rights, according to U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Bohdan Futey. Judge Futey, who has been active since 1991 in rule of law and democratization programs in Ukraine, spoke at a recent RFE/RL briefing just after returning to the U.S. from Ukraine.

Judge Futey stated that numerous obstacles have developed since the last election cycle that could derail the democratic presidential election that the international community wants to see take place in Ukraine on October 31, 2004. Futey noted that an ill-prepared court system has become the preferred venue to contest election results in Ukraine, creating confusion in the electoral laws through inconsistent rulings. In the year 2000 alone, over 500 election disputes were adjudicated in district courts, often in jurisdictions far from the municipality where the election took place. A special administrative court established by the parliament in December 2003 to hear such election dispute cases, however, has only had nine of the required sixty-seven judges appointed to it -- a fact which may become significant, Futey said, if a challenge arises during the fall presidential election. Additionally, Futey noted, the judicial system has failed to issue regulations regarding election rules and policies for the election commissions.

The "Constitutional Court of Ukraine lies at the center of the controversy" between the Verkhovna Rada (national parliament) and Ukraine's president over the upcoming presidential elections, said Futey. The Constitutional Court supported constitutional changes that would have replaced the current system of direct, popular election of the president with an indirect election by parliament, and potentially allowed the current incumbent, Leonid Kuchma, to run for an unprecedented third term. The Court's approval of the proposals was widely criticized both within and outside of Ukraine. Although both proposals were rejected by the parliament, Futey observed that they demonstrate a tendency by both Ukraine's parliament and judiciary to not always consistently adhere to democratic decisions.

Futey discussed how local elections could be harbingers for the national elections and how they are monitored. In the recent mayoral election in Mukachevo, journalists and politicians were beaten, hooligans disrupted polling sites preventing citizens from voting, ballots and protocols disappeared. Similar tactics could be utilized in the national election to taint the voting results, Futey said, and concluded that "any step that moves Ukraine away from free, representative government could prove devastating when international leaders judge the viability of Ukraine's democracy."

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