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Ukraine: Opposition Disrupts Parliament

The head of the Ukrainian parliament has suspended proceedings until next month, following days of disruption by opposition forces. The opposition is battling proposed constitutional changes that would curtail the president's powers. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports that the opposition considers the changes an attempt to preserve President Leonid Kuchma's influence.

Prague, 16 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman of the Ukrainian parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn, suspended the assembly yesterday after continuing disruptions by the opposition, which made normal work impossible.

Lytvyn, who supports the pro-President Leonid Kuchma majority in parliament, said the body will reconvene early next month. He said that bailiffs will be present to maintain order, by physical means if necessary.

The opposition has been mobbing the rostrum, shouting down speakers, and disconnecting the electronic vote-counting apparatus. It is battling against proposed constitutional changes that would dramatically diminish the powers of the next president -- to be elected in October -- and increase the prime minister's powers.

"In the same way that you can't be slightly pregnant, you can't be slightly principled."
Parliament member Ivan Zayets is a deputy of the opposition Our Ukraine party, the largest single political faction. He said the demonstrations will continue.

"This project to change the constitution is extraordinarily damaging," he said. "It's not any kind of reform. It's an attempt to keep this government in the hands of the oligarchs and the mafia and to destroy the Ukrainian nation. And when in parliament I don't have the legal right to defend my position because my rights have been destroyed, because nobody is adhering to the regulations or the constitution, then I will break things and I will do everything I can to prevent this project from succeeding."

Zayets says the campaign to change the constitution amounts to a coup.

Under the proposed new amendments, the next president would be elected by direct, popular vote for only two years instead of the present five-year term. In 2006, the parliament -- which the majority calculates it will control -- will choose the president.

The majority -- supporters of current President Leonid Kuchma -- say the changes will transform the political system from one where most power is concentrated in the hands of the president to a more democratic, Western European model where parliament wields most power.

But the opposition, the Our Ukraine party supported by the Socialists and the center-right Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, accuse the Kuchma administration of seeking to introduce the changes because it knows it cannot win the presidential elections this fall.

Critics accuse Kuchma of corruption, election rigging, abuse of human rights, and involvement in murder -- all of which he denies. He says he will not run for president again. But the opposition says Kuchma wants to ensure that his successor is someone loyal to him, who will guarantee his immunity from the prosecution demanded by his political enemies.

The opposition disrupted proceedings last month, when parliament voted on the first reading of the proposed constitutional amendments. Opposition members pulled out cables to disable the electronic vote-counting mechanism. They disputed the government claim that on a subsequent show of hands it passed the first reading by 276 votes in the 450-member parliament.

The next, and final, vote on the amendments requires a two-thirds majority to change the constitution.

The majority consists of nominally center and center-right politicians who support the interests of the rich businessmen called oligarchs. Many are themselves oligarchs who owe their wealth to favors from the Kuchma administration. Normally they would not be able to muster the 300 votes needed to change the constitution. But their Communist ideological enemies -- who loathe pro-Western Our Ukraine party leader Viktor Yushchenko -- support them. Yushchenko is widely expected to win the presidential election.

Zayets says the proposals seek to deprive the people of their right to choose their president.

"The people gained the fundamental right to elect the president on July 5, 1991, and have used this right three times. Without the people's permission you cannot today deprive the people of the right to elect the president. That's why we have today an absolutely transparent plan to separate the citizenry from the process of forming the government."

A pro-government member of parliament from the People's Democratic Party, Oleh Zarubinsky, said that the opposition talks about democracy but uses antidemocratic methods.

"Let's call things by what they really are -- when I, Oleh Zarubinsky, came on December 23 to my place of work [parliament] I wasn't blocking anyone or anything. I wanted to see what the situation was and to discuss things. These people, who today call themselves democrats and say that they want a democratic government, did everything to spoil my ability to vote. Only those people who adhere themselves to the procedures and regulations have the right to talk about them. Those who behave like vandals and hooligans -- and anyone watching them, would say they were the deeds of hooligans -- are hooligans. In the same way that you can't be slightly pregnant, you can't be slightly principled. If it's a principle, it's a principle."

The director of the Kyiv Institute of Political and Conflict Studies, Dr. Mykhaylo Pohrebinskiy, a Kuchma adviser, says the opposition in the past themselves wanted the sort of changes now being proposed but are challenging them for self-serving reasons.

"The pro-Western and pro-European politicians should support these ideas. But because they today have a candidate that, to their mind, today has the best chances of winning, they want to block everything. Therefore, everything you hear is from the same standpoint that the politicians who want to retain all these powers are viewed by the West as democrats. They may be democrats 10 times over but in this concrete case they want to be autocrats for a certain time, perhaps to introduce reforms and changes. You can use whatever slogans you want -- but they do not want to democratize the system."

Pohrebinskiy denies accusations that the changes are being made solely to prevent the next president from having the same sweeping powers as Kuchma. He says the changes are necessary to make the Ukrainian political system more democratic, and could only be introduced by a president who, like Kuchma, is not running again for the post.

"This became possible only because the president's term in office is nearing its end," he said. "Any other president is not going to be interested in diminishing his own powers."

Western governments and international bodies are monitoring the run-up to Ukraine's elections. Ukrainian deputies have asked the Council of Europe, which sets standards for democratic conduct and of which Ukraine is a member, to hold a special debate about the constitution issue on 29 January.