Kuchma -- who in his two terms of office has wielded almost autocratic powers -- wants to change the constitution to drastically diminish those powers. The presidency would become largely ceremonial, while the currently weak powers of the prime minister would be boosted considerably.
Kuchma and his supporters says the constitutional amendments would reshape the Ukrainian Parliament along Western European and democratic lines.
But opponents of the proposal say it is designed to cheat the 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 party, Viktor Yushchenko of Our Ukraine, is tipped to win. Our Ukraine says Kuchma and his supporters are afraid that not only will they lose power, but that some of them, including Kuchma, could be prosecuted on charges of corruption, abuse of human rights, murder, and election-rigging.
Yushchenko yesterday called for public protests to stop authorities from staging a "coup" by changing the constitution.
The opposition disrupted parliament after it accused the pro-Kuchma grouping of falsifying the results of the first vote on the constitutional amendments on 24 December. The opposition has been mobbing the rostrum, shouting down speakers, and disconnecting electronic vote counting apparatus. They say they will block any attempts Kuchma supporters make to pass the amendments on a second and final reading, which would require a two-third's majority.
The disruptions last week forced the speaker of parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn, to suspend proceedings until the beginning of February. One of those who participated in the disruptions was Our Ukraine deputy Ivan Zayets. Zayets told RFE/RL he will continue to try to block passage of the amendments.
"A constitutional coup is really being prepared. This isn't just demagoguery. This is at the core of it. What's at the core of this project? It's to keep in power today the mafia and corruption which is headed by Bankivska and by the Ukrainian president. We wouldn't be doing what we're doing in parliament so determinedly, we wouldn't be defending our rights in such a way, unless we saw that [the government] wants, in a most brutal way, to destroy the rights of our citizens to directly elect a president," Zayets said.
The Council of Europe, of which Ukraine is a member, sent a two-person delegation to Kyiv this week to investigate the situation. The trip came ahead of next week's meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg, which will discuss the events in Ukraine.
PACE can recommend the suspension or even the expulsion of council members. Membership in the Council of Europe is seen as a prerequisite to membership in the European Union, which is a declared ambition of Ukraine.
The Council of Europe sets standards for its members on the democratic conduct of government and the defense of human rights. Its delegation to Ukraine was headed by Hanne Sevirensen, a member of the Danish Parliament. Sevirensen explains the reasons why she embarked on the trip with her colleague, Renate Wohlwend.
"The purpose of my mission, together with Mrs. Wohlwend, was fact-finding, because the bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe had decided that there should be an urgent debate, and it would be better to base this on facts and not on rumors," Sevirensen said.
She said the delegation met with many individuals and groups in Kyiv. "We met with, first of all, Mr. Lytvyn, the speaker [of parliament]. It was a long meeting, and he was very dedicated and eager to assure us that he had tried a lot of things in order to make solutions. We have had a meeting with a lot of nongovernmental organizations and representatives of the media. We had a meeting -- two hours -- with nearly every faction. They were all sitting together, so it was also quite a heated meeting, where everybody explained their opinion about the situation. And we had a meeting with the head of the presidential administration, Mr. [Viktor] Medvechuk. We met with the constitutional court and the minister of justice and the general prosecutor," Sevirensen said.
Sevirensen said that although she and Wohlwend did meet with members of Ukraine's Constitutional Court, they were not allowed to question them about their decision that the government's proposals to amend the constitution were within the law.
The opposition is demanding that the vote on the first reading of the amendments should be held again. Prior to the vote, opposition members disabled the electronic vote-counting mechanism. A vote was taken with a show of hands. Government supporters won with 276 votes in the 450-seat Parliament.
The opposition says ballot papers and signatures in the vote were falsified and demand that the results be annulled. Sevirensen agrees that the result of the first vote is suspect:
"It was not properly conducted in the way that it was against normal rules and procedure, and it was confirmed, nevertheless, by some signatures, but we have not seen the signatures. And it has been said that it was based on [ballot] papers, but we have not been able to get these papers, so we are a bit disappointed that we have got so little evidence -- only rumors from two sides," Sevirensen says.
Sevirensen says she has advised Lytvyn that the first vote should be repeated:
"I think that it would be very fine [to repeat it], and I also think this is the plan of the speaker, that there will be a debate and a vote on all paragraphs -- from paragraph to paragraph -- and all the amendments, both amendments from the majority side and amendments from the opposition side," Sevirensen said.
Stepan Havrysh is a pro-Kuchma deputy who is in the forefront of attempts to amend the constitution. He accused Sevirensen this week of interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs and of siding with the opposition. Sevirensen denies the accusations and says she is simply urging the authorities in Kyiv to adhere to the standards they accepted when they joined the Council of Europe.
"I would say that restraining them from doing things in an unconstitutional way is a commitment of Ukraine being a member of the Council of Europe. So it has nothing to do with interference. It is a constraint they have imposed upon themselves by wanting to be a member of the Council of Europe," Sevirensen said.
She continued: "We don't think it is acceptable, especially if you are so close to an election, and it is not so easy to make a free and fair election if you have just jumped into a new constitution."
In addition to decreasing the term and the powers of any president elected by popular vote in October, the amendments would hand Ukraine's Parliament, currently controlled by Kuchma, the right to appoint the president starting in 2006.
Kuchma and the government say Ukraine needs the changes to help it shed its Soviet skin, speed reforms, and develop a full-fledged democracy to match those of neighbors Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, which will join the EU in May. A political analyst and close adviser to Kuchma, Mykhaylo Pohrebynsky, says the opposition used to be in favor of such reforms but have changed their message because they see the chance of their own candidate wielding absolute power fading away.
"Therefore, [the opposition] is going to tell the West and anyone else that all of this is being done unfairly, improperly, and that it's not needed. Although if you take a look at what they were saying a year or more ago, all these proposals are in accord with their desire to democratize the system of government," Pohrebynsky says.
The PACE session, which will open in Strasbourg on 26 January, will decide whether to hold a full emergency debate about Ukraine's constitutional crisis on 29 January.