The assembly voted to adopt a report that says that the council believes the Ukrainian government and supporters of President Leonid Kuchma are trying to change the constitution in an effort to retain power after presidential elections in October.
The government says it wants to transform Ukraine into a parliamentary republic by transferring many of the strong presidential powers to a prime minister. It also wants scheduled October elections to elect a president for only two years. Presidents would be elected by parliament starting in 2006.
The opposition disrupted parliament last month after it accused the pro-Kuchma grouping of falsifying the results of the first vote on the constitutional amendments on 24 December.
Earlier this month, the Council of Europe sent two members of its Parliamentary Assembly to Ukraine to investigate. The head of the team, Danish parliamentarian Hanne Severinsen, presented a report before a lengthy PACE debate yesterday. She said: "Certain initiatives in Ukraine run counter to the country's commitments vis a vis the Council of Europe," and that the constitution should not be amended before the presidential election.
"What will, in fact, those who want to change the constitution [obtain] with the new constitution?" she asked. "[How] can power continue to be on one or another side?"
Ukraine asked the Council of Europe's expert legal body -- the Venice Commission -- to examine the proposed changes. The Venice Commission said the proposals fell far short of appropriate standards and recommended they be revised. Ukrainian authorities have so far disregarded the advice, however.
The secretary-general of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, told RFE/RL today that he hopes the Ukrainian government will modify its plans and implement the Venice Commission's recommendations.
Severinsen said the attempts to change the constitution are being conducted without the seriousness such moves merit: "Constitutional change is something serious. You don't just [change it] as you [change] a shirt. And also I think it is very important that you look at the content. The Venice Commission has said that this is not a step forward but a step backward."
Ukraine has been warned before by the Council of Europe for behaving contrary to its standards. There was no attempt to suspend Ukraine's membership yesterday, but it has been made clear that Kyiv risks suspension if it continues to ignore democratic norms.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko traveled to the Parliamentary Assembly session to appeal that the report not be accepted by the assembly.
"In reality," he said, "we do not have any constitutional or political crisis in Ukraine. What we do have is a heated and sometimes very emotional debate on the best ways and means to secure these goals. The key point is that the constitutional changes that now are under consideration in the parliament are being pursued within the framework of the existing constitution and the established legal procedures."
He said the Council of Europe has sent a very strong message to Ukraine and that Kyiv wants to work closely with the council in the future. But he maintained that the proposed constitutional changes are essential.
"We need to establish a better balance among three branches of power with the highest guarantees of democratic freedoms. This is the sole, real purpose of the proposed constitutional reform in Ukraine," he added.
The views of Ukrainian members of the Parliamentary Assembly reflected the bitter divisions in the Ukrainian parliament, with some supporting the report censuring the Ukrainian government, while others passionately argued against it.
A former Ukrainian justice minister, Serhiy Holovaty, accused Kuchma of corruption and said he is using the constitutional changes in an attempt to hang on to power. He said it is ironic that the words of a French philosopher writing 200 years ago describe the situation in Ukraine today.
"When more than two centuries ago, a prominent political thinker of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stated -- quote -- 'It is a bad state of affairs when a nation has, as its chief, the born enemy of its liberty of which he ought to be the defender' -- unquote -- it could hardly be predicted that these words would be completely relevant now at the beginning of the 21st century to modern Ukraine."
Yuriy Kostenko, a member of the Ukrainian opposition and a PACE delegate, appealed for the help of the Council of Europe and other European institutions, saying that without a democratic Ukraine, there can be no truly democratic Europe.
"The [methods with] which the parliamentary majority is trying to alter the basic law violates the norms of our constitution and the rules of procedure of the [parliament] of Ukraine," he said.
Some members of the Ukrainian delegation who back the government tried to have the Council of Europe's report dismissed. Boris Oliynik, a Communist member of the Ukrainian parliament and a PACE delegate, said the council should not have been troubled with this matter because the Ukrainian parliament has not yet exhausted all possibilities of compromise.
Some other PACE members, such as Michael Hancock, a Liberal Party member of the British Parliament, also questioned whether Severinsen and her colleagues had been objective in their report. The Ukrainian government has accused them of being influenced by the opposition.
Hancock said the Council of Europe and PACE should not take sides in internal quarrels: "Now, if this Council of Europe is going to have any credibility at all, surely we have to start to examine, in detail, that reports actually do reflect accurately the situation, and that we're not just pandering to the opposition in any country -- not just Ukraine, but any country. We cannot be a substitute for a parliamentary debate or a political dialogue inside the internal workings of any nation."
Pro-Kuchma members of the Ukrainian delegation accused their opposition colleagues of disrupting the proceedings of the Ukrainian parliament in an antidemocratic way to prevent the constitutional changes from going through. Ukrainian PACE delegate and opposition member Roman Zvarych admitted that the opposition had, indeed, caused disruptions, but explained why.
"Have you been told that the draft that was supposedly voted on December 24 was distributed that morning, that very morning?" he asked. "I ask you as responsible parliamentarians, 'Would you vote on a draft that you received that very morning?' I'm not talking about a law on milk. I'm not talking about a business law. I'm talking about your constitution. Your constitution!"
Zvarych said the vote in support of the report criticizing the Ukrainian government is a "victory for democratic forces in Ukraine." Kostenko said he had never seen the Ukrainian authorities so concerned and that they had put a lot of effort into trying to stop the report from being approved. He believes the outcome in Strasbourg will help opposition forces in Ukraine fight the constitutional proposals at home.