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Analysis: Parliamentary Maneuvers Before Ukrainian Election

Last week nearly 50 lawmakers from three groups in the Verkhovna Rada -- Center, Democratic Initiatives-People's Power, and the Popular Agrarian Party -- announced that they were quitting the pro-government coalition. The move seems to have dealt an unexpected blow to the position of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who is also a leading presidential candidate. Yanukovych and Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko are generally tipped to score the best results in the 31 October presidential ballot and fight for the presidency in a runoff three weeks later. "It is not pleasant for me to speak about, but I must say that the parliament is becoming an unreliable partner," Yanukovych commented on the parliamentary desertions on 11 September.

The parliamentary desertions from the pro-government camp also seem to have cast more doubts on the successful outcome of the constitutional reform devised by the presidential administration in cooperation with the Communist Party and the Socialist Party in order to shift the center of political power from the president toward the government and the parliament. The opposition Our Ukraine and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc believe that the constitutional reform is a ploy by the incumbent president, Leonid Kuchma, which is intended to secure the current regime's control over the country in the event Yushchenko wins the presidential election. The Verkhovna Rada approved a preliminary constitutional-reform bill in June. Now, during the ongoing parliamentary session, the bill has to be backed by 300 lawmakers to become law. The desertions make such a vote extremely problematic if not absolutely impossible.

On 13 September, President Kuchma met with leaders of caucuses of the pro-government coalition to discuss the situation in the legislature. The meeting was not attended by Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, who is also the leader of the Popular Agrarian Party, whose lawmakers left the pro-government coalition. "[Kuchma] is sorry when people do not understand that the [parliamentary] majority and the [constitutional] reform are necessary not for the president, but for Ukraine," Social Democratic Party-united parliamentary caucus head Leonid Kravchuk commented after the meeting. Simultaneously, Kravchuk expressed regret that the Ukrainian president has no constitutional power to dissolve the legislature in the event it is incapable to form a viable coalition to support the government.

Meanwhile, lawmaker Stepan Havrysh told journalists after the meeting with Kuchma that the pro-government coalition in the parliament "formally" consists of 230 lawmakers -- that is, it still has a majority in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. "If you lower your trousers, that does not mean you take them off completely," Havrysh added. Havrysh was apparently referring to the fact that the pro-government coalition was left for good by 11 lawmakers from the Center group, while 36 legislators from the Democratic Initiatives-People's Power caucus and the Popular Agrarian Party announced that they are only "suspending" their participation in the alliance. It seems that only a parliamentary vote on some government-proposed bill may eventually clarify the situation in the Verkhovna Rada and show whether for Ukrainian lawmakers the notions of "withdrawal and "suspension" are essentially different or not.

The breakup of the pro-government parliamentary majority plays directly into the hands of Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the opposition alliance that sees Yushchenko as a winner of presidential elections in 2004 and is currently not interested in any political reform reducing the presidential prerogatives. But it is likely that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is also against pursuing the constitutional reform, hoping that it will be he, not Yushchenko, who will grab the highest political post in Ukraine. It is noteworthy that last week the television channels controlled by the presidential administration -- UT-1, 1+1, and Inter -- kept silent about the split in the parliamentary majority, while the Donetsk-based Ukrayina television controlled by oligarch Rynat Akhmetov, Yanukovych's closest ally, reported on the event without restraint. Thus, it appears that a likely failure of the political reform in Ukraine in 2004 is the most unwelcome prospect primarily for Kuchma and his chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk, who may find it very hard to obtain significant political roles under a new president.

Some Ukrainian commentators argue that the main reason for the coalition split was economic rather than political. Lawmakers from the Democratic Initiatives-People's Power caucus have suspended their participation in the pro-Kuchma majority, citing a lack of coordination and communication between the government and people's deputies regarding the privatization process in Ukraine. Last week, Yanukovych's cabinet decided to pool state packages of shares in the Halychyna and Tatnafta oil companies with the charter fund of the state-controlled oil corporation Ukrnafta. This move reportedly benefited the Pryvat business group -- whose interests are lobbied by the Labor Ukraine caucus in the Verkhovna Rada -- to the detriment of the so-called "Kharkiv group" of deputies united in Democratic Initiatives-People's Power. Thus, in this context, the pullout of Democratic Initiatives-People's Power from the pro-Yanukovych parliamentary coalition was intended as a sort of blackmail against Yanukovych in particular and his cabinet in general.

On the other hand, the withdrawal of Lytvyn's Agrarians from the pro-government coalition can be seen as an attempt by the Ukrainian parliamentary speaker -- who was previously head of the presidential administration -- to find a more distinct political role for himself in the post-Kuchma era. Opening the fall parliamentary session on 8 September, Lytvyn suggested that irrespective of who wins the presidential election, the winner will treat the Verkhovna Rada -- much like his predecessors -- as a body expected to follow the political will of the head of state. Lytvyn expressed his indignation over "provocative disregard for constitutional norms" in the election campaign and said Ukraine suffers from "criminal" privatization and "total corruption." He also proposed to create a special parliamentary commission for monitoring how the election legislation is observed in the presidential campaign in Ukraine. The commission was set up with votes from the opposition and lawmakers of the three factions that deserted the pro-government coalition.

It is hard to say whether the apparent disintegration of the pro-government coalition in the Verkhovna Rada may seriously impair Yanukovych's presidential bid. The executive machine in Ukraine and the government-controlled electronic media seem to work uninterruptedly to promote him as Kuchma's only possible successor. But last week's manifestation of defiance from some 50 lawmakers with regard to Kuchma and Yanukovych suggest as a minimum that Ukraine's political class perceives Kuchma's political legacy and Yanukovych's possible succession as neither unquestionable nor secure.

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