Prague, 6 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Anyone who thought that Leonid Kuchma had put himself in a corner by being on the wrong side of Ukraine's "orange revolution" underestimated the political savvy of the outgoing president.
Opposition politician Yuliya Tymoshenko warned in Kyiv on 5 December that Kuchma was not about to concede defeat.
"First of all, I am sure that [outgoing Ukrainian President] Leonid Kuchma, who is leaving the political arena, will not give up political power in a calm and civilized manner. It will be a big mistake to imagine that he is ready to leave -- even with guarantees [from Ukraine's opposition]," Tymoshenko said.
Far from giving up the political reins, Kuchma now is in a position to be Ukraine's ultimate power broker. And that fact is giving the opposition a big headache.
Just three weeks remain before the expected rerun of the second round of balloting, on 26 December. To avoid the problems that plagued the now-invalidated 21 November runoff, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko has made three basic demands.
Yushchenko wants Kuchma to disband the current election commission and appoint a new body, made up of impartial representatives. He also is demanding changes to the election law, to end the use of absentee ballots and to disallow voting from home -- two measures that the opposition says were widely used to falsify the earlier ballot.
Yushchenko also wants Kuchma to sack the current government, headed by his election rival Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, following a recent no confidence vote in parliament.
So far, the opposition demands have stalled in parliament. Kuchma says he is prepared to recommend approval of the changes, but only if Yushchenko agrees to simultaneous constitutional reforms that will shift power from the presidency to the prime minister.
Kuchma claims Yushchenko agreed to such a bargain during roundtable talks last week with European mediators. Kuchma commented on the situation again today.
"This [proposed political reform], in my opinion, can provide the answer [to the opposition's demands], including the dismissal of the government. If there is such a wish [to sack the government], it is necessary to make changes to the constitution and then immediately start forming a new government on the basis of those changes," Kuchma said.
Kataryna Wolczuk, a Ukraine analyst at Britain's University of Birmingham, says the opposition faces a dilemma.
"This is really a no-win situation for the opposition because either they will get the guarantees [that will ensure a clean vote] but the presidency will be significantly weakened and power will be shifted to the parliament and prime minister, or they won't have the guarantees and they won't be reassured that what happened on 21 November won't be repeated on 26 December," Wolczuk said.
Under Ukraine's current constitution, it is up to the president to nominate members of the election commission, for parliament's approval. Without Kuchma's cooperation, Wolczuk says that Yushchenko risks going into the election facing the same rigged process that defeated him the last time.
"The president has to submit new nominees and he has refused to do so, so far. So the parliament has no candidacies to work with. And without the president, it is actually rather difficult to organize the process because the president is such a crucial player," Wolczuk said.
The constitutional changes proposed by Kuchma would gut the presidency in favor of a greatly strengthened parliament. The president would lose the power to appoint all government ministers, except for the prime minister, foreign and defense ministers. The head of state would also lose exclusive control of the intelligence services.
Kuchma, who originally proposed the changes earlier this year, months before the election crisis, says the changes would put Ukraine in line with other European democracies. But the opposition claims it is simply a ploy for Kuchma and his allies to retain control of power even in the face of victory by Yushchenko.
All sides agree that the Ukrainian Constitution could benefit from some amendments, but Yushchenko says changing the country's founding law should not be done in a hurry and with such obvious political motivation.
Wolczuk says Kuchma has a history of seeking to amend the constitution to suit his needs.
"It's not the first time. Not even earlier this year, it wasn't the first time that Kuchma tried to change the constitution. In 2000, he staged a referendum again under very suspicious circumstances. Widespread rigging was also alleged at the time, although it didn't create such repercussions internationally. So in 2000, Kuchma tried to strengthen his powers. Last year, he started talking about weakening the presidency. So it very much seems to be that the type of constitutional reform advocated by Kuchma depends on his own chances and his own prospects within Ukraine. And this fundamentally undermines the whole project," Wolczuk said.
Kuchma offered up another surprise in an interview published today in "The New York Times." He said that if he were in Yanukovych's shoes, he would quit the election. Kuchma said that in this case, the re-run of the vote on 26 December would be a plebiscite, with Yushchenko as the sole candidate.
A Yushchenko victory under such circumstances could undercut his legitimacy. He would also have to obtain more than 50 percent of the votes -- hardly a foregone conclusion if enough anti-Yushchenko voters decide to cast their ballots for "none of the above."[To see an archive of RFE/RL's full coverage and analysis since the Ukrainian crisis began, click here.]