Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz said he wants parliament to address the issue of stripping parliamentary deputies and senior government officials of their immunity from prosecution and other privileges before preterm elections on September 30.
Yushchenko called today's session illegitimate and politically meaningless, but Moroz assured those present in the session hall that their gathering is fully lawful and constitutional.
According to Moroz, the Ukrainian parliament is constitutionally obliged to open its fall session on the first Tuesday in September.
Moroz also cited another constitutional provision requiring that the legislature remains operational until newly elected lawmakers take their oath of office.
However, Moroz failed to mention the constitutional provision stipulating that the Verkhovna Rada is a full-fledged legislative body only when it has no fewer than 300 deputies.
A Legitimate Session?
It was Moroz himself who, with President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, struck a political deal in May to disband the Verkhovna Rada and set early elections, following the voluntary resignation of deputies from the pro-presidential Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine.
The subsequent resignation of pro-presidential lawmakers brought the number of deputies in the 450-seat legislature below 300, allowing Yushchenko to issue two decrees, on June 5 and August 1, scheduling early polls for September 30.
In April, Yushchenko issued two other dissolution decrees, justifying them by what he saw as the ruling coalition's illegal push to revise the results of the 2006 elections by expanding the ruling majority to 300 deputies. The ruling coalition objected vociferously to the decrees, arguing that the constitution does not provide for the dissolution of parliament on such grounds.
There were 269 deputies from the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party registered in the session hall on September 4. Moroz's argument that the legislature is fully legitimate apparently do not hold water.
The Verkhovna Rada gathered on September 4 with a declared aim of stripping parliamentarians and senior government officials of their immunity from prosecution and other privileges.
Abolishing parliamentary immunity became a key slogan in a hitherto lethargic election campaign, with Yushchenko, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc as the main proponents of the move. Yushchenko and his 2004 Orange Revolution allies proposed that parliamentary immunity be canceled after the September 30 polls.
Speaker Moroz claims parliament was constitutionally obliged to convene
In what appears to be a clever public-relations move, the ruling coalition took the opposition up on this idea and proposed to implement it ahead of the polls, at a legislative session in September. Yanukovych went so far as to propose canceling immunity and privileges not only for lawmakers, but also for all senior government officials, including the president, the prime minister, and judges. In other words, the coalition put the opposition's intentions to the test.
As expected, the opposition deputies did not show up at the session. Yushchenko said in a televised address to Ukrainians on September 3 that the session is a provocation intended to derail the early polls, adding that any potential resolutions will have "no practical force of law or political effect."
Despite Yushchenko's statements, the Verkhovna Rada on September 4 endorsed a bill on stripping lawmakers of immunity from prosecution. Since parliamentary immunity is a constitutional provision, its cancellation requires an endorsement of the bill by the Constitutional Court and another parliamentary approval by no fewer than 300 votes.
'Risk of Chaos'
If the session was objectionable from a legal point of view, and without any practical meaning, was it actually worth holding for the ruling coalition?
According to Moroz, it was necessary to open the session within the constitutionally prescribed terms. "We cannot disregard the risk of preplanned chaos in governance, in which, following undesirable election results gained by some participants in the election campaign, the newly elected Verkhovna Rada would not be able to become legitimate," Moroz said.
In this somewhat cryptic manner, Moroz appears to have expressed the fear shared by many observers of the Ukrainian political scene that the September 30 election results could be contested in court by any party dissatisfied with its election performance. They warn that it will be easy to cast doubt on the election results due to procedural mistakes and legal irregularities in the electoral process.
Thus, if the elections fail to receive official recognition, Moroz may hope for the continued existence of the current legislature, in which his Socialist Party has more than 30 lawmakers.
Current opinion surveys in Ukraine suggest that the September 30 polls may consign the Socialist Party to political oblivion. Its current support is well below the 3 percent threshold required for parliamentary representation.
The Yanukovych-led Party of Regions, currently supported by some 30 percent of Ukrainians, is widely expected to receive the most votes. But according to polls, the combined result of the Orange Revolution camp -- the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense -- may equal that of the Party of Regions, thus replicating the situation after the March 2006 elections.
If that happens, Ukraine will most likely witness another tortuous process of building a ruling coalition. Some surveys suggest that the Bloc of Lytvyn, which is led by former parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, can overcome the 3 percent threshold and assume the role of kingmaker in a new parliament, similar to the role performed by Moroz's Socialists in 2006.
It does not seem likely, as Yushchenko has repeatedly suggested, that the early elections will be a new political beginning for the country and enable it to make a break with at least some of its political vices. Instead, Ukrainians must be prepared to see more of the same.
RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service asked people on the streets of Kyiv on April 11 whether the Constitutional Court will be able to determine the constitutionality of the president's decree dissolving parliament.
Oksana, a student from Lutsk:
"Their decision will at any rate be beneficial to one of the political forces."
Oleksandr, a high-school student:
"[The court] will be able to do it, but only if the judges agree upon it."
Alla Asilyevna, a pensioner:
"How can the Constitutional Court solve the problem if there is pressure on it from all sides?"
Ivan Yukhimovich, a pensioner:
"If [Prime Minister Viktor] Yanukovych and [President Viktor]Yushchenko find an agreement, everything will be resolved."
Yuliya, a worker:
"I doubt very much that the judges will agree on anything."
RFE/RL's coverage of Ukraine. The Ukrainian-language website of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.