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Ukraine: Antagonists Try To Find Common Ground In Parliament

Kyiv, 19 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The election of a new Ukraine Parliament chairman, which began last Friday, might eventually show that President Leonid Kuchma and Ukraine's Communists are not such severe antagonists as they have been pictured.

The conditions of the deal, which observers believe the government and Communists have already clinched, are as follows: pro-government deputies vote for Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko to elect him chairman - in exchange for his pledge to keep the leftist-dominated legislature from criticizing Kuchma, and suspend threats of a no-confidence vote in the government of Prime Minister Valery Pustovoytenko.

But the stakes may be even higher.

Having an anti-reform leader as chairman of the country's legislature, Kuchma - on his way to a second presidential term - gets an opponent whom he can blame for any failure in economic reforms, ahead of the presidential election scheduled for October 1999.

According to Serhy Odarych, who heads the Ukrainska Perspektyva policy-assessment organization (think-tank), "the election of Symonenko does Kuchma a great favor, in that he (Kuchma) receives an excellent opportunity to develop a winning strategy in the presidential race."

But, another advantage Kuchma is said to gain from having Symonenko in the chairman's post, is that this powerful position will not be filled by one of his likely opponents in the presidential elections - namely, former chairman and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz.

Viewed as Kuchma's most serious contender at the moment, Moroz, who ran Parliament for the last four years, would stand to capitalize significantly from the highest post in the legislature, as soon as the presidential campaign starts. And, the only way to stop him, say observers, is for pro-government deputies, most of whom are members of the People's Democratic Party, to vote for Symonenko.

"The possibility that pro-presidential factions will support Symonenko is not that unrealistic - (Symonenko) would make a rather weak candidate for presidency, while no one else will be able to benefit from the chairman's post in a way Moroz can," wrote the daily newspaper Den.

Moroz's ability to persuade deputies and channel their behavior became especially vivid last September, during debate of the new election law. Despite fierce opposition from Kuchma and his supporters in Parliament that kept the law in limbo for years, Moroz's ardent persuasion finally wrung a narrow majority out of the legislature, in favor of the electoral system that allows political parties to compete for Parliament seats.

As for Symonenko, his unpredictable actions regularly give analysts sufficient ground to question his gift for politics. His latest involvement was with the scandalous 'yellow' tabloid Bulvar, which Symonenko sued after the publication suggested he might be gay.

"With the intellectual level of his actions and his sickly ego, one can imagine what kind of chairman he would make," said independent analyst Oleh Soskin.

But, Symonenko, in fact, stands the best chance to win from among the fourteen candidates who were nominated by lawmakers Friday. He can already can count on more than 150 votes the Communists and Socialists collectively have in Parliament. Coupled with more than 80 deputies from the pro-government People's Democrats, this would give him a comfortable margin above the 226 votes required in the 450-seat Parliament. However, if none of the 14 nominees wins in the first round, which may be conducted by the end of this week, new candidates will be nominated.

This is when the most serious contenders are expected to step in.

Analysts say former chairman Moroz is just waiting for the second round, when secondary candidates will not be a challenge to him. This is exactly how he was elected chairman in 1994, emerging suddenly at the head of the legislature, after a number of candidates - considered more likely to win - were successively voted down in a few election rounds.

Among Moroz's potential competitors, analysts name another former chairman Ivan Plyusch, former prime minister Yevhen Marchuk, who leads the faction of the Social Democratic Party (united), and Hromada opposition party leader Pavlo Lazarenko. With some of these viewed as likely Kuchma rivals in the 1999 presidential elections, the position of chairman has already been labeled by Ukrainian media as a 'trampoline for the presidency.' However, the contenders themselves do not see direct links between the two posts, so far.

"It's all relative," said Moroz who has not confirmed, so far, his decision to run for president.

Some analysts suggest that the government's apparent reliance on Symonenko as counterbalance to the other likely candidates for presidency is bound to fail, because it would deprive Communists of their traditional popularity base that rests on harsh criticism of the government.

"The post of chairman envisages a measure of responsibility for the situation in the country, and this is what Communists are not going to take," said Kyiv Center for Political Research and Conflict Studies Director Mykhaylo Pohrebynsky.