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Ukraine: Odessa Politics Cause Headaches

Odessa, 2 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Voters in Odessa will have a second shot at deciding whether they want Eduard Hurvits to be their mayor.

A regional electoral commission scheduled new elections for August 23 after controversial court rulings labeled the March 29 elections flawed and ordered new ones.

Hurvits won a convincing victory last March, when he was also elected a member of the national parliament. But a long-running feud with the central government came to a head last week when Kyiv sent in paramilitary troops to lock Hurvits out of his own office and ensure preparations for new elections were started.

Hurvits told the media he would run again and that he expected victory. "The people of Odessa elected me mayor in March," he said. "They will do so again. If I have to choose between Kyiv (the job as member of parliament) or Odessa (the job of mayor)," he said, "I will choose Odessa." The Odessa City Election Commission (OCED), which conducted the allegedly blighted March 29 elections, will organize the August balloting.

Acting Odessa Mayor Mykola Biloblotsky will appoint members of the commission within the next two weeks, OCED member Zoya Skleriuk said that "No one has been named yet, but we expect the make-up of the commission to not be very different from the last time."

Given that Hurvits remains popular with the public, he would be the favorite in the August re-run. But whether he actually contests the new elections is not certain.

A good deal depends on the results of an ongoing government audit of Odessa city accounts, and also on lawyers. In a move designed to facilitate the audit, Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko substituted Biloblotsky for Hurvits and last week named fellow PDP-member Serhy Hrynevsky as the new Regional Administration Head, replacing long-time Hurvits foe Ruslan Bodelan.

With Biloblotsky in a position to open Odessa city records and Hrynevsky to prosecute if a check of those books turns up something fishy, the national government is well positioned to develop evidence implicating Hurvits in financial wrongdoing while mayor, Odessa observers note.

Hurvits has repeatedly denied allegations that his administration was corrupt. But if the audit reveals evidence of financial misdealing by his administration - considered by most observers almost a foregone conclusion - the courts may well be faced with a thorny legal question.

If convicted, Hurvits would not be eligible to run for public office. But he remains a duly-elected parliamentary deputy, and, under the law, parliamentary deputies have immunity from legal prosecution.

Can then an elected parliamentary deputy apply his parliamentary immunity to run as mayor of a city where his financial dealings are the subject of legal scrutiny? Or does parliamentary immunity extend only to alleged wrongdoing committed in the person's capacity as a deputy?

No matter the outcome of the auditing, it is certain that Kyiv's headaches caused by Odessa politics are far from over.