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Ukraine: House Divided Over Reform

Ukraine's parliament split into two feuding factions last month, with the leftist minority occupying the parliament building. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports that the outcome of the struggle for parliament will determine whether Ukraine finally embarks on economic reform.

Kyiv, 4 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The ideological division in Ukraine's parliament between pro-market reformers and pro-Communist leftists has become a physical separation of the two factions.

The split happened on January 20, when a majority of the parliament's deputies walked out in protest after the leftist speaker, Oleksandr Tkachenko, refused to allow a vote to dismiss him.

Since then Tkachenko and his mainly Communist supporters have been meeting in the parliament building. The center-right group, which numbers around 260 of the full parliament's 450 members, has been holding its owns sessions at an exhibition center on the capital, Kyiv's, main street (Kreschtik).

The Justice Ministry, the president, and the prime minister all recognize the legitimacy of the majority faction. This week, the center-right majority elected a new speaker, Ivan Plyusch. He pledged that his faction will be in the parliament building by next Tuesday (Feb. 8), the day of its next scheduled session.

That declaration looks likely to bring the drama to a head. On Wednesday, police surrounded the parliament building and have refused to allow journalists inside.

It is unclear who ordered the police to take action. Their presence has been condemned by the leftists. Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz denounced the police action as a coup d'etat. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko called for mass civil disobedience.

The leftists remain inside the parliament building holding meetings, which are broadcast through loudspeakers to supporters outside. Many leftist deputies have started camping inside the parliament building because they fear police will prevent them from returning once they step out.

The leftists seem to feel they have been outmaneuvered. Minority speaker Tkachenko, whose refusal to be dismissed triggered the crisis, literally broke down in tears when interviewed by RFE/RL.

"I can't characterize this as anything but a parliamentary coup and we can see that the president and the cabinet of ministers has played a direct role in this coup."

Tkachenko insists that he and his followers are the rightful legislature, and says that he will not leave the parliament building. He has applied to the Constitutional Court for a ruling.

"I am confident that the Constitutional Court will approach the question with integrity and everything will be resolved and that Tkachenko Ivan Mykolaivich, that is me, as the legally elected speaker of parliament will preside over parliament. And if the question of my resignation or that of my deputy's arises, that it will be resolved in this building according to the constitution."

A showdown has seemed inevitable since President Leonid Kuchma won a second term in office last November, after campaigning on a virulently anti-Communist ticket and promising to introduce sweeping economic and political reforms. Kuchma has enthusiastically supported the center-right faction.

Under the Ukrainian Constitution, the president cannot dissolve parliament unless it fails to meet for a protracted period. But Kuchma has said that if parliament does not back his reform plans, he will hold a nationwide referendum to give him the authority to dissolve it. That referendum is scheduled for April.

Whether the parliament is controlled by the pro-reformers or the leftists is of vital importance for Ukraine, which must pay $3 billion in interest on its debt this year. The country has to convince its creditors, principally the International Monetary Fund, the IMF, that it is serious about economic reform if it hopes to get more loans to avert a financial meltdown.

The budget for this year, prepared by the reformist Prime Minister Viktor Yuschenko, has the necessary elements to please the IMF but stands no chance of being approved by the leftists.

But beyond the economic differences between the two camps, the present drama also smacks of political score-settling and outright revenge. Tkachenko was installed as speaker in 1998 with Kuchma's support. The deal was that financial corruption charges against Tkachenko would be dropped if he kept the leftists in line.

Tkachenko reneged spectacularly on his part of the bargain during last year's presidential election campaign when he not only rallied the leftists against Kuchma but stood for the top job himself. Kuchma's other most formidable rivals, Moroz, Symonenko and ultra-leftist deputy Natalya Vitrenko are all leading lights in the leftist faction now ensconced in the parliament building.

Although the parliament building is surrounded by police, few believe that the situation will degenerate into violence. There is no muscle in the armed services or security services that the leftists can call upon. Even the number of their supporters outside parliament had dwindled, from several hundred on Tuesday to 10 elderly ladies with one red flag between them on Thursday.

Most people questioned by RFE/RL on Kyiv's streets backed the center-right majority.

Typical was one woman, who said:

"I think that what the majority has done is absolutely justified because it was impossible to tolerate any longer the situation that existed in parliament. All reforms were blocked, and besides political bickering, no legislation was being passed. Parliament was not carrying out its proper business and, as they say, all the steam was being used to blow the whistle instead of powering the engine."

One way or another, the majority faction looks set to win the battle against their leftist rivals. Besides a majority in parliament, they have the support of the president and the prime minister. In a move loaded with symbolism, one of their first acts after electing their new speaker was to remove from the list of national holidays the one commemorating the 1917 Communist revolution.