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Ukraine: President's Proposed Referendum Draws Criticism

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's recent calling of a national referendum to change Ukraine's constitution has caused a storm of protest among the country's lawmakers as well as strong criticism from the Council of Europe, which monitors the rule of law on the continent. RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde looks at just why the proposed referendum is so controversial.

Kyiv, 28 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainians could have an unprecedented chance in two months to express their lack of faith in a chronically split parliament and their confidence in their newly re-elected president.

A national referendum, called by President Leonid Kuchma last month (Jan. 15), is due to ask voters in April if they agree to express no confidence in the parliament (Verkhovna Rada). If approved by the public, six substantial changes in the constitution would strip parliamentarians of their immunity from prosecution and to create a second chamber of parliament. They would also allow the president to dismiss parliament if a majority is not formed within a month of elections or a budget not approved within three months.

Recent public-opinion polls indicate Ukrainians will approve all six points if the referendum goes ahead.

Kuchma has said he hopes the proposed changes will end the years-long stalemate between parliament and the presidency. But opponents say he is trying to impose rule by Ukraine's oligarchs -- the country's richest few people -- who are said to use their seats in parliament and stakes in the media to further their own ends. Opponents also say that the referendum would violate the constitution and would allow the quick passage of drastic legislation in the guise of the people's will.

Parliament deputy Serhiy Holovaty told journalists earlier this month:

"The people are not experts. The people rely on specialists to argue, to have the last word, research and find a compromise. And the people create a special body, called the constitutional committee, or trust it to parliament. But don't ever put an anonymously created program up for a referendum. It's only dictators, only dictators who do such things."

Those who call the referendum unconstitutional say that, under the law, the president can call a direct popular vote on constitutional changes only after the parliament has approved the proposals. The only relevant law, dating back to 1991, says a referendum can only be called by parliament.

The Council of Europe echoed these concerns in a letter sent to Kuchma by the president of the council's Parliamentary Assembly, Russell Johnston, and in the comments of two assembly rapporteurs who visited Ukraine two weeks ago. At the time, rapporteur Hanne Severinsen told journalists in Kyiv that Kuchma had not been very sympathetic to their concerns.

"We are very concerned in the Council of Europe what influence this referendum will have for the democracy of Ukraine. ... The president of our assembly launched an appeal two weeks ago to your president not to continue with the referendum if it is not in accordance with the ruling of [the council's chief legal consultative body, known as] the Venice Commission. Unfortunately we have got no promise. On the contrary, Kuchma said he would not follow this advice."

The Council of Europe's Venice Commission is due to issue a report on the referendum at the beginning of April, only two weeks before the vote is scheduled. At the same time, more than 100 Ukrainian deputies have appealed to the country's constitutional court to rule on the referendum's legality. Kuchma has said that he will respect the court's ruling.

The proposed referendum has prompted comparison with Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka used a direct popular vote to disband parliament and extend his term in office. Belarus was then an associate member of the 41-nation Council of Europe, which asked it not to carry out the referendum after the Venice Commission found it undemocratic. Lukashenka refused, and Belarus lost its associative status.

By contrast, Moldova -- a Council of Europe member -- sought to carry out a similar referendum. But the government later heeded the council's advice and canceled the vote.

Rapporteur Severinsen said she does not want Ukraine to go down the same path as Belarus, which under Lukashenka has earned one of the poorest human-rights records in Europe:

"We don't like to compare the situations, but there are some similarities [to Belarus] and we think therefore it's very important for this country [that is, Ukraine,] that what the Venice Commission is saying about legality is also followed, so we don't run the risk of having a referendum that is unconstitutional. That is a step in the wrong way."

The Council of Europe has some leverage if Kuchma refuses to heed a Venice Commission ruling against the referendum. The organization has threatened to suspend Ukraine's membership several times since the country joined in 1995 because Kyiv has not fulfilled many of its obligations as a member. This time, it could carry out the suspension threat.

One argument put forward by Kuchma for the referendum is that the long-standing conflict between the president and the parliament -- where leftist deputies have blocked all government-sponsored draft laws -- has to be resolved.

But the mere proposal of the referendum, which Kuchma characterized as "an axe hanging over the head" of lawmakers, may have already broken the deadlock in parliament. After Kuchma called for the referendum, parliament formed a pro-government majority, in a breakthrough already dubbed Ukraine's "velvet revolution" by some lawmakers.

The threat of constitutional change so far seems to have had quite an effect.