The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly is due next week to debate the suspension of Ukraine's membership in the 41-nation organization. At issue is President Leonid Kuchma's decision to go ahead with a controversial referendum altering Ukraine's constitution. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.
Prague, 31 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine will learn next week whether the Council of Europe will start moves to suspend its membership. The council's Parliamentary Assembly will debate and vote on the issue on Tuesday (April 4).
The Council of Europe is reacting to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's recent decision to press ahead with plans for a referendum on constitutional changes that Parliamentary Assembly members have strongly criticized. The referendum has been modified since the council expressed its disapproval, but it has not been canceled.
The Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, monitors democratic and human-rights standards in its 41 member states. Ukraine has been a member since September 1995. The council's Parliamentary Assembly is composed of delegations from all of its member-states' parliaments.
In January, Kuchma said that he wanted to hold a referendum on April 16 to seek popular approval for extending his powers and remodeling parliament by introducing a second chamber. He said the changes were needed to press ahead with economic reforms that have often been blocked by a bitterly divided, single-chamber parliament.
A month later, two members of the council's Parliamentary Assembly visited Ukraine to look into the proposed referendum. They found that there was no basis for it in Ukrainian law and that it intruded on the existing parliament's powers. They said the move would be bad for Ukrainian democracy.
The two council parliamentarians publicly warned that Ukraine could be suspended from the council if the referendum went ahead. In response, Kuchma said he would allow Ukraine's Constitutional Court to decide whether the referendum could be held.
This week (March 29), the court excluded two out of six questions Kuchma wanted to ask in the referendum, but allowed the other four to go forward. Today (Thursday), Kuchma agreed to the changes and his spokesman said the referendum would be held.
One of the two assembly members who visited Ukraine is Danish parliamentarian Hanne Severinsen. She tells RFE/RL that tomorrow a Council of Europe advisory body of constitutional experts -- known as the Venice Commission -- will examine the Ukrainian court's decision. She says she believes the referendum still violates council principles and doubts she will alter her draft proposal to suspend Ukraine, whatever the Venice Commission advises:
"The draft resolution, which has already been made [that is, drafted], will still be our suggestion to the [assembly's] monitoring committee. And that also means the suggestion to the Parliamentary Assembly next Tuesday -- that if this binding referendum is carried through, we ask the [council's] Committee of Ministers to start preparations for suspension."
The Committee of Ministers is the organization's chief executive body, and as such is empowered to suspend a member upon recommendation from the Parliamentary Assembly. In its 51-year history, the Council of Europe has never suspended a member-state -- although Greece was severely criticized for human-rights abuses by its military regime in the 1970s and voluntarily ceased participation in council organs.
A few years ago, however, the Parliamentary Assembly came close to recommending Ukraine's suspension because it had not fulfilled its commitment to end capital punishment. Kyiv has since outlawed the death penalty.
Assembly member Severinsen told our correspondent that Ukraine might be able to avoid suspension if the referendum results are merely advisory rather than binding. But a spokesman for the Constitutional Court, Pavlo Yehrafov, said on Wednesday the referendum is binding.
"It is not advisory, it cannot be advisory. It is a binding referendum, that is to say its results have a binding character. Government bodies will be obliged to take them into account and adopt the appropriate measures about those questions addressed in the referendum."
The two referendum questions that the Constitutional Court rejected concerned giving the president the right to dismiss parliament if a majority of respondents expressed no confidence and allowing the results of referendums to alter the constitution.
The four questions remaining include one on permitting the president to dissolve the parliament if it cannot form a working majority within one month. The other three deal with reducing the size of parliament, creating a second parliamentary chamber, and reducing deputies' immunity from prosecution.
The referendum is opposed by parliamentarians across Ukraine's political spectrum. The leader of the center-right Rukh party, Yury Kostenko, said it would be seen by other countries as a threat to Ukraine's democratic development and will cause domestic problems as well.
Serhiy Holovaty, a member of Ukraine's delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly, strongly opposes the referendum. He praised the Constitutional Court decision because, he said, it barred the two questions that most threatened democratic practices:
"The possibility of introducing a new constitution in Ukraine by using this referendum has been eliminated [by the Constitutional Court]. That's a blow against those forces that wanted to put Ukraine on the same track as [Belarusian President Aleksandr] Lukashenka. Because of this decision, Ukraine will not go down the Belarusian path. By its decision, the Constitutional Court has supported parliament as an institution."
A recent opinion survey conducted for Ukraine's Institute of Politics found that less than 50 percent of Ukrainians surveyed plan to vote in the referendum. If less than half the electorate does not in fact vote, the referendum will be invalid.