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Ukraine: Ignoring European Criticism, President Perseveres With Referendum

Ukraine's president is ignoring threats that his country may be suspended from the Council of Europe if it goes ahead with a controversial referendum that would increase the president's powers -- some say unconstitutionally. Voting is to wind up on 16 April. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky unravels the increasingly complicated maneuvers.

Prague, 14 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- From the outset, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma appeared to be using the threat of a referendum as a device to settle scores with a parliament that opposed him.

The referendum, which ends on 16 April, asks Ukrainian voters to limit the powers of the parliament and increase those of the president. Two of the original six questions were struck down by the Constitutional Court. They concerned allowing the president to dissolve parliament if the voters declared no confidence in it and allowing him to amend the constitution by referendum.

The remaining four questions have been criticized as too complex for most voters to understand. They concern increasing the president's power to dissolve parliament, reducing the number of deputies, introducing a second chamber, and restricting parliamentary immunity.

The referendum has drawn criticism from the 41-nation Council of Europe, a European body that monitors human rights and democratic practices. Earlier this month, the council's Parliamentary Assembly, made up of delegations from all member countries, said the referendum would change the balance of power in Ukraine unconstitutionally. It warned that Ukraine could be suspended from the council.

A spokeswoman for the council, Denise Slavik, said the referendum results must be regarded as advisory, not binding. And she said Ukraine's parliament must have the final word in approving the decisions.

"The parliamentary assembly said that they consider this referendum as consultative and that they will carefully watch the implementation of the result. If the results are amending the constitution, they will say that is not constitutional and this could be linked to the question of suspension."

Suspension from the council would not have direct financial or political penalties. But it would place Ukraine in roughly the same pariah class as Belarus and Russia, something Ukraine wants to avoid. Belarus never gained membership of the council because of its authoritarian president. Russia's delegation to the parliamentary assembly was stripped of voting powers last week because of Russia's conduct in Chechnya.

Kuchma originally proposed the referendum a few months ago (in December), complaining that the parliament had wrecked his attempts to introduce market reforms and was, therefore, responsible for prolonging the country's disastrous economic decline. The legislature has been dominated by Communists and their leftist allies throughout most of Ukraine's independence since 1991. It had thwarted Kuchma throughout his first term in office and looked set to do the same after he won a second term last November.

Numerous polls show that most Ukrainians are disillusioned with their parliament, believing its members to be self-serving and corrupt. The referendum, therefore, was likely to yield the responses Kuchma wanted.

Faced with the possibility of early elections that might rob them of their seats, many deputies shifted alliances (in late January). A nominally pro-Kuchma majority was created which says it is committed to reform.

Some analysts say that now that the parliament has a reform-minded majority,

Ilko Kucheriv is the director of the Western-backed Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kyiv. He says Ukraine still faces the choice between returning to Soviet-style system or integrating with Western Europe and pursuing a market economy. He says the referendum will distract parliament from this priority.

"At the moment, Ukraine's need is to implement reforms speedily. All the conditions exist for this: the president enjoys a large measure of trust, his policies are aimed towards Europe, the wider world and a market economy. There's a reformist government, the first which can truly improve the situation. Therefore, Ukraine needs to focus all its attention on internal reforms. Energy and money should be spent on these aims, while the referendum just places obstacles in the way of reform."

The referendum may not change the balance of power in Ukraine after all. Even if voters pass all of Kuchma's proposed changes, the results would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in parliament. Such a level of consensus is rarely attained in Ukraine.

One observer with insight into the presidential administration -- who asked not to be named -- told our correspondent he believes that Kuchma does not stand to gain much any more by the referendum and would like to see an end to the controversy.

He said one easy way out would be if fewer than 50 percent of voters participate, which would invalidate the entire exercise.

Polls have been open since April 6 and will close on the 16th. Surveys show polling has been slow so far, but up to 60 percent of voters could turn out.