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Ukraine: Exploring Kuchma's Motives For Moving Toward Parliamentary Democracy

Many Ukrainian politicians, political analysts, and ordinary voters have long said their country's system of government gives too much power to the president. So many were startled recently when Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma announced on 24 August that he wanted to shift more responsibility to the parliament. RFE/RL reports on the Ukrainian president's new initiative.

Prague, 29 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma presided over a closed meeting of his cabinet yesterday to discuss how to bring about constitutional changes he is advocating to strengthen the country's parliament and transform Ukraine into a parliamentary democracy. Currently, it is the president who chooses and appoints the Ukrainian government.

Kuchma announced his plan last week during celebrations of the 11th anniversary of Ukraine's independence. The plan would require important constitutional changes, and Kuchma urged the Ukrainian cabinet and parliament to begin work on amendments as soon as possible.

Yesterday's meeting was attended by parliamentary speaker Vladimir Litvin and representatives of parliament's seven political factions.

The proposals appear to signal an abrupt and massive change of heart for Kuchma, now in his second and, under the present constitution, last term in office. For years, Kuchma has been able to rule by decree while a bitterly divided parliament has remained largely impotent.

Many politicians and civic groups who oppose Kuchma accuse the Ukrainian president of being autocratic, and they have long demanded a curtailment of his powers and a shift toward increased parliamentary authority.

Kuchma last year won approval for extra presidential powers through a countrywide referendum that many said was conducted dishonestly. Parliament refused to confirm the new powers.

In his speech to the country last week, Kuchma explained that in the first years following independence, a strong presidential system was necessary because Ukraine had "weak political parties and an underdeveloped democratic system." But now, he said, "I am convinced that for its further development the country needs to go over to another political system, a parliamentary-presidential republic."

The decision was welcomed by former President Leonid Kravchuk, who said Kuchma's initiative is "a step toward the opposition" and "a correct decision."

But many political observers and politicians opposed to Kuchma believe the Ukrainian president's motives for the sweeping constitutional changes are more cynical. They say the announcement was made to deflect attention from calls by opposition groups for mass protests next month to demand an end to Kuchma's rule. The opposition accuses Kuchma of corruption and involvement in the murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Kuchma denies the allegations.

The director of the independent Institute for Statehood and Democracy in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, Ivan Lozowy, predicts the demonstrations could be massive because Ukraine's most popular politician, former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko -- who is now the leader of parliament's largest democratic bloc -- has thrown his weight behind them.

Lozowy said a recent opinion poll shows that more than 70 percent of Ukrainians want Kuchma to step down from his post. "In the first instance, Kuchma's proposals are intended to weaken the momentum for mass protests this autumn being planned by the opposition," Lozowy said.

Lozowy pointed out that Kuchma's proposals came the day after he met with three other powerful opposition figures involved in the planned demonstrations: former Deputy Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, Communist Party chief Petro Symonenko, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz.

Yushchenko, leader of the pro-Western Our Ukraine faction, said the president's initiative will justify itself only if democratic elections are held in the country. "Otherwise," he said, "the very idea of reforms will be discredited."

Lozowy said Kuchma has not abandoned his idea for introducing the results of the referendum, which could change the constitution to enable him to prolong his term in office. "I think that Leonid Kuchma is currently searching for any means possible to extend his rule and term as president. This is an issue that was formerly only whispered about in the corridors of power, but now it has surfaced openly as a matter for public discussion," Lozowy said.

Lozowy said Kuchma was first elected president while the present constitution was being drawn up. He believes Kuchma, under the guise of promoting constitutional changes to give more power to parliament, will use his powerful faction of supporters in parliament to argue for a one-off exemption to be made for the president to be allowed to run for a third term in office. "On the one hand, he has apparently agreed to opposition proposals about creating a democratic parliamentary republic with increased power and authority for the nation's parliament. But on the other hand, he has underscored the results of the referendum, which had as its aims, and despite accusations by many that its results had been falsified, the strengthening of the presidential administration," Lozowy said.

Opposition leaders like Tymoshenko have in the past called not only for Kuchma's impeachment but for him to be tried on charges of corruption and possibly for involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Gongadze. Lozowy said Kuchma fears what may happen to him once he loses his presidential powers. "[Kuchma] faces the problem that Ukraine's most popular politician, Viktor Yushchenko, has every chance of winning the next presidential elections and Leonid Danylovych [Kuchma] has to calculate what that would mean for him. Will that mean changes in many of the leading posts and the people who fill them? Will questions be asked about Kuchma himself? [Will questions be asked about] the people who surround him, his family, his business interests, and all of the scandals that have surfaced and whose number is increasing daily? For instance, recently, one of the newspapers, 'Zerkalo Nedili,' published an article about a new yacht, which costs a minimum of $6 million, given to Kuchma by Oleh Dubin, a vice premier of Ukraine who is a favorite and protege of Leonid Kuchma," Lozowy said.

Lozowy said it is a common tactic for Ukrainian politicians to announce publicly the opposite of their real intentions. He is convinced that is the case with Kuchma's proposals about transferring power to parliament. He does not believe that it will deflect plans for mass demonstrations next month.

Presidential adviser and well-known political commentator Mykhaylo Pohrebinski believes Kuchma genuinely feels the changes will end the bitter divisions between Ukraine's legislative and executive branches. Years of rows between the two branches are blamed for the slow pace of economic reform in Ukraine.

Pohrebinski said Kuchma knows the changes are needed if Ukraine is to have any chance of joining the European Union. "I think that [Kuchma] knows better than others how ineffectively the legislative and executive branches have functioned in the six years since he came to power and understands that if Ukraine is to make the European choice that he so fondly talks about, it cannot do that without resolving the difficult relations between the legislative and executive branches. I think he is convinced that the government should be chosen by a parliamentary majority, and the president's role will be changed to deal perhaps with foreign policy or as commander in chief of the army," Pohrebinski said.

Pohrebinski explained why he believes Kuchma, who has two years to serve in his presidency, chose to announce his initiative now. "I think he's chosen this moment because if it's to be done, it must be started now because it will take two years for the process to be completed. It must be done during a period when a president is departing because a new president will not want to curtail his own powers. He will want the old system with a powerful president. Therefore, if the president wants to go down in history as a European reformer, he has to do it now because it will take two years," Pohrebinski said.

Pohrebinski does not know exactly what swayed Kuchma to adopt his new approach but does not believe it was motivated purely to deflect attention away from planned demonstrations against the president. "It's impossible to pinpoint which argument was decisive for the president when he made his decision. Among these arguments was that he would be taking a step toward meeting opposition demands and depriving them of the important cause of political reform of Ukraine's system of government. Perhaps this was one of the reasons for his decision, but how much importance he attached to it is difficult to say. My opinion is that he regards the demonstrations as a bluff rather than a real threat to the present system," Pohrebinski said.

Pohrebinski is convinced that Kuchma will not try to extend his presidency beyond this term.