There were angry scenes in Ukraine's parliament this week, as opposition members tussled with deputies allied to embattled President Leonid Kuchma. Opposition deputies are in an uproar after factions allied to the president took control of all parliamentary committees, effectively removing the opposition from all levers of power. They're also upset that parliament ousted the country's central-bank chairman -- and claim the votes were rigged. It's all led to a standoff that has halted parliamentary work on key issues, such as next year's budget.
Prague, 20 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's parliament in recent days has resembled a children's playground more than a serious debating chamber.
One deputy broke a rival's microphone. Another sharply elbowed a prominent female politician. Enraged, one of her colleagues tried to spit on the attacker, who claimed in defense: "She started it. She stomped on my foot and ruined my only new shoes."
It may be surprising to learn these angry scenes were provoked by something as seemingly dull as personnel changes at the Ukrainian central bank. The opposition is angry that the central-bank chairman -- and the bank's independence -- have apparently fallen victim to political wheeling and dealing.
And it's just one example of what the opposition says are dirty tactics designed to sideline or even intimidate them and shore up support for the country's increasingly embattled president, Leonid Kuchma. Kuchma has clung to power in the face of corruption allegations and U.S. claims that he broke UN sanctions by approving the sale of radar systems to Iraq -- allegations he denies.
Take the central bank. Factions allied to Kuchma agreed last month to support his choice for prime minister if they could put their man at the helm of the central bank, to replace Volodymyr Stelmakh.
A first vote on Stelmakh's replacement failed -- but a hastily scheduled repeat vote succeeded on 17 December. The opposition claims this violated parliamentary rules of procedure, which say a repeat vote must wait until a fresh session of parliament.
Opposition deputies are also angry at a vote the same day that stripped them of all committee chairmanships. As a final insult, parliament also overcame opposition resistance to cancel the 2003 draft budget in its second reading.
The four main opposition blocs -- two reformist parties, plus the Socialists and Communists -- claim the votes were rigged, and have compared the parliamentary majority's maneuvers to a coup attempt.
They've challenged the majority to show the ballots and have appealed to a Kyiv court to annul the results. They've also, on several occasions, taken over the speaker's rostrum and halted parliament's work, prompting one pro-presidential faction leader to suggest the Ukrainian parliament needs its own police force.
Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the reformist Our Ukraine party, said many opposition deputies have been pressured to switch sides. He said if parliament cannot work constructively, "people will come out onto the street and help." He added, "If we can't reach an agreement, the only way is to call a national strike."
Yuliya Tymoshenko, the leader of the smallest opposition faction, acknowledged they're up against some wily opponents. "We have to negotiate because we have to stop the conflict. But we must negotiate as a foursome [Socialists, Communists, Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine] and not separately, because they could divide us and move us into different corners. And we will lose again, because they play as one team -- powerfully, professionally, and intellectually."
The pro-presidential camp counters that they've done nothing wrong in carving up the committees among themselves. After all, they managed to form a parliamentary majority -- something the opposition, even as a combined force, could not achieve.
Former President Leonid Kravchuk, now a deputy in a pro-Kuchma party, said it's time parliament got down to work. "The parliamentary majority was formed on the basis of democratic principles, voluntarily and without any pressure or compromise. We signed a political agreement with the government. We have formed a new coalition government together with the prime minister and the president, and we distributed all the committees in the parliament. The organizational period is over. Now it's time to get down to business."
It's not the first time Ukraine's parliament has seen this kind of standoff. In early 2000, factions close to the president also formed a parliamentary majority. They then tried to oust the left-of-center speaker -- and walked out when he refused to leave. The two camps each held rival sessions in different locations until the majority finally regained access to the parliament building one month later.
As this week drew to a close, there were signs that a compromise could be reached, with the suggestion that opposition parties could retain their traditional control of key committees, like those on the budget or parliamentary procedure. Talks are scheduled to continue on 23 December.
A deal might ensure parliament can begin to function again, but the problems might not stop there. Markian Bilynskiy is Kyiv director of field operations for the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that promotes democracy and economic reform. He said: "The problem is going to arise should the discipline start waning in that majority, because at present it's fairly slim. It's about 10 to 20 votes at most. Also some of the big constitutional amendment issues that the president would like the parliament to address and the parliamentarians themselves would like to address -- their fate will be dependent on the participation of the currently alienated opposition."
If another crisis does erupt, Bilynskiy doubts if the opposition can muster enough support for mass demonstrations, let alone a general strike. At most, he says he expects something similar to recent anti-Kuchma protests, which drew several thousand people onto the streets of Kyiv -- in other words, nothing that Kuchma need lose any sleep over.
"I think that irrespective of what happens on the streets, it won't have any influence whatsoever on the authorities as they're currently constituted. Because in Ukraine, politics aren't decided through spontaneous opposition but by the deals made between the authorities, those who hold political leverage and regional power brokers and powerful business interests. This is several levels above anything that happens on the street."
Foreign diplomats stationed in Kyiv have also been brought in in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Opposition leaders met yesterday with diplomats, including the U.S. and Canadian ambassadors, who called on both sides to respect parliamentary rules and urged greater transparency in parliamentary decisions.
The majority has also called for a similar meeting today.
(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)