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Ukraine: Our Ukraine Party Conference Ends With Call For Broad Pro-Democracy Unity

This weekend, many of Ukraine's political parties held conferences to take stock of their positions one year after parliamentary elections. Our Ukraine, the country's largest democratic grouping, took the biggest share of that vote but went on to be largely unrepresented in parliament. The party, however, is confidently rallying around a new cause: the presidential bid of its leader, Viktor Yushchenko.

Kyiv, 31 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One year ago today, Ukraine held parliamentary elections that reflected support for democratic reforms but that led to the formation of a government that is largely loyal to President Leonid Kuchma.

Most opinion polls show that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians want to see the end of Kuchma's presidential term. He has been blamed for corruption, election rigging, and dragging his country into economic ruin. He is also accused of ruling in an increasingly authoritarian style, using political repression and media crackdowns to keep his opponents at bay.

Not surprisingly, the same polls indicate that, were presidential elections to be held today, most Ukrainians would throw their support behind a different candidate: Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko.

On 29 March, the Our Ukraine bloc held a forum aimed at reflecting on the past year since the parliamentary elections and at adopting a strategy for the months ahead: primarily, how best to achieve a Yushchenko victory in next year's presidential elections.

The forum concluded with the aim of reaching out to other parties with common positions to create a formal, broad coalition unifying the opposition.

Yushchenko said Kuchma's supporters had used intimidation and other forms of pressure on many parliamentary deputies, including Our Ukraine bloc members, in order to force them to abandon their allegiance to democratic parties. But Yushchenko said Kuchma has not succeeded in destroying parliament's pro-democracy forces and that he expects to rally many of these people back to his side. Yushchenko also promised Our Ukraine's supporters would not be forgotten. "We know how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have lost their jobs just because they provided a hall for an Our Ukraine election campaign meeting or were in some way connected to the Our Ukraine bloc. To those people I say: 'Be patient. All of this will soon pass. We remember you,'" Yushchenko said.

More than 700 people -- members of Our Ukraine and representatives of other political parties from across Ukraine -- attended the weekend conference that was held in a crowded hall at Kyiv's Polytechnic Institute. The leaders of some parties working within the Our Ukraine bloc -- including Viktor Penzenyk, the head of the Reforms and Order Party -- said they were ready to dissolve their own parties if Our Ukraine transformed itself from a coalition into a unified party. "Those parties that have entered the Our Ukraine bloc have lost a part, and not a small part, of their sovereignty. But through that loss everyone has gained, and gained not a little. However, we only took half a step. That step has to be completed. Recidivist moves toward [political] separatism within Our Ukraine can be defeated by the swift formation of one united party. I am today prepared to surrender my authority as the head of the Party of Reforms and Order and to sign a declaration of entry into this new party, and I call upon others here to do the same," Penzenyk said.

Penzenyk said that a broader opposition front will help not only Yushchenko's election bid but that it will also provide the first steps toward fundamentally reforming Ukraine's political system in order to better reflect the hopes and desires of the Ukrainian population.

Some of those at the conference, while expressing support for Our Ukraine, did not say they were ready to enter a new united party or commit themselves to Yushchenko as the opposition's sole presidential candidate.

One of the those was Oleksandr Moroz, the leader of Ukraine's Socialist Party, who enjoys widespread support in Ukraine and, like Yushchenko, also has a reputation for political integrity. Moroz said he agreed with the need for broad cooperation and proposed that a formal pact of cooperation be signed between the Socialists, Our Ukraine, the Communists, and the powerful Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, which is led by Ukraine's most powerful female politician.

Moroz said: "The four political forces that are in parliament should sign a memorandum together in which they state their position on political reforms. And this should form the basis for political cooperation in the future."

The proposal received warm applause from the conference audience. But Yushchenko may think twice before signing a formal compact with the Communists, a move many of his supporters would likely oppose.

Among other subjects discussed were Kuchma's proposed constitutional amendments, which would shift the balance of Ukrainian politics from presidential to parliamentary dominance.

The Kuchma administration has reportedly held behind-the-scenes consultations with political parties to offer stronger parliamentary control in exchange for an extension of Kuchma's presidential term by two years, until 2006.

Yushchenko and other members of Our Ukraine say the presidential initiative is a ploy to hold on to power by any means. They say the extension of the presidential term would allow the current administration sufficient time to secure victory for a Kuchma loyalist who would shield Kuchma and his allies from possible prosecution and allow them to maintain considerable influence in business and political fields.

Yushchenko said he would not support Kuchma's plans and that he did not believe Kuchma would gain the two-thirds of the parliamentary vote necessary to change the constitution. "I don't want to waste time, my friends -- yours or mine -- on criticism from the sidelines that [Kuchma's proposals] conceal pseudo-reforms that, by ignoring the law and the constitution, provide instruments to interfere directly with the rights and norms of the constitution to bring about in the country elections without an election," Yushchenko said.

Yushchenko continued, saying the proposals would "leave what we presently have but in a stronger form, a situation where parliament cannot do its job, and society is splintered."

The forum concluded by rejecting the presidential initiative and formally calling on Our Ukraine to work toward the creation of the broad political coalition advocated by Yushchenko and others.

The conference was marked by an upbeat atmosphere. Yushchenko, in his closing speech, reflected Our Ukraine's confident mood. "I'm certain that we've emerged [from today's meeting] with a new, strengthened sense that only together can we achieve the goal we dream of: to change the Ukrainian government and install a Ukrainian democracy," Yushchenko said.

Many conference attendees said they felt democratic forces were now in a better position than ever for victory at the ballot box. Moreover, they said, a Yushchenko victory was assured as long as democratic forces stuck together and did not allow themselves to be divided, as in previous elections.