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Ukraine: Court Approves President-Friendly Election Changes

Ukraine's Constitutional Court ruled yesterday (11 December) it had no objections to parliament electing future presidents. The opposition fears that President Leonid Kuchma may be preparing to manipulate next year's presidential elections or even eliminate them in order to retain power -- either personally, or through one of his nominees.

Kyiv, 12 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has said that he will not run for a third term in office next year. In any case, he is currently forbidden from doing so under the present constitution.

But Kuchma -- and the tightly knit circle of ultrarich cronies that surround him and control much of the Ukrainian government -- are worried that if one of their opponents becomes president next year, the current ruling elite will not only lose the financial advantages they enjoy but could face trial for corruption and even murder.

The man they fear most is Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the biggest democratic faction in parliament, Our Ukraine. He consistently receives the highest opinion-poll ratings and most observers believe he will become president if next October's elections are held fairly.

That seems to be the Kuchma administration's conclusion also. They have approached the Constitutional Court to rule on a number of questions which may provide the administration with loopholes to retain power.

Yesterday, the court, which regularly sides with Kuchma, commented on the president's proposals to transform Ukraine from a country where the president has dominant powers to one where parliament and the prime minister hold most of the power while the president's role is reduced to largely a ceremonial one. It said the proposal did not threaten the rights of Ukrainians. Under this proposal, the parliament would elect a president next year to serve until new parliamentary elections in 2007.

Another proposal suggested by Kuchma entails presidential elections next year that will give the president reduced powers. Then the parliament would elect another president in 2006. Before either could be adopted in law, parliament must vote twice with a two-thirds majority on the drafts. Normally Kuchma would not be able to achieve the numbers needed but the Communists might vote for the proposals because they intensely dislike the presidential system.

The opposition has said both alternatives are tantamount to a coup by the president and has said it will fight to prevent the changes.

The court also ruled Kuchma may not be prosecuted for crimes committed while in office. The president has been accused of corruption involving hundreds of millions of dollars, abusing human rights, curbing freedom of the press, and involvement in the killing of an opposition journalist. He has always denied the allegations.

An Our Ukraine deputy in parliament and a senior aide to Yushchenko, Oleh Rybachuk, said that the ruling could be the first step in a process where Kuchma could try to appoint a trusted nominee as prime minister or even nominate himself for the post.

"One or two months prior to the election, the constitution is changed -- so any minute you may have the following scenario: For example, that Kuchma the president is requested by parliament to become prime minister. So Kuchma the president takes or nominates Kuchma the prime minister because he is being requested to do that by the parliament -- and then the presidency is practically annihilated," Rybachuk said.

Rybachuk says that Kuchma is worried that whatever guarantees he secures at present, a future government hostile to him might still try to prosecute him. Therefore, Rybachuk says, the plan is to hold on to power by any means. Kuchma has repeatedly said he will not run for a further term as president. But Rybachuk says Kuchma's words must be examined carefully.

"If [Kuchma] is saying that he is not going to run for election, he might be telling the truth, because there might be no election. So in the Constitutional Court you have to follow every word. Yes, he might not run for the election. There might be changes to the constitution," Rybachuk said.

Another member of parliament, Bohdan Hubsky, has asked the country's highest court to clarify whether Kuchma should be regarded as someone now in the last year of his second term of office. Some have argued that as the present constitution was only introduced in 1996, two years into Kuchma's first term, he should be allowed another term or at least an extension of two years in this one.

The court has initially taken the view that Kuchma should be regarded as only having completed one term, but a final decision has yet to be made.

Although the election campaign does not begin officially until next April, there have already been what the opposition claims are organized attempts by the presidential authorities to disrupt a series of opposition meetings around the country.

The administration denies the accusations. But some Western diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador and the head of a Council of Europe group monitoring human rights in Ukraine, have said the tactics bode ill for the fair conduct of next year's scheduled elections.

Rybachuk has said so far the heavy-handed methods have backfired on those who he claims instigated them. "I can see that it is having the opposite effect," he said. "It mobilizes not Kuchma's supporters but increases the camp of his opponents and it proves again that they are trying desperately to stick to power and all their words about a European choice, democratic values etc., etc., are just words."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be the body coordinating various groups trying to ensure that the run-up to the elections and the ballot itself is conducted fairly.

The head of the mission in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, is David Nicholas. Although international bodies have condemned last year's parliamentary election and the last presidential elections in 1999 as deeply flawed, Nicholas says it would be counterproductive to prejudge the Ukrainian administration.

"The Ukrainian authorities on all levels and in the various ministries as well have, without exception, evinced a determination to conduct fair and transparent elections. That's Ukraine's desire, and nobody from the outside has tried to superimpose their values or their determinations upon Ukrainian authorities," Nicholas said.

He says that the OSCE's role is not to tell the Ukrainian government what it should do but to assist in helping it. Nicholas says the OSCE must not be perceived as wanting to influence the outcome of the elections.