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Ukraine: Kuchma Cleared To Run For Third Term

Kyiv, 30 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's Constitutional Court today ruled that President Leonid Kuchma is eligible to run for a third term in elections due to be held in October.

Kuchma was first elected in 1994. He completes his second term next year and has said publicly that he will not seek another term.

The ruling by the Constitutional Court was made at the request of 100 Ukrainian Parliament members who had asked for an official interpretation of the constitution.

Ukraine's constitution limits the president to two consecutive terms.

Kuchma was elected president twice -- in July 1994 and November 1999. The Ukrainian Constitution was adopted in June 1996.

The deputies claim Kuchma has been elected president under the provisions of the current constitution only once and thus may be re-elected. The Constitutional Court supported this opinion in its ruling today.

Opposition parties have repeatedly accused Kuchma of intending to run again. Anatoli Matvienko is a leader of the opposition Ukrainian Republican Party.

"I think this masterpiece is called 'How the Constitutional Court Was Raped On New Year's Eve.' As far as I know, [chief of staff Viktor] Medvedchuk met with each member of the court. I believe we should realize that a new political adventure is under way. Kuchma will be proposed as a presidential candidate for a third term. He will refuse. All the people will beg him to run. Groups of workers will stage meetings, rallies, and demonstrations. Kuchma will see how everybody loves him and will concede to running for a third term in office. Most probably, his election by the parliament in 2004 is already under way," Matvienko said.

The president of Ukraine is elected by popular vote. On 24 December, however, the Ukrainian Parliament gave initial approval to an amendment to the constitution that provides for the president to be elected by parliament. The amendment must also be approved by the Constitutional Court.

Many observers believe the amendment, if finally approved, won't go into effect until after next year's presidential election, however. Mikhailo Pogrebinsky is a political scientist in Ukraine who is considered close to Kuchma's administration.

"Formally, this decision [by the Constitutional Court] is one of the instruments of political struggle. It is clear that the opposition will interpret it as a decision for the extension of Kuchma's rule for one more term. Other political forces will have to decide whether to call off plans for a joint candidate. The Constitutional Court's decision was quite predictable for those who follow this problem. It is not an important part of political life because Leonid Kuchma has repeatedly said that he is not going to run for the presidency again," Pogrebinsky said.

In many former Soviet states, presidents have found ways of staying in power beyond constitutional limitations. In some countries, such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, referendums were held to extend the terms of authority for heads of state. Kazakhstan has also abolished constitutional limitations on the maximum age of the president, as well as on the number of terms in office.

Vasil Onopenko is a deputy in the Ukrainian Parliament and head of a committee on legal politics. He believes something similar may be happening in Ukraine and agrees with Pogrebinsky that Kuchma will not run again, despite the ruling.

"The Constitutional Court has become a presidential court, a royal court. So there is nothing to be surprised about. Why else to stage that request [from the deputies]? That kind of a decision was arranged for from the very beginning. But as strange as it may seem, the decree is of no use to the president. I am convinced that Kuchma is not going to stand for re-election -- neither in the [parliament] vote nor in direct nationwide polls. It is simply another important element in the political game. It is an important political order that was carried out by the Constitutional Court," Onopenko said.

Kuchma has been accused by opposition groups of corruption and involvement in the killing of an opposition journalist. He denies these allegations.