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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 21, 2006

November 21, 2006, Volume 8, Number 39
EU URGES BELARUS TO JOIN NEIGHBORHOOD POLICY. The European Union on November 21 repeated its long-standing call for Belarus to join the EU Neighborhood Policy.

The EU's External Relations Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said in Brussels a summary of the benefits offered was handed over to the Belarusian government in Minsk on the morning of November 21.

The offer, she said, is conditional on democratic reforms in the country.

"We are sending a message today to the people of Belarus. That's the important thing -- we're sending a message to the people of Belarus explaining what we could offer to Belarus if the conditions in the country changed," Ferrero-Waldner said.

Apart from the government, the EU offer will be distributed to nongovernmental organizations and media outlets in the country.

The offer lists in a concise format the benefits of the ENP, currently enjoyed by Ukraine and Moldova among others -- development aid, easier travel to EU countries, and institution-building assistance.

The conditions listed in the offer say that to join the ENP, Belarus must hold free and fair elections, respect freedom of expression and civil society rights, and release political prisoners. It must also allow for an independent judiciary, respect the rights and freedoms of national minorities, respect the rights of entrepreneurs, and abolish the death penalty.

Ferrero-Waldner repeatedly praised the example set by Ukraine, but distanced the EU from suggestions it might actively support attempts to overthrow Lukashenka's regime.

"We have never backed one party or one regime only. We always feel if the population of the country is mature to choose then it will certainly choose democracy, the rule of law and human rights, as we have seen in Ukraine," Ferrero-Waldner said.

Officials say the EU's aid budget for the eastern neighborhood countries, to be unveiled in Brussels on November 29, will run to 12 billion euros ($15.4 billion) between 2007-2013.

Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner was unable to say on November 21 what share of the money could be allocated to Belarus should it meet the EU's conditions. (RFE/RL Central Newsroom)

BLUE-ORANGE RIFT REEMERGES. Following a heated debate, the Verkhovna Rada on November 15 opted to postpone a decision on the fates of Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko.

The two presidential appointees were grilled during the parliamentary session by lawmakers from the ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions. They were accused of poor performance and negligence in office, but were spared the indignity of a vote on their dismissal -- at least for two weeks.

In the meantime, observers are left to debate whether parliament has the right to dismiss ministers nominated to the cabinet by the president. Foreign Minister Tarasyuk, for one, believes that it cannot, since the constitution does not say anything about such a situation.

"The constitution, which was amended hastily [in 2004], does not stipulate how these ministers [appointed by the president] can be dismissed," he said. "There is a legal collision here, whether the Verkhovna Rada can dismiss the two ministers without a presidential request. I don't think it can, because there is the notion of analogy in law: if the dismissal procedure is not defined while the appointment procedure is, legal analogy must apply and the same procedure should be used."

The debate on the two presidential ministers was just the latest clash in the short but uneasy cohabitation of Yanukovych and President Viktor Yushchenko -- two longtime political rivals who have reinvented their relationship since Yanukovych became prime minister in early August.

Cracks began to show in September, when Yanukovych said in Brussels that Ukraine would slow its pace toward NATO membership due to public opposition. Yushchenko rebuked Yanukovych for impinging on the president's constitutional right to shape the country's foreign policy. Simultaneously, Yushchenko reminded Yanukovych that just one month earlier both of them signed the so-called declaration of national unity, in which they pledged to seek NATO membership as one of Ukraine's key foreign-policy priorities.

Yanukovych, however, continued to assert his constitutionally reinforced position by claiming more executive prerogatives. In particular, he refused to implement several presidential decrees, arguing that he did not co-sign them. Yanukovych also questioned in the Constitutional Court the president's right to appoint regional governors without consulting the government.

In October, the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party switched to the opposition, constraining its four ministers in Yanukovych's cabinet to tender their resignations. Then, at a congress last week, the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party adopted a resolution obliging its lawmakers to contest the validity of the 2004 constitutional reform. The decision to question the reform before the Constitutional Court has the potential to spark a serious constitutional crisis.

Ukrainian political analyst Oles Doniy, the head of the Kyiv-based Center for Studies of Political Values, believes that Our Ukraine's move was dictated by the party's intention to save itself from political demise following its withdrawal from the government.

"I think this is a graphic example of how Our Ukraine is putting its narrow, party interests above those of national and state ones," Doniy says. "It considers a change of Ukraine's political system depending on whether it is in power or not, thus threatening Ukraine's future in general."

According to Doniy, the potential reversal of the constitutional reform could have a disastrous impact on the stability of the political system as a whole. Since the constitutional reform was adopted as a political compromise to end a presidential-election standoff between Yushchenko and Yanukovych, Doniy argues that questioning the constitutional reform is tantamount to questioning Yushchenko's legitimacy as president.

"If we question the amendments to the constitution made in that period, we will analogically have to question all the other things that took place at that time," Doniy says. "No Ukrainian law provides for the third round of a presidential election, but it did take place."

But Ihor Zhdanov, deputy head of Our Ukraine's Executive Committee, says his party does not see any link between the constitutional reform and Yushchenko's election. "The vote for the political reform and the presidential vote in December 2004 were in no way interconnected, since [the third presidential-election round] was legitimized by a ruling of the Supreme Court of Ukraine, which passed it proceeding from the evidence of a mass election fraud in the second round," he says.

Zhdanov argues that in adopting the constitutional reform, the Verkhovna Rada grossly violated the procedure for constitutional amendments by approving a version of the reform bill that was essentially different from the one reviewed and endorsed by the Constitutional Court.

So, if now the Constitutional Court heeds Our Ukraine's arguments and rules that the constitutional reform was adopted unlawfully, would this signal that Yushchenko will enjoy the same extensive powers as his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma?

Doniy says that might not necessarily be the case. "There is a collision here. Even if the authorities managed to pressure the Constitutional Court into canceling the political reform, the Constitutional Court's ruling would not automatically mean a change of the constitution," he says. "It would be necessary to vote on constitutional amendments again. At least, this is the opinion of those lawyers who are not prone to official pressure."

But it also seems that apart from a headache for lawyers, the controversy over the constitutional reform, if continued, might provoke a major and protracted political upheaval in Ukraine.

Yanukovych said earlier last week that a reversal of the reform would be illegal. Lawmaker Raisa Bohatyryova of the ruling Party of Regions warned Our Ukraine against pursuing its intention of reversing the reform, saying, "Do not stir bees in the hive if you don't know how to gather honey."

It is telling that Yushchenko, who in 2005 repeatedly vowed to seek a referendum to reverse the constitutional reform, has recently refrained from asking for more powers and now talks about "improving" the constitutional reform rather than annulling it.

Perhaps Yushchenko has realized that revoking the reform, which in theory made Ukraine's political system more balanced and similar to European-type democracies, would eliminate the only long-term achievement of the Orange Revolution, on which millions of Ukrainians pinned so many hopes and which they became disillusioned with so soon afterward. (RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)