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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: January 20, 2004

20 January 2004, Volume 6, Number 2
OPPOSITION CALLS FOR EARLY ELECTIONS IN JUNE. The opposition, liberal Civic Platform called last week for early parliamentary elections to be held in June. Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk on 18 January reminded President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Leszek Miller their promise in April 2003 to hold parliamentary elections simultaneously with elections to the European Parliament on 13 June, that is, some 15 months ahead of schedule. "It is in the vital interest of the Polish nation and state to break the ruling arrangement in Poland," Tusk said. Tusk's demand is supported by all major opposition parliamentary caucuses, but it is very unlikely that a motion to dissolve the 460-member Sejm ahead of the expiration of its regular term of office in the fall of 2005 will by supported by a two-thirds of its deputies, as it is required by the constitution.

On 2 April 2003, facing the EU accession referendum in June, Miller presented a "four-point political plan" that called for Poland's integration into the EU, consolidating pro-European forces before the referendum, restoring economic growth, and holding early parliamentary elections in June 2004. "I feel that on the threshold of this new reality, a new democratic legitimization for parliament and the government would be useful," Miller said at that time. President Kwasniewski declared that he fully supported Miller's plan.

However, Miller abandoned the proposal to hold parliamentary elections in June 2004 immediately after the successful EU referendum on 7-8 June 2003, suggesting that they should be held closer to the spring of 2005. Moreover, he proposed a vote of confidence in his minority cabinet and won it on 13 June 2003. His cabinet was supported by 236 deputies from the ruling Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union bloc and several small parliamentary groups, sometimes referred to as "parliamentary plankton" in Polish media. Polish observers suggests that this "parliamentary plankton" -- in order to remain in parliamentary jobs as long as possible -- is also likely to support a 2004 austerity budget that is currently being mulled over by parliament, thus avoiding the shortening of the Sejm term by the president (the Polish Constitution provides for the dissolution of the Sejm by the president if it fails to adopt a budget law).

A part of the government's plan to cut spending and reduce the growing deficit (estimated at 5.3 percent of gross domestic product in 2004) is the so-called Hausner austerity plan, prepared by Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Jerzy Hausner. The Hausner plan calls for cutting 32 billion zlotys ($.8.5 million) in spending over the next four years to lower the budget deficit to levels allowing Poland to enter the euro zone. The Hausner plan was initially supported by the Civic Platform, which now however seems to have changed its opinion about it. The Civic Platform criticizes the Hausner plan for its provisions stipulating main spending cuts in 2006-2007. "In this period we will be able to make savings on our own," Zyta Gilowska, the Civic Platform's chief economic expert, said last week.

Gilowska's prediction is supported by the fact that the Civic Platform's popularity has been steadily growing for the past several months. According to two polls conducted by two different polling agencies in early January, the Civic Platform could now win parliamentary elections with 26 percent support. Meanwhile, support for the Democratic Left Alliance has waned to below 20 percent, compared with nearly 42 percent of the vote the Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union bloc obtained in the 2001 parliamentary elections. Miller said last week that his cabinet will resign if the Democratic Left Alliance National Council, which is scheduled to meet on 24 January, rejects the Hausner plan. (Jan Maksymiuk)

KUCHMA SHUFFLES CARDS FOR 2004 PRESIDENTIAL-ELECTION GAME. When Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Kyiv later this week, both leaders will surely talk about the upcoming major political events in their countries: presidential elections in Russia in March and in Ukraine in November. While in the case of Russia nobody doubts that Putin will be easily re-elected, it is anybody's guess what may happen in Ukraine. In fact, it is not even certain how the Ukrainian president will be elected -- in a universal ballot or by parliament. Both options, according to Ukrainian observers, are possible. It is also not certain who will be the main presidential contender from the party of power in Ukraine -- the incumbent president or someone appointed by Kuchma as his successor.

However, everybody seems to agree that the 2004 presidential ballot in Ukraine will be a momentous event that may define the country's geopolitical orientation for more than only one presidential term. It is because the Ukrainian party of power -- which traditionally opts for Ukraine staying in the "Eurasian fold" -- for the first time is challenged by a politically potent pro-Western alternative embodied by Viktor Yushchenko and his Our Ukraine bloc.

On 24 December, the Verkhovna Rada preliminarily approved with 276 votes a constitutional-reform plan known as the Medvedchuk-Symonenko bill (No. 4105). The bill stipulates a redistribution of prerogatives between the parliament, the president, and the government, as well as provides for the election of president in 2006 by parliament. The bill was passed by a controversial show-of-hands vote, since opposition deputies from Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc broke the electronic voting system in the Verkhovna Rada, primarily in protest against the change of the method of electing the president. To become a law, the bill must be backed by at least 300 votes during the parliamentary session that is expected to begin on 3 February. The opposition has called on the Constitutional Court to invalidate the 24 December 2003 vote, arguing that voting by a show of hands is against the parliamentary regulations, but in the general opinion of Ukrainian analysts the court is unlikely to heed this call.

Moreover, on 30 December 2003 the Constitutional Court ruled that President Kuchma, who was first elected president in July 1994 and re-elected in November 1999, is formally serving his first full presidential term, since in 1996 the Verkhovna Rada promulgated a new constitution that redefined presidential prerogatives. Thus, according to the Constitutional Court, the constitutional provision limiting the presidential tenure to two consecutive terms for one person does not apply to Kuchma, who therefore may choose to seek another presidential term in 2004.

The ruling of the Constitutional Court is much more controversial than the tumultuous vote on constitutional amendments on 24 December 2003. U.S. Federal Judge Bohdan A. Futey, who served as an advisor to the Working Group on the Ukrainian Constitution adopted in 1996, concluded earlier this month that the ruling is unsupportable and logically inconsistent with the court's verdict of 1997, saying that parliamentarians elected after 8 June 1995 (when the Constitutional Agreement prohibiting such a practice was put in force) may not simultaneously hold a position in the government. Futey argued that if a similar reasoning has been applied by the Constitutional Court to Kuchma, he should not have been allowed to seek a third term. The applicable constitutional norm and prior legislation addressing presidential term limits, Futey said, consistently limited the president to two terms when Kuchma was elected in 1994 and re-elected in 1999. "The court applied a 'different standard' to national deputies in 1997 than it is now applying to President Kuchma," Futey said in his commentary published by "Ukraine Report-2004" (

Critics of the ruling in Ukraine say that the court's decision actually allows one person to seek presidency for an unlimited number of terms. To achieve this, they argue, it is enough for the parliament to amend the constitution in its part referring to presidential prerogatives, thus making the presidential term "incomplete" and allowing the incumbent to legitimately seek another term, which also may be made "incomplete" by further constitutional amendments. However, decisions of the Constitutional Court are final and not subject to appeal. Therefore, it is now up only to Kuchma -- who previously stressed on several occasions that he will not run in 2004 -- to decide whether he will make yet another presidential bid. Likewise, he also seems to be in control of the constitutional-reform drive in the parliament and may, at his own discretion, to stop it or give it an extra impetus. Kuchma, who returned last week from his one-month stay in a German spa, has not yet disclosed his plans regarding the 2004 presidential ballot and the constitutional reform. It is not ruled out that he wants to consult with Putin first.

Theoretically, many different scenarios are possible. The Verkhovna Rada may pass bill No. 4105. in its entirety, as it was preliminarily approved in December 2003. This will mean that Ukraine will have a nationwide presidential election in 2004, but in 2006 a new president will be elected by a new legislature. However, the Verkhovna Rada may also choose to vote on the Medvedchuk-Symonenko bill "article by article" and drop out its final part, which stipulates the election of an "interim president" in 2004 for some 18 months. Then, as many supporters of Our Ukraine fear, the Verkhovna Rada will be entitled to elect a new president already in 2004, and Viktor Yushchenko -- who is currently supported by some 25 percent of Ukrainians and is the country's most popular politician -- will stand no chance of being elected. And the third possibility is that the Verkhovna Rada may fail to muster 300 votes needed to amend the constitution, and everything will remain as it is now.

Furthermore, in each of these three scenarios two "sub-scenarios" should be taken into account -- one with Kuchma running as a presidential candidate and the other with Kuchma fielding a successor. Some argue that Kuchma will not risk the West's ire that will predictably follows if he chooses to seek a third term for himself. But others say that he may eventually decide on this if the party of power fails to agree on his successor and play as one team in the presidential election campaign. "Politics in Russia has ended for a long time...[along with political journalism]," Interfax-Ukraine chief Oleksandr Martynenko said in a recent press interview. "But we [in Ukraine] still have them [politics and political journalism]. We are living in interesting times," he added. This may incidentally be true, even if a closer look at Ukrainian affairs reveals that real politics as well as real political journalism in Ukraine are practiced by very few, while the others simply appear to follow the strings pulled by these very few. (Jan Maksymiuk)

HAS RUSSIA WON IN KERCH STRAITS DISPUTE? A Russian attempt last year to build a dam from its Krasnodar shore to the Ukrainian island of Tuzla provoked a bitter dispute, with Ukraine claiming its former imperial master was threatening its territorial integrity (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 29 October 2003).

Ukraine dispatched troops to defend Tuzla as it repeatedly asked Russia to halt construction of a dam in the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway with the Russian shore on its east and the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula on the west. The strait allows passage from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov.

Russian authorities insisted the dam was needed for ecological reasons -- to prevent erosion of the Russian shoreline. But Ukraine suspected the dispute was engineered to force acceptance of an agreement over control over the Sea of Azov and access to it.

Russia has had to pay fees for its ships to navigate a channel through the Kerch Straits. In addition, geologists believe the Azov seabed is rich in oil and gas reserves.

The tension lasted from September 2003 until November 2003 as Russia ignored Ukrainian demands to halt the dam construction. The drama poisoned Ukrainian-Russian relations and threatened to smash plans for Ukraine to join a four-nation economic union with Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus called the Single Economic Space.

Only after Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma cut short a visit to Brazil to talk with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin did the Russians stop extending the dam.

The director of the Kyiv Institute of Political and Conflict Studies, Dr. Mykhaylo Pohrebynskyy, a close adviser to the Ukrainian presidential administration, says that following talks between the two presidents, high-level working groups were set up. These have led to provisional agreements for division of the Sea of Azov and control over the navigable channels in the Kerch Straits (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003).

Pohrebynskyy says he believes that the Russian ecological concerns were a pretext for action and that Moscow encouraged the drama to prevent Ukrainian legislators from adopting a law to treat the Azov Sea in a similar way to the Black Sea in respect of borders. There Ukrainian waters are separated from Russian waters by a neutral zone or international waters.

Pohrebynskyy said Russia was dismayed at the prospect of such an international zone, where for instance NATO ships could sail freely. Russia was keen to keep the Azov Sea's status as that of an internal sea under the control of itself and Ukraine with no rights for anyone else.

Pohrebynskyy said the two presidents agreed not to take any unilateral steps that would cause tension over the waterways. Pohrebynskyy believes that detailed agreements will be signed soon classifying the Sea of Azov as an internal sea. "It's going to be a unique status, unlike that of the Black Sea, and the Ukrainian civil servants who drew up proposals gave the Russians a fright and thus the Russians used the dam as an argument that could prevent Ukraine from adopting certain decisions," he said. Moreover, he noted that Ukraine wants to join NATO -- "and this could cause Russia problems."

He says Ukraine had to compromise on important points. "Russia gets -- and this may seem as if Ukraine has made a concession -- the right to joint use of the channel. That was Russia's fundamental aim to secure joint control with Ukraine," Pohrebynskyy said.

Foreign, specifically NATO, warships cannot pass through the channel without Moscow's permission under the agreements. Pohrebynskyy says Russia, in return, dropped its objections to delineating boundaries in the Sea of Azov. "The political agreement between the two presidents calls for Russia's agreement to drawing up a frontier and not only on the seabed but along its surface and above it, that is to say, the aim that Ukraine had pursued," he said. "To finally fix a frontier between Ukraine and Russia -- because this remained the last fragment of the border which had not been finally agreed upon."

At their meeting last month, Putin and Kuchma agreed to create a joint consortium to manage the Kerch Strait. Pohrebynskyy says it is unclear whether Russia will have to continue paying fees for its ships to pass through the channel but Moscow will, in any case, contribute financially to the consortium.

Although it appears to have been a compromise agreement, some in Ukraine inevitably feel that Kyiv lost out on the deal. Director Ivan Lozovyy of the Institute for Statehood and Democracy, an independent Kyiv-based think tank, is one them. "Undoubtedly, there was a winner and a loser," he said. "The loser was Ukraine and I believe the defeat was complete. Not only was Tuzla Island given away -- and at some point it will probably become a peninsula joined to the Russian Federation by a dam -- but even the division of the Azov Sea that Putin agreed to runs completely contrary to any benefit for Ukraine."

Lozovyy believes that Russian officials engineered the Tuzla crisis because they were confident they would get their way. "There is only one thing that triggered the Tuzla crisis and that is Ukraine's weakness and [the] weakness of Ukraine's government. In other words, Putin and his team knew in advance that Kuchma would agree to all their demands," he said.

Ukrainian parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn said it is difficult to know when the Azov and Kerch agreements will be finalized because the documents are still being prepared. Pohrebynskyy believes it will be done soon. He says it's unclear what will become of the dam. Technical and ecological commissions have been set up to decide its fate.

RFE/RL's correspondent Askold Krushelnycky wrote this report.

"The election of president by parliament, in my opinion, means limiting the rights of voters, that's true. But a similar limitation is present in the shift to a proportional parliamentary-election system, since a man loses the possibility of being elected to parliament if he does not adhere to any ideology. And as regards our constitution, it firmly declares that there is no mandatory ideology for our citizens. Therefore, if we speak about a referendum on how to elect the president, then the question of a law on parliamentary elections under a proportional system needs to be submitted to a referendum as well." -- Ukrainian parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn in an interview in the 17-23 January issue of "Zerkalo nedeli."