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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: April 13, 2004

13 April 2004, Volume 6, Number 13
POLLSTER SAYS OPPOSITION NEEDS CONSOLIDATION BEFORE PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION. The Minsk-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) conducted a poll among 1,480 adult respondents in March in Belarus, which found that 64 percent of Belarusians intend to vote in the October election for the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives. Of these, some 43 percent declared that they would support candidates from the 10 opposition parties that were named in the questionnaire, 27 percent said they would not vote for any of those parties, and 24 percent found it difficult to answer.

However, this seemingly auspicious news for the opposition looks much less rosy in light of the answers to NISEPI's question about voters' preferences if there should be many election blocs vying for votes in the October legislative election. It turns out that under such circumstances the Popular Coalition Five Plus could count on 13.4 percent of the vote, the Liberal Democratic Party on 12.4 percent, "other bloc or party" on 7.9 percent, the European Coalition Free Belarus on 7.4 percent, the "For Changes!" movement on 3.3 percent, and the Young Belarus bloc on 1.5 percent. But a majority of the supporters of opposition parties -- 23.7 percent -- declared that with many separate opposition blocs taking part in the election they would prefer to vote for independent candidates (this majority includes, for example, 47 percent of the supporters of the Popular Coalition Five Plus and 43 percent of the supporters of the European Coalition Free Belarus.

NISEPI Director Aleh Manayeu commented to Belapan this week that even if the above-mentioned blocs -- bar the Liberal Democratic Party -- united into a single election coalition, they could count on support of only one-third (33.5 percent) of the supporters of opposition parties, or only one-fifth of all voters declaring their intention to participate in the election.

According to Manayeu, the consolidation of Belarusian opposition parties into one bloc -- the larger the better -- is a sine qua non for expanding their support in the upcoming election. But this is only the first step. Manayeu additionally recommends that the opposition place on its election lists those independent candidates who are not against such cooperation.

The third direction in mobilizing support by the opposition should be, according to the NISEPI head, the organization of an "efficient mobilization campaign" among those who do not want to participate in the election or have not yet decided what to do. Among this group of potential voters, Manayeu asserts, nearly 70 percent are dissatisfied with the level of democracy and the observance of human rights in Belarus, while some 60 percent say that they would vote against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's third term in a possible referendum. The problem with this group, Manayeu explains, is that a majority of potential voters in it is very skeptical about the possibility to change anything in Belarus via the election process.

Manayeu's fourth recommendation for the opposition is to organize efficient monitoring of the October parliamentary election, including the participation of international observers. (Jan Maksymiuk)

VERKHOVNA RADA FAILS TO PASS CONSTITUTIONAL-REFORM BILL. The Verkhovna Rada on 8 April voted on a controversial constitutional-reform bill, falling six votes short of the 300 votes required for approval. The bill was supported by 294 lawmakers from the pro-government coalition, the Communist Party, and the Socialist Party, as well as by some independent deputies.

The opposition Our Ukraine and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, which did not take part in the vote, met its result with jubilation and sang the Ukrainian national anthem in the session hall. "[The vote was] possibly one of the first victories of the democratic forces in this parliament," Interfax quoted Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko as saying. Yushchenko, who is the most popular contender approaching the 31 October presidential ballot, staunchly opposed the bill that provided for significant cuts in the president's powers. "This is not a victory of the opposition, this is a failure of the authorities," Stepan Havrysh, coordinator of the parliamentary pro-government majority, commented shortly after the abortive vote.

However, a few hours later, following a conference with presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, who is widely believed to be the main architect of the constitutional reforms, Havrysh changed tack. Havrysh said on Inter Television that the Verkhovna Rada will hold a repeat vote on the constitutional reforms since, he argued, lawmakers voted not for bill No. 4105, which provided for these reforms, but for unregistered bill No. 1674-4, which was announced by speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn before the vote. To support his argument, Havrysh quoted a relevant passage from the official minutes of the session that actually mentioned Lytvyn proposing bill No. 1674-4 for the vote.

Verkhovna Rada staff subsequently explained that the numbers 4105 and 1674-4 refer to the same piece of legislation -- under the first the constitutional-reform bill is registered with the Verkhovna Rada, under the second it is registered with the Justice Ministry. However, the bill submitted to the vote on 8 April included an addendum by Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz stipulating that the legislation will come into force only after the 2004 presidential election. In other words, the bill was somewhat different from the one endorsed by the Constitutional Court last month, following its preliminary approval in December and February. Moreover, the Verkhovna Rada on 7 April adopted a procedure for voting on the constitutional-reform bill that banned the introduction of any amendments to it during its second and final reading. Thus, there are formal reasons for the pro-government coalition to demand a repeat vote. True, it is not clear yet whether the constitutional restriction forbidding the amendment of the country's constitution twice within the same year may be applied to the 8 April vote.

It is another question whether the parliamentary pro-government coalition will actually push for a repeat vote. Some Ukrainian observers argue that after 8 April the number of supporters of the constitutional reforms in the Ukrainian parliament can only be less than 294. According to this line of reasoning, some of the pro-government and independent deputies who were elected under a first-past-the-post system in 2002 did not appear in the session hall on 8 April or voted against the constitutional-reform bill, thus withstanding the pressure reportedly applied upon them by the presidential administration. They purportedly disliked not only the pressure but also the all-proportional parliamentary-election law that was adopted last month as the pro-government coalition's concession to buy support for the constitutional reforms from the Socialist and Communist parties. Thus, there is absolutely no reason for those deputies to be more enthusiastic about the constitutional reforms after 8 April.

Whatever the final outcome of the constitutional-reform controversy in Ukraine, it is already perfectly clear that the essentially democratic proposals in the reform bill -- the presidency with fewer powers as well as a stronger government and parliament -- have been pursued by the forces grouped around President Leonid Kuchma as a way for preserving the positions of the antidemocratic ruling elites in the country. Faced with the threat of losing the presidential election on 31 October to Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Kuchma camp devised the reforms that would strip the presidency of several important prerogatives and shift the center of power toward the government controlled by the current political establishment.

The position of Yushchenko in the constitutional-reform dispute is also far from crystal clear and honest. Yushchenko advertised a constitutional reform as one of his main programmatic goals before the 2002 parliamentary elections, but has abandoned the idea after opinion polls began to suggest that he may win the 2004 presidential ballot. His main slogan now is not to change the defective power system but to replace defective people in power. Which, of course, does not provide an unambiguous answer to the question whether he will return to reforming this system once he and his people take control of it.

If the constitutional reform collapses completely, then the 2004 presidential-election campaign may be one of the harshest and toughest political campaigns in the country. The political stakes will be very high indeed. It is not out of the question that Kuchma may choose to run for the post of president a third time. Such an option has been made possible for him by a ruling of the Constitutional Court in December. Kuchma's popularity is very low at present, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who is currently supported by some 15 percent of the electorate, seems better equipped to challenge Yushchenko as the single candidate of the pro-Kuchma camp. However, many Ukrainian analysts assert that pro-Kuchma oligarchs are very unlikely to unite behind Yanukovych against the Yushchenko threat. According to them, they are likely to support Kuchma as a guarantor of the stability and continuity of the current political establishment in the country. Yanukovych in the post of president is for Ukrainian oligarchs allegedly no less a risk than Yushchenko himself. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"What we are witnessing is not a political reform, and we realize this very well. We are witnessing a coup d'etat organized by three persons -- [President Leonid] Kuchma, [presidential administration chief Viktor] Medvedchuk, and [Communist Party leader Petro] Symonenko.... The participation in a coup d'etat is a political crime.... I hope, Oleksandr Oleksandrovych [Moroz], that you are sufficiently honest not to join the ranks [of the organizers of a coup d'etat]." -- Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko during the 8 April parliamentary debate on a constitutional-reform bill; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.

"They say that after the adoption of the constitutional reform, power will find itself in the hands of oligarchs. In whose hands it is now, I ask? We are against having another Kuchma under a different name." -- Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz; ibid.

"Today, if these [constitutional] changes are adopted, they will institute a figurehead in the post of president, and there will be no need to give people the right to elect a president, since they will elect a nonentity." -- Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous opposition bloc; ibid.