Ukrainian Parliament Reconvenes, Despite Four Dissolution Decrees
Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz said he wants parliament to address the issue of stripping parliamentary deputies and senior government officials of their immunity from prosecution and other privileges before preterm elections on September 30.
Yushchenko called today's session illegitimate and politically meaningless, but Moroz assured those present in the session hall that their gathering is fully lawful and constitutional.
According to Moroz, the Ukrainian parliament is constitutionally obliged to open its fall session on the first Tuesday in September.
Moroz also cited another constitutional provision requiring that the legislature remains operational until newly elected lawmakers take their oath of office.
However, Moroz failed to mention the constitutional provision stipulating that the Verkhovna Rada is a full-fledged legislative body only when it has no fewer than 300 deputies.
A Legitimate Session?
It was Moroz himself who, with President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, struck a political deal in May to disband the Verkhovna Rada and set early elections, following the voluntary resignation of deputies from the pro-presidential Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine.
The subsequent resignation of pro-presidential lawmakers brought the number of deputies in the 450-seat legislature below 300, allowing Yushchenko to issue two decrees, on June 5 and August 1, scheduling early polls for September 30.
In April, Yushchenko issued two other dissolution decrees, justifying them by what he saw as the ruling coalition's illegal push to revise the results of the 2006 elections by expanding the ruling majority to 300 deputies. The ruling coalition objected vociferously to the decrees, arguing that the constitution does not provide for the dissolution of parliament on such grounds.
There were 269 deputies from the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party registered in the session hall on September 4. Moroz's argument that the legislature is fully legitimate apparently do not hold water.
The Verkhovna Rada gathered on September 4 with a declared aim of stripping parliamentarians and senior government officials of their immunity from prosecution and other privileges.
Abolishing parliamentary immunity became a key slogan in a hitherto lethargic election campaign, with Yushchenko, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc as the main proponents of the move. Yushchenko and his 2004 Orange Revolution allies proposed that parliamentary immunity be canceled after the September 30 polls.
In what appears to be a clever public-relations move, the ruling coalition took the opposition up on this idea and proposed to implement it ahead of the polls, at a legislative session in September. Yanukovych went so far as to propose canceling immunity and privileges not only for lawmakers, but also for all senior government officials, including the president, the prime minister, and judges. In other words, the coalition put the opposition's intentions to the test.
As expected, the opposition deputies did not show up at the session. Yushchenko said in a televised address to Ukrainians on September 3 that the session is a provocation intended to derail the early polls, adding that any potential resolutions will have "no practical force of law or political effect."
Despite Yushchenko's statements, the Verkhovna Rada on September 4 endorsed a bill on stripping lawmakers of immunity from prosecution. Since parliamentary immunity is a constitutional provision, its cancellation requires an endorsement of the bill by the Constitutional Court and another parliamentary approval by no fewer than 300 votes.
'Risk of Chaos'
If the session was objectionable from a legal point of view, and without any practical meaning, was it actually worth holding for the ruling coalition?
According to Moroz, it was necessary to open the session within the constitutionally prescribed terms. "We cannot disregard the risk of preplanned chaos in governance, in which, following undesirable election results gained by some participants in the election campaign, the newly elected Verkhovna Rada would not be able to become legitimate," Moroz said.
In this somewhat cryptic manner, Moroz appears to have expressed the fear shared by many observers of the Ukrainian political scene that the September 30 election results could be contested in court by any party dissatisfied with its election performance. They warn that it will be easy to cast doubt on the election results due to procedural mistakes and legal irregularities in the electoral process.
Thus, if the elections fail to receive official recognition, Moroz may hope for the continued existence of the current legislature, in which his Socialist Party has more than 30 lawmakers.
Current opinion surveys in Ukraine suggest that the September 30 polls may consign the Socialist Party to political oblivion. Its current support is well below the 3 percent threshold required for parliamentary representation.
The Yanukovych-led Party of Regions, currently supported by some 30 percent of Ukrainians, is widely expected to receive the most votes. But according to polls, the combined result of the Orange Revolution camp -- the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense -- may equal that of the Party of Regions, thus replicating the situation after the March 2006 elections.
If that happens, Ukraine will most likely witness another tortuous process of building a ruling coalition. Some surveys suggest that the Bloc of Lytvyn, which is led by former parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, can overcome the 3 percent threshold and assume the role of kingmaker in a new parliament, similar to the role performed by Moroz's Socialists in 2006.
It does not seem likely, as Yushchenko has repeatedly suggested, that the early elections will be a new political beginning for the country and enable it to make a break with at least some of its political vices. Instead, Ukrainians must be prepared to see more of the same.
A Bittersweet Homecoming For Crimea's Tatars
His father, Jelal Efendi, was not so fortunate. Soviet authorities did not permit him to resettle in Crimea -- now part of Ukraine -- after he was deported to remote Uzbekistan.
The Efendis' story is all too common. In May 1944, Soviet authorities rounded up Crimea's 190,000 Tatars and loaded them onto freight trains bound for Central Asia, mainly for Uzbekistan.
This collective punishment was ordered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who accused the entire Crimean Tatar population of collaborating with Nazi Germany in World War II.
The 1944 deportation remains a painful chapter in the history of Crimean Tatars. Almost half of the deportees are estimated to have died during the journey or shortly afterward.
On September 5, 1967, Soviet authorities issued a decree exonerating Crimean Tatars from alleged wrongdoing.
The decree allowed thousands of Tatars deported to seek repatriation to Crimea.
Forty years later, however, many Tatars remain outside their homeland or continue to face discrimination at home.
Refat Chubarov is the deputy head of the Mejlis, the legislative body created after the Soviet collapse to represent Crimean Tatars.
Soviet authorities, he says, never had any genuine intention of giving redress to Crimean Tatars.
"The growth of the Crimean Tatar movement in the 1960s, external aspects of Soviet foreign policy of that time, the impending 50th anniversary of the October revolution, but above all the pressure exerted by Crimean Tatars, forced Soviet authorities to pretend they were solving the Crimean Tatar problem," he says.
Following the 1967 decree, the government did nothing to facilitate The 1944 deportation remains a painful chapter for Tatars (RFE/RL)the resettlement of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula.
On the contrary, authorities adopted legislation tightening rules for returnees seeking to obtain a passport and housing in Crimea. Those who were able to find housing were rarely granted residence permits, which in turn prevented them from finding work. Like Jelal Efendi, who attempted to return home in the 1960s, large numbers of Crimean Tatars were eventually deported back to Central Asia.
Chubarov says the decree only strengthened their determination to return to their native country.
"They understood that the problem of their return depended on the mass character of the Crimean Tatar national movement and the unity of their movement," he says. "I think that was the main result of that decree for Crimean Tatars."
It wasn't until perestroika in the late 1980s that Crimea opened its door wide for Crimean Tatars.
But like Crimean political analyst Mykola Semena, many accuse Moscow of turning its back on Crimean Tatars after the Soviet collapse.
"International problems should be settled by countries who are connected with these problems," Semena says. "In this case, the Crimean Tatar issue should be settled by Russia. When it comes to rights and legal obligations, Russia proclaims itself the Soviet Union's heir. But when it comes to responsibilities, to helping other countries solve problems, Russia distances itself and declares this is an internal problem of such or such country."
Today, Crimea is home to some 300,000 Tatars.
The Ukrainian government over the past decade has been allocating some $10 million annually to help Tatars resettle in Crimea. Half of them have been allocated plots of land.
But Crimean Tatars say they are still struggling to find their place in Ukrainian society.
Many of them say they continue to face discrimination and higher unemployment than Crimea's Slavic majority population.
This is why the September 5, 1967 decree has gone largely unnoticed, and uncelebrated, in Crimea.
Crisis Looms As Moldovan Workforce FleesCHISINAU, September 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Aleksandru Shura is close to fulfilling his dream.
In October, the young folk musician will emigrate to Canada, where he has been granted a long-term residence permit. He will thus join the hundreds of thousands of Moldovans who fled hardship and bleak career prospects in their country.
"I've traveled a lot," Shura tells RFE/RL's Romania and Moldova Service. "Gradually, the desire to emigrate arose, because living standards and the conditions offered by the government are much better abroad than in Moldova. There aren't any opportunities here for young people, the salaries are miserly. They are too small to pay even for transport, let alone to eat properly, buy decent clothes, and rent a good home."
Every year, tens of thousands of Moldovans leave their impoverished country to work abroad. Moldova's economy has grown heavily dependent on remittances, but as RFE/RL's Romania/Moldova Service reports, the mass exodus is generating a severe social backlash in Europe's poorest country.
The collapse of the Soviet Union devastated Moldova's economy and triggered the flight to wealthier countries. Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece, which have linguistic and cultural affinities with Moldova, rank among the most popular destinations.
One In Five Abroad
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), Moldovans abroad earn an average of $800 a month -- a small fortune compared to the average monthly salary in Moldova, which hovers around $120.
Remittances sent by relatives working abroad are a major -- and often the only -- source of income for many Moldovan families. They also pump much-needed cash into the country's economy.
Moldova is increasingly worried by the flight of its workforce.
Authorities say 20 percent of the country's active population, or some 300,000 people, currently work abroad. Independent experts, however, estimate that the real figure could be three times higher.
Nearly one third of emigrants are educated Moldovans such as professors, engineers, or doctors who deserted poorly paid jobs in the public sector.
The number of Moldovans seeking to emigrate has soared further this year with Romania's entry into the European Union. Since January, the Romanian Consulate in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, has been swamped by applications for Romanian citizenship.
One in eight of Moldova's 4.3 million citizens has currently applied for a Romanian passport, which Bucharest grants to Moldovans whose parents or grandparents were Romanian citizens before 1940 -- when Moldova was still part of Romania.
Once in possession of an EU passport, however, Moldovans tend to flood to Western European countries rather than settling in poorer Romania.
Long, snaking queues also form every morning outside the Justice Ministry in Chisinau.
Zinaida Istrati, a 48-year-old woman, has come to seek the ministry's mandatory approval for her travel documents.
She abandoned her small village of Telenei four years ago, leaving her four children behind. She now works in Italy after a stint in Russia.
For Istrati, living far away from her country and her family is not a choice but a necessity.
"Only elderly people and small children remain in my village," she says. "Families are falling apart. My husband, for example, works in Russia, and I work in Italy. There is no other choice, because we need to help the children. Moldova can be grateful that people work abroad and return with money. After all, we come back home with a different mentality, we open our own businesses, we pay utility bills. We can't do anything with the salaries they give here."
Every ninth child in Moldova has at least one parent working abroad. Those left without either parent, like Istrati's children, are raised by other relatives. In some cases, they are left completely alone.
Taking A Toll
Thanks to the money sent by their parents, these children are shielded from poverty. But they face other risks.
Lucia Savca, the director of Moldova's Association of Psychologists, says the lack of parental guidance makes children psychologically and sociably vulnerable.
"We see many female teenagers who already have an active sexual life in the seventh or even the fifth grade, and sometimes even have had abortions," Savca says. "Why do they start their sexual life so early? Because they are not getting enough care and affection. In the absence of parents, they look for a substitute to give them the close contact which they are missing."
Savca also says much of the money earned abroad is wasted as children are put in charge of overseeing expenses at home.
"Parents compensate for their feeling of guilt toward their children by sending them money, but they don't check how this money is spent," Savca says. "For children, this money simply falls from the sky. A teenager is able buy himself a $200 mobile phone with the money sent by his father, whereas his mother has nothing to feed him."
With Moldova's economy in tatters, the mass exodus of Moldovans and the resulting social disintegration appear unlikely to abate.
Romania's entry into the European Union could, on the contrary, swell the ranks of those who, like Zinaida and Aleksandru, choose to pack their suitcase in hope for a better life.
EU's Neighborhood Policy Focuses On Economics, Not Membership
And for those countries that might have fancied their membership chances, there was another clear signal: all European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) members are to be treated the same.
A high-level conference on the EU's Neighborhood Policy opened in Brussels today, bringing together ministers and senior officials from all 27 EU member states and the 16 ENP countries and marking a revival in EU interest in its eastern and Mediterranean neighbors.
In the morning, country representatives took to the floor in no set geographical order. In the afternoon, workshops on themes like "Connecting Neighbors" and "Governance and Stability" were styled to apply equally to all.
This drive to display uniformity hides a key rift among the neighbors, as well as the EU member states. It papers over differences between the southern, Mediterranean countries who've been disqualified from EU membership, and eastern ex-Soviet states, most of whom still aspire to join the bloc.
However, those membership aspirations may not be enough.
'All Neighbors Equal'
A key component of the opening speech of the conference, made by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, was a rejection of regional differentiation.
"By focusing attention on the wider European and Mediterranean area, the ENP has leveraged more support from [the] European Union's member states than [if] we looked at each of our neighbors in isolation," Barroso said.
"And that was the first goal of our policy -- [in order] to leverage more support, to attract more attention, to focus, also, more resources," he added. "Political resources, but also financial resources -- let's be frank [about that]."
Barroso explained that without regional distinctions, the ENP remains free from the vagaries of the "special interests" of different EU members as they rotate the bloc's presidency among them.
The evolving consensus within the EU is clearly skewed against further accessions, partly as a result of previous enlargements.
Correspondingly, the EU is now putting less emphasis on political reforms and rights standards, which are crucial for candidate countries. Political standards were not raised by any of the EU headline speakers today.
Instead, the EU is keen to capitalize on practical matters of mutual interest. Its current priorities for cooperation with the neighbors are economic integration, energy cooperation, increased travel and work opportunities, and increased financial and technical assistance.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner underlined the bloc's economic ambitions. "Our vision is of an economically integrated area, which spans the whole of the European Union and its closest European and Mediterranean partners," she said. "An area where goods, services, and capital move freely."
With the EU as the world's largest importer of natural gas and oil, a key part of this vision is energy cooperation.
Both Barroso and Ferrero-Waldner highlighted energy agreements already reached with Ukraine and Azerbaijan and about to be concluded with Algeria and Egypt.
Ukraine, Moldova Disappointed
But not all the neighbors are happy with the way things are going. Ukraine conspicuously failed to dispatch its foreign minister to the conference, only being represented by its EU ambassador, Roman Shpek.
EU officials downplayed the slight, attributing it to Ukraine's upcoming parliamentary elections, but the bloc's diplomats privately acknowledge its significance.
Ukraine has repeatedly made it clear that it only participates in the ENP reluctantly, and does not consider it an "appropriate" framework for its relations with the EU -- as it believes it is a European country and not a neighbor.
Ukraine's sentiments are to a degree shared by neighboring Moldova. The country's foreign minister, Andrei Stratan, today openly criticized the bloc's limited ambitions:
"The proposals presented by [the] European Commission in its report [in December 2006] on strengthening the ENP is already a big step forward, but [one] which still does not meet our expectations," he said.
"We consider that the basis for a solid relationship between the EU and Moldova -- taking into account its unequivocal European integration objective -- could be acceptance in the [EU's] 'four freedoms,'" Stratan added.
Stratan is specifically referring here to the EU's "fourth freedom" -- that provides for the free movement of people. The first three apply to the movement of capital, services, and goods and are part of the current ENP offer.
Each Neighbor Different
Belarus remains outside the bounds of the ENP as long as its authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, shuns democratic reforms. The country was represented at the conference by a senior civil servant as an observer.
Of the other eastern neighbors, Georgia chose to focus on its strive to get the EU to ease its visa restrictions. Currently, due to an EU-Russian visa-facilitation deal already in force, Russian passport holders in separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia enjoy easier access to the EU than Georgians.
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian expressed full satisfaction with the present course of the ENP. His Azerbaijani colleague, Elmar Mammadyarov, said he is also content to work within the ENP framework, highlighting Baku's interest in energy cooperation.
Mammadyarov was the only speaker in the morning session to draw attention to rights standards, saying European cooperation required adherence to European standards and condemned unspecified instances of occupation and ethnic cleansing.
(The ENP is composed of Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia, and Ukraine.)