Katya Gorchinskaya is the managing editor for investigative programming at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Ukraine Service). She served for seven years as the Kyiv Post's deputy chief editor from 2008-2015. Follow her on Twitter @kgorchinskaya.
Kuchma referendum to question public on altering Constitution, dissolving Rada
or a new vote that could lead to a major overhaul of the country's Constitution, giving the president more control over the legislature.
President Leonid Kuchma triggered the process Jan. 15 by ordering that his long-time standoff with parliament be resolved in a nationwide referendum to be held on April 16.
The six lengthy questions put on individual ballots will ask citizens if they agree to express a no-confidence vote in the present Verkhovna Rada, reduce its size by a third, strip lawmakers of their immunity, and empower the president to disband parliament if it fails either to form a majority within a month or approve the state budget within three months.
The referendum was announced despite the fact that lawmakers had banned all referendums several days before. Parliament said new laws must be approved first to clarify the referendum's legal status. The subject of referendums is touched on only briefly in the Constitution.
Parliament's moratorium appeared to be the lawmakers' last-ditch effort to stop Kuchma after they learned that the president's supporters had already collected the 3 million signatures needed for the Central Election Commission to validate the referendum.
Most of the questions put on the ballot will require amendments to Ukraine's 1996 Constitution, which provides for a single-chamber parliament, guarantees immunity from prosecution for lawmakers, and gives the president no authority to disband the legislature if a majority is not formed or the budget is not approved.
One question on the referendum ballot also asks if the Constitution should be approved by a nationwide referendum. Presently, that authority lies with parliament.
Analysts said Kuchma would easily get the answers he needs.
'If the turnout [at the referendum] is valid, then all these issues will be approved automatically,' said Oleksandr Stehniy of the Socis-Gallup polling company.
The current law on referendum approved in 1991 requires the turnout of two-third of Ukrainians to validate a no-confidence vote in parliament or president.
Stehniy said Socis-Gallup's December poll showed that only 8 percent of Ukrainians trusted parliament, while 20 percent expressed trust in Kuchma.
'In the people's opinion, the Verkhovna Rada shows its complete helplessness and is responsible for the chaos in the country,' Stehniy said. 'Besides, people will be flattered that the president has decided to consult them.'
The announcement of the referendum immediately caused an outrageous response from parliament.
Leftist lawmakers called Kuchma's decree 'illegal' and vowed to ask the Constitutional Court to examine its legitimacy. The Ukrainian constitution does not have a mechanism for amending the constitution through a public referendum.
'It's a threat to the state, to democracy; it's destroying all of its elements,' said Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz.
Communist Party chief Petro Symonenko said the referendum would cost the cash-strapped government 'around Hr 100 million,' and called Kuchma's decree unjustified, criticizing the president for not trying to have any of the referendum issues approved by parliament.
Symonenko also accused election authorities of repeatedly refusing to register the signatures his supporters had collected in support of a referendum on abolishing the presidency.
Mykhailo Ryabets, head of the Central Election Commission, said on Jan. 19 that the referendum bill will in fact be around Hr 49 million. He also said that his commission is currently examining dosuments to register groups to collect signatures for another referendum abolishing presidency.
Human rights activists were also dissatisfied with the referendum idea, which experts have said will require amending some 30 constitutional provisions if the nation approves the changes proposed by Kuchma.
Volodymyr Malinkovich, a former Soviet dissident and the director of the Ukrainian branch of the International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies, called Kuchma's decree 'an attempt of state coup in Ukraine.'
'Under the present circumstances, when the most important media are tightly controlled by the executive, nobody doubts that the choice of Ukrainian citizens will not be conscious because they won't be able to study alternatives. Everybody knows what choice will be made,' Malinkovich said.
However, few lawmakers and analysts believe that Kuchma will, in fact, resort to disbanding the Rada, but instead will use the results of the referendum to threaten lawmakers into compliance when necessary.
Some analysts say that the newly formed government of Viktor Yushchenko would be the primary beneficiary of parliament's obedience as it faces a formidable task of pushing the 2000 budget and scores of economic bills through the Rada in order to keep up to its pledge of radical market reforms.
Kuchma himself indicated that the present legislature would survive if it became more cooperative.
'I'm not interested in dissolving parliament if it is able to work,' Kuchma said in an interview with the Zerkalo Nedeli weekly published Jan. 15.
Pro-Kuchma lawmakers, meanwhile, jumped at the opportunity to prove their allegiance to the president and tell him they wanted to stay in their seats until the next parliamentary elections in 2002.
Just two days before Kuchma called the referendum, the Rada's centrist factions announced formation of a pro-government majority. Its leaders said they attracted 241 deputies in the 450-seat Rada to their ranks.
The new group, however, flunked its first major test just 20 minutes after it announced its formation.
The pro-Kuchma factions failed to muster enough votes to approve the government's budget draft for 2000, entailing the postponement of the budget debate until early February.
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