A CHAOTIC attempt by Ukraine's political leadership to shift economic reforms into high gear has resulted in the effort being thrown into reverse.
During four days of stormy debate last week, the conservative-dominated Parliament rejected separate requests from Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma and President Leonid Kravchuk for extraordinary powers, including the right to legislate by decree, with the aim of speeding up reforms.
Mr. Kuchma had ruled since last November with special powers that gave him broad authority over the economy. By refusing to extend the premier's powers for another six-month period, the legislature - elected during the Soviet era under rules established by the Communist Party - effectively wiped out a half-year of reform work.
Kuchma tendered his resignation after failing to gain the six-month special powers extension. But the legislature rejected his resignation, leaving him to preside over a lame-duck Cabinet.
Mr. Kravchuk, meanwhile, met with a similar rebuff when he stunned members of Parliament with a request to reorganize the executive branch. Kravchuk sought to eliminate the post of premier and boost presidential authority. But Parliament agreed only to give Kravchuk authority to issue decrees in economic spheres not covered by existing legislation.
The end result of all the parliamentary gyrations last week was a return to the situation of November 1992, when reforms were paralyzed by political gridlock.
"What happened here is likely to occur every day from now on," Kuchma told reporters after Friday's legislative session. "[President Boris] Yeltsin is fighting the same battle in Russia. It's absurd."
The domestic political turmoil will have international ramifications. Because of the legislature's preoccupation with internal matters, debate on ratifying of nuclear disarmament treaties, particularly the START I pact signed between the then Soviet Union and the United States, has been postponed until June. Ukraine is one of four former Soviet republics with nuclear weapons.
Reformers in the Ukrainian Cabinet now warn of dire economic consequences. The Parliament threatens to not only block future reform measures, but may also attempt to restore some aspects of a planned economy, reformers say.
Indeed, after rejecting the special power bids, the Parliament voted for a minimum wage hike to compensate for rising prices, as well as for an open credit line to the struggling agricultural sector - hard hit by high energy costs. The moves undid months of government fiscal austerity measures, creating inflationary pressure by increasing the money supply.
That doesn't augur well for economic recovery. The sluggish pace of reforms to date has left Ukraine on the brink of economic collapse. Even with special powers, Kuchma's government had only limited success with reform. Inflation dropped slightly during his tenure - from 50 percent a month to 30 percent - but privatization never got on track.