Storm clouds over Ukraine's fragile democracy

As president gains more power, he treads a path familiar among former Soviet states.

Yuri Orobets, a liberal anticorruption activist, has won three elections in the past three years, only to see his victories overturned on technicalities.

Last month in the capital, Kyiv (formerly Kiev), he lost a fourth by-election for an empty parliament seat. He says the campaign was marked by violence against his staff, voter coercion, and ballot-stuffing. "In Ukraine there is no longer a system of free elections," Mr. Orobets says. "There is only a mechanism for legitimizing the existing state power."

Taken alone, his case might be of little significance. But political experts and democratic activists have been warning for two years that Ukraine, a Slavic nation of 50 million, is drifting into a classic post-Soviet political crisis.

In almost all republics of the former USSR, independent parliaments, created in the optimistic flush of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika a decade ago, have been replaced by tame bodies under the control of a powerful president. Ukraine, with a track record of free elections and a habit of compromise between president and parliament, was thought to be immune. It's even been mentioned for possible NATO membership, an idea Russia strongly opposes.

Few noticed when the Council of Europe, an assembly of democratic Western parliaments, refused to certify November's presidential vote reelecting Leonid Kuchma, a former Soviet factory director. "The abuse ... of state power in the interests of one candidate is unacceptable," said the Council's observer-team report.

Mr. Kuchma then moved rapidly down a well-trodden path, calling a referendum on sweeping changes to the Constitution. These include giving the president the right to dissolve parliament, lifting the immunity of lawmakers, and the creation of a leaner, bicameral legislature. Authorities said 80 percent of voters took part in the April 16 referendum, with 90 percent of those supporting the president.

The Supreme Rada, Ukraine's 450-seat parliament, is deeply unpopular, seen as a hotbed of corruption and incompetence. Still, few experts predicted the massive pro-Kuchma outcome.

Democracy activists have their explanation. "The voting was rigged," says Serhiy Holovaty, a former justice minister and member of parliament. "President Kuchma is unhappy with a system of checks and balances and is using all means to abolish the inconvenient Ukrainian constitution. It's a creeping coup."

Others disagree. "I think these warnings of imminent dictatorship are vastly overblown," says Anatoly Grytsenko, president of the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies in Kyiv and an adviser to the Ukrainian government. "Parliament has proven to be a source of corruption and brake on economic reform in Ukraine. To start getting things done, we need a firm and decisive line of authority. Only a strong presidential system can provide that."

Now the two sides are battling over further draft constitutional changes. "The president's goal is to find a pretext to illegally dissolve parliament, rewrite the Constitution, and then elect a new parliament that answers to his will," says Georgy Kriuchkov, a leading Communist member of the Rada.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken steps to curb powerful regional governors since taking office in March. But his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, virtually wrote the textbook in 1993, first holding a referendum, then calling in tanks and troops after the Supreme Soviet defied his order to dissolve. Mr. Yeltsin then authored a new Constitution, awarding the lion's share of power to the Kremlin.

At the time Western leaders applauded Yeltsin's victory, apparently believing it would lead to faster market reforms and deeper democratic change. But the same tactic was pursued in 1996 by the elected president of Belarus, whose goals were to restore a Soviet-style command economy and reunite his country with Russia. Several leaders of ex-Soviet Central Asian states also have used referenda to crush fledgling parliaments and consolidate power.

Says Mr. Holovaty, "Our society is exhausted, cynical, and people don't care about democracy anymore. They think it hasn't worked.... So probably no one is going to protest when the system of checks and balances that underpin our democracy are swept away."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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