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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Back to Bicameralism

President Yushchenko delivered what’s supposed to be an annual address to parliament on the last day of March. (He was prevented from doing so last year by MPs loyal to erstwhile orange ally and prime minster Yulia Tymoshenko).

On paper, Yushchenko’s speech was very strong, but the delivery appeared strained on the tube. For starters, the president was not in friendly territory and many politicians rejoiced that this was “the last time” this person would ever address parliament. Opposition MPs hung caricatures of the president and provided a suitcase with an oversized one-way airline ticket from Kyiv to Washington. One of the caricatures depicted Yushchenko pointing like Uncle Sam and declaring “You poisoned the president!” (In the afternoon, MPs voted to re-create an ad hoc commission to investigate Yushchenko’s 2004 poisoning and re-appointed KGB veteran Volodymyr Sivkovych as its head.)

Yushchenko’s speech was received like a lame duck. Legislators did not stop babbling while the president reported on the state of the republic and outlined strategic national priorities. The shoom in the room turned into catcalls when Yushchenko announced that he thinks Ukraine needs a bicameral parliament, with an upper house Senat (3 senators per oblast, direct representation) and a lower house called Palata Deputativ (elected according to an open list proportional system). In order to eliminate the current dualism paralyzing the executive branch, Yushchenko’s model would have the Cabinet of Ministers fully subordinate to the Rada (instead of president and parliament) including in foreign affairs and policing that are currently in the presidential purview. The lower house would be fully responsible for forming and controlling the Cabinet of Ministers - another concession from the presidential office.

The idea of the upper house was immediately criticized across the board: it’ll be nothing else but a resort or reserve for oligarchs or lords who are able to spend their way into their senate seats. Yushchenko argued that bicameral models are standard practice in European countries like Czech Republic, France, Poland and Spain.

The idea of creating a bicameral parliament is not a new one for Ukraine. Back on April 16 2000, the majority of Ukrainians (over 80 percent) supported the idea of introducing a two-chamber legislative branch, lowering the number of parliament deputies from 450 to 300 and eliminating immunity from prosecution for MPs. The referendum, initiated by then President Kuchma, was called a farce by the opposition. Five months after the referendum, journalist Heorhiy Gongadze disappeared and Kuchma soon had other things to worry about than over constitutional reforms.
Kuchma would not revisit the issue in a big way until his Independence Day speech in 2002, when he single-handedly announced that Ukraine was going to change over to a “parliamentary-presidential” model of government (in place of the “presidential-parliamentary” model that Kuchma enjoyed during his decade-long rule).

That constitutional time bomb was laid by Kuchma’s new administration head Viktor Medvedchuk, socialist Oleksandr Moroz (supposedly Kuchma’s arch enemy) and commie Petro Symonenko, but did not go off until Yushchenko term as president. Kuchma never saw his presidential powers limited – some would claim circumcised, not quite castrated – the way Yushchenko did. According to the reforms, the president is supposed to be weak!

The fiercest critics of Yushchenko’s constitutional reform announcement point to its timing: “Hello!!! There’s a crisis in the country – factories shutting down, jobless rates rising, banks are holding back money (etc.)… and you’re wasting time rewriting the constitution?”
In fact, Yushchenko’s proposed changes to the Constitution have been on the table since 2006. I

Politicians of all stripes repeatedly sing the same song during the marathon political talk shows bombarding viewers nightly: the current proportional electoral system is in desperate need of fixing. But no party or bloc in the current Rada has actually done anything about. Despite promising voters they will lift immunity from prosecution for legislators, the lawmakers have failed to do so. MPs naturally want to hang on to their seats as long as possible. Plus parliament is so fractured that the task of gathering the more than 300 votes necessary in the 450 member chamber seems insurmountable. The rare occasions this Rada has seen more than 300 MPs vote together are when Tymoshenko’s BYuT and Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions combined forces to pass legislation and override presidential vetoes. Do they have a draft Constitution ready an alternative to the president’s vision? Now that’s question for Viktor Medvedchuk.

Sivkovych’s website (last updated December ’07):

Monday, March 30, 2009

Armies of the north east and south west

Russia and Romania wedge Ukraine

The Ides of March woke the Russian bear salivating at the prospect of Ukraine losing its sovereignty and falling apart. That’s understandable and even predictable when it comes to the country’s largest neighbor to the north and east. More alarming is that Ukraine’s disintegration is waking appetites in the belly of Romania to the south west, who also happens to be a NATO member.

While Russian strategists declare Ukraine “a failed state” on the verge of losing its sovereignty, some Romanian officials and media are suggesting that only part of Ukraine, with its capital in Lviv, can ever come under the alliance’s euroatlantic umbrella. In addition to delivering the informational wedgies, both Romania and Russia are handing out passports to Ukrainian citizens in their bids to restore territorial glories of eras gone by.

Unfazed by the reset relations with the new US administration, Russian Cold warrior and imperial policy guru Sergei Karaganov recently said that Ukraine will inevitably join the list of failed states – a list that currently numbers a dozen countries, but will grow in geometric proportions across the globe. Karaganov argued that the process of “desovereigntization” of one state can be managed by stronger states in times of stability, but the global financial mess only compounds problems.

“As a result of the Ukrainian government’s loss of control over their own territory, mad desuverenizatsiya is occurring there, but not to the benefit of some foreign force. It’s simply the breakdown of the state. That is completely obvious. And the situation is unacceptable – on its own the state is a little too large.”

Karaganov said that Russia and Europe do not have the right to let Ukraine fall apart. “I think the process will be drawn out and can be controlled, influenced in some way. But it’s completely unacceptable to let affairs spin out of control. I do not see any chance that Europe will give Russia the carte blanche to occupy Ukraine, as a whole or in parts, in the near future. However Russia does not want to see a completely unmanaged territory at its side… and Russia will not allow anyone to display excessive activeness. That’s because the Cold War is not yet over and the level of mistrust still runs high and the super powers cannot work together to deal with existing challenges.”

In wake of already strained relations (Serpent Island territorial dispute, Danube delta shipping dispute, Romania and Ukraine expelled diplomats on espionage charges earlier this year and Romanian president Traian Basescu indefinitely postponed a visit to Ukraine) Romanian and Russian media circulated a sensational statement concerning Ukraine’s future by Romanian army general and elected senator Ioan Talpes (head of the Romanian SIE Foreign Intelligence Service from 1992 to 1997):

“In conversation, a high-ranking NATO official confessed that the North Atlantic Alliance can be joined by a part of Ukraine with the capital in Lviv, meaning the division of the country into the western and eastern parts. …”

So now Ukraine is surrounded by two countries subscribing to Vladimir Putin’s vision of Ukraine’s division. The Ukrainian Center's for Independent Political Research Ilona Bilan provided a great report on the state of Romanian-Ukrainian relations:

“… According to Moldovan political scientist [Oles] Stan, the international community represented by the West has assigned Ukraine the role of not only ‘loser’ but also ‘victim.’ The process of Ukraine’s disintegration will occur according to the same principle as the split of the USSR and Yugoslavia, since Kyiv allowed the challenge of its borders inherited from the Soviet Union. He also underscored Romania has no intention of limiting its interests to Snake Island, as seen from behaviour of official Bucharest, which assures Ukraine support for EU and NATO integration on the one hand while meddling with its internal affairs on the other.”

“A deputy of the European Parliament from Romania recently registered a bill on preferences for Romanian national minorities up to the creation of ethno-cultural autonomies. In addition, the media reported that positioning himself as the collector of Romanian lands, [president Traian] Basescu has publicly challenged the borders established by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, under which Romania lost a part of its territory - Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. … the idea of ‘Greater Romania’ is deeply ingrained in the head of the Romanian ruling elite. Taking small steps, Bucharest is realizing its plans by giving out Romanian passports to residents of the Odesa region and Bukovina and trying to integrate these territories not only economically and culturally but also politically.”

“The Romanian minority in Ukraine enjoys much broader rights than the Ukrainian one in Romania. In the Chernivtsi region alone, there are some 140 schools and kindergartens providing tuition in Romanian; periodicals are published in Romanian; TV and radio programs are broadcast in Romanian; Ukrainian citizens study in Romanian higher institutions on preferential terms. According to data of the 2001 Census, more than 50 percent of Ukrainian Romanians do not speak the national language…”

“Nevertheless, Bucharest regularly attempts to accuse Ukraine of violating rights of citizens of Romanian origin and engages in open anti-Ukrainian propaganda. Romania is doing its best to convince Moldovans who live in Ukraine that they are Romanians, because if 20 percent of the population of a certain region represents a national minority, this gives grounds to demand the creation of an ethno-cultural autonomy. Hence, while Ukrainian authorities try to oust Russian TV channels from the Ukrainian information space and to reduce the number of education establishments offering tuition in Russian, on the territory of Ukraine Romania insistently creates its information and cultural space that has long ago expanded beyond the bounds of the Romanian border and has taken on political overtones.”

Nikom ne nuzhni chudishcha: desuverenizatsiya Ukrayiny,’ Interview with Sergei Karaganov, Russki Zhurnal, March 20, 2009

Unfriendly Steps of a Friendly Country,’ by Ilona Bilan, Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research Update, March 24, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 8(568)