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ECONOMIC UNION OF FOUR CIS STATES TO BE DRAFTED BY SEPTEMBER. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov reconfirmed on 25 April that Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan will form a "joint economic space," "Vremya-MN" reported on 26 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February and 17 April 2003). Kasyanov, speaking at a Moscow meeting of the heads of government of the CIS states, said that a basic framework for the union will be ready by September and that the other CIS countries can join if they meet certain conditions. But Russia still has a couple of issues to iron out with Ukraine. Kyiv has not yet transferred the hard-currency bonds it has promised as repayment of its debt to Gazprom, and little has been done to implement last year's agreement to create a natural-gas consortium (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 October 2002). In addition, Russia's trade with Kazakhstan declined in 2002. Kazakh Prime Minister Imanghali Tasmaghambetov attributed the drop to the vagaries of market conditions, but he asked Moscow to reexamine its stiff excise taxes on tobacco and vodka. "Vremya-MN" commented that an economic union would deliver more positive than negative results, especially an expansion of market opportunities for its members and, therefore, healthier growth. SS
RUSSIAN, ARMENIAN PRESIDENTS MEET IN MOSCOW. Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on 27 April with Armenian President Robert Kocharian to review plans for the implementation of several bilateral accords signed during a visit by the Armenian president to Moscow early this year, according to RIA-Novosti. The discussions centered on bilateral trade and economic cooperation, with a specific focus on nuclear energy. The meeting follows the 27 April decision granting Armenia "observer status" in the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC). The EEC consists of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Armenia became the third country, after Moldavia and Ukraine, to receive the EEC observer status. RG
EEC COUNCIL SETS PRIORITIES FOR 2003-06. A presidential session of the Eurasian Economic Community's (EEC) Interstate Council held on 27 April in Dushanbe endorsed a program of priority activities for the next four years, EEC Chairman and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev told a press conference on 27 April following the meeting, Interfax and khabar.kz reported. According to Nazarbaev, these priorities include creating a common customs area, developing energy resources, accelerating the establishment of a transport union, setting up a common agricultural market, pooling efforts to combat drug trafficking, devising a common migration policy, and coordinating dates of accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Considerable discussion was devoted to the last point, according to Russian President Putin, who told the press conference he is convinced the individual members of the EEC will be able to obtain WTO membership "on decent terms for our economies and producers if we act in coordination." During the meeting Armenia was admitted to the group as an observer, joining Ukraine and Moldova. BB
END NOTE: BACK TO THE USSR? UKRAINE HOLDS SOVIET-STYLE 'DISCUSSION'
OF POLITICAL REFORM
BELARUSIANS MARK ANNIVERSARY OF CHORNOBYL DISASTER. Some 2,000 people participated in an annual march organized by Belarusian nongovernmental groups and opposition parties in Minsk on 26 April to observe the anniversary of the explosion at Ukraine's Chornobyl nuclear-power plant in 1986, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. Police detained two activists of the United Civic Party, despite official authorization for the demonstration. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SACKS NAVY COMMANDER. President Leonid Kuchma on 25 April dismissed navy commander Mykhaylo Yezhel after visiting a number of military units and facilities in Crimea earlier the same day, Interfax reported, citing presidential spokeswoman Olena Hromnytska. She said the president criticized the living conditions of servicemen in the units he visited, adding that much of the property at the units has been ransacked. The next day, Kuchma appointed Vice Admiral Vyacheslav Sychov to assume Yezhel's post. JM
UKRAINE MOVES TO AVOID HIGHER BREAD PRICES. Ukrainian Premier Viktor Yanukovych requested on 26 April that the Foreign Ministry, the Economy Ministry, and other executive bodies "provide conditions" for grain purchases abroad to avoid significant increases in domestic bread prices, Interfax reported. "I believe today it is necessary to focus on the mobilization of bread-grain resources, [and] on its import from Russia, Kazakhstan, and other countries," Yanukovych said. He said bread prices might be pushed up by a possible poor grain harvest this year. Yanukovych said Ukraine lost more than a half of its winter crops owing to bad weather. UNIAN reported the same day that Agriculture Minister Serhiy Ryzhuk proposed that Ukraine drop duties on 1 million tons of imported grain until 31 July in order to avoid "eating up our seed-grain resources." Ukraine's current import tax on wheat is 40 percent. JM
BACK TO THE USSR? UKRAINE HOLDS SOVIET-STYLE 'DISCUSSION' OF POLITICAL REFORM
In several CIS states -- especially Russia, Belarus, and Moldova -- there is increasing evidence of nostalgia for the former USSR and a resurgence of Soviet-style attitudes and political culture. One aspect of this trend is the use of elections not as vehicles for free democratic competition, but to legitimize ruling elites and their "parties of power."
Opposition parties and civil society are increasingly seen in a negative and distrustful light as "extremists" or "destructive forces." Legislation is selectively applied, especially against the opposition, while deception is deeply ingrained. Soviet political culture is especially evident in the discrepancy -- as in the USSR -- between official rhetoric and policies in the pursuit of reform, the struggle against corruption, and the achievement of foreign-policy goals. Most importantly, the executive branch and the "party of power" seek to exercise monopoly control over parliament, civil society, the media, and the economy.
Why is this occurring now, more than a decade after the USSR collapsed? In some cases, this is in response to political crises and the growth of opposition activity (e.g., Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, Kazakhstan). More broadly, the ruling elites feel stronger domestically after having converted their Soviet-era political power into economic wealth and then back into political control. In addition, in Russia they have a strong external ally with whom they can exchange domestic assets in return for political support (e.g., Belarus, Ukraine, and Armenia).
When presidential proposals have been blocked or ruling elites wish to prove their "democratic" credentials, referendums are held to demonstrate the "popular will" in which the proposals in question are endorsed by wide margins. Belarus (1996), Ukraine (2000), Uzbekistan (2002), and Kyrgyzstan (2003) all resorted to this tactic. According to audiotape recordings in the possession of former presidential guard Mykola Melnychenko, the Soviet-style overwhelming endorsements of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's four questions in the 2000 referendum were the result of outright falsification. Kuchma has denied the authenticity of the Melnychenko tapes.
On 6 March, Kuchma introduced to parliament the political reforms he first proposed in August 2002. A two month "national discussion" was duly launched, with Kuchma threatening to hold a referendum if his proposals are not implemented by parliament. Referendums "with legally binding results," Kuchma claimed in his 15 April state-of-the-nation address to parliament, "are the highest form of people power."
Threats by the Ukrainian executive to hold referendums are nothing new. In 1996 they helped unblock five years of discussions surrounding a post-Soviet constitution, although not in Kuchma's favor. In 2000, a referendum was actually held. Our Ukraine deputy Mykola Tomenko has predicted that a referendum could be held either in the summer or by December, at the latest.
Why is Kuchma again threatening a referendum? Two analysts from the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies pointed out in the 5-11 April edition of "Zerkalo nedeli/Dzerkalo tyzhnya" that the ultimate aim of the executive is to control parliament, toward which Kuchma -- in the manner of most CIS leaders - has always been intolerant and impatient. Interviewed in "Moloda Ukrayina" on 2 April, two-time former parliamentary speaker Ivan Plyushch explained that the executive branch views parliament as a rubber-stamp body that should be told what to do and what to sign -- just like the former supreme soviets of the constituent Soviet republics.
Kuchma's reforms would reduce the size of the lower house of parliament from 450 to 300 deputies, elected proportionately, and create an appointed upper Council of the Regions. Presidential power would be therefore enhanced at the expense of parliament. Writing in the 12-18 April "Zerkalo nedeli/Dzerkalo tyzhnya," Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz said an upper house would mean the "liquidation of [the parliamentary system] as such, the final subordination of the Verkhovna Rada to the president and his administration." In a speech to parliament during discussions of the reforms, Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko also defined the real purpose of the executive in proposing the changes as extending "power unlawfully" and ensuring its "self-preservation."
Although Kuchma called for roundtables and the involvement of think tanks in the discussion of his proposed reforms, this has not occurred. The opposition's call for televised debates has also gone unanswered, and state-run Channel 1 and oligarch-controlled channels 2 and 3 are not permitting a free debate. As in the Soviet era, there is merely an imitation of "free discussion," the purpose of which is merely to rubber-stamp official policies.
In a September 2002 secret instruction (temnyk) that was
leaked to Mykola Tomenko, head of the parliamentary committee on
freedom of the press and information and reprinted in a new Helsinki
Watch report on censorship in Ukraine
(http://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/ukraine0303), the presidential administration recommended to television stations that they ignore opposition discussions of executive plans for political reform. The temnyk requested that television "exclude from broadcasts any theses that cast doubt on the seriousness of the president's initiatives."
The organization of the "nationwide discussion" harks back to the era of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The Odesa branch of Our Ukraine described the fake discussion as a "repeat of the depressing experience of the Soviet era." In Plyushch's Chernihiv electoral district, he was told that official protocols endorsing the president's reform proposals were handed out to organizations that were then ordered to sign them.
The presidential website (http://www.reforma.org.ua/regions) features numerous Soviet-style endorsements of his proposals by "workers" and "peasants' collectives" from throughout Ukraine, who are supported by state institutions and pro-presidential parties. Suspiciously, the proposal most supported is the one to hold all elections in the same year, thereby postponing the 2004 presidential elections and holding them concurrently with the 2006 parliamentary elections, which would give Kuchma two additional years in office.
But some observers, even pro-presidential ones, have cautioned that the referendum could backfire, as the situation in Ukraine today is radically different from that in 1996 or 2000. They point out that authoritarian regimes are most vulnerable during periods of transition, citing the examples of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet, who held a referendum in 1998 to extend his term in office, and of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who called an early election in 2000 hoping to win the Yugoslav presidency. Both of them lost power.