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UKRAINE LOSES TWO MORE SOLDIERS IN IRAQ. Two Ukrainian soldiers died in Iraq on 28 April, bringing that country's death toll among Ukrainian peacekeepers to six, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Kostyantyn Mykhalev was killed when his patrol came under attack, while Yaroslav Zlochevskyy died of injuries sustained in the attack. Also on 28 April, the Communist Party called for an emergency parliamentary session to pass a bill on the withdrawal of Ukraine's 1,600-strong military contingent from Iraq. President Leonid Kuchma told journalists later the same day that some politicians resort to "brazen cynicism" in "speculating" on the troops' withdrawal from Iraq. He stressed that last year some 23,000 people died in Ukraine in road accidents or because of drug and alcohol abuse. In addition to that, Kuchma said, 143 people died in accidents in the Ukrainian military in 2003. "Our troops are not occupying Iraq and are not taking part in military action against Iraq," Kuchma noted. "Our position remains the same." JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT URGES PARLIAMENT TO RETURN TO CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM... President Kuchma told a news conference in Kyiv on 28 April that it could be legal for the Verkhovna Rada to consider during its current session the two constitutional-reform bills that have been approved by the Constitutional Court but not submitted for debate (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 23 December 2003), Interfax reported. Kuchma expressed his hope that parliament will vote on these bills, which cut presidential prerogatives, next month. "The [constitutional] reform is necessary, I support the desire of [pro-reform] parliamentary forces to pass it before the presidential election," Kuchma said. JM
...AND REMAINS UPBEAT ABOUT YANUKOVYCH AS PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE. President Kuchma on 28 April said he has no doubts that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych will be confirmed as the presidential candidate of the pro-government coalition by upcoming congresses of all the political parties in this coalition, UNIAN reported. Yanukovych was proposed as a presidential candidate earlier this month by leaders of pro-government groups in the Verkhovna Rada (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 April 2004). Commenting on the reported announcements that some pro-government parties want to field their own presidential candidates, Kuchma said, "It's only a game to show off their own significance." Kuchma said he is sure that Yanukovych's previous criminal record will not impair his presidential bid. According to press reports, Yanukovych was sent to a corrective colony for juvenile criminals in 1968 and convicted to two years in prison in 1970 for inflicting injuries of "medium severity." JM
LOCAL UKRAINIAN BALLOT COULD FORESHADOW TROUBLE
The mayoral election in the Transcarpathian city of Mukacheve (with a population of about 100,000) on 18 April has become the hottest political topic in Ukraine. The election pitted opposition Our Ukraine bloc lawmaker Viktor Baloha against Ernest Nuser, who was supported by the Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o) and presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk.
According to Our Ukraine, Baloha won a decisive victory -- winning 19,385 votes to Nuser's 13,895 votes. However, the city's election commission allegedly robbed Baloha of his victory, instead awarding Nuser 17,416 votes and Baloha 12,297 votes.
The Mukacheve ballot promised to be exciting because of the bitter rivalry that has been developing between Our Ukraine and the SDPU-o, in general, and between their leaders, Viktor Yushchenko and Medvedchuk, in particular -- especially in the past several years. However, it seems that none of the approximately 80 Ukrainian lawmakers or dozens of journalists and foreign observers who were in Mukacheve on 18 April were fully prepared for what happened there. All were shocked by what they saw, and some of them were brutally beaten.
Our Ukraine sent two parliamentary deputies as observers to each of Mukacheve's 36 polling stations. The vote itself seemed to take place in a relatively peaceful manner, observers said, even though groups of hooligans -- with shaved heads, leather coats, and combat boots -- moved around the city in packs or stood in front of polling stations, intimidating voters. When the election ended, those groups reportedly attacked, burglarized, and even destroyed some polling stations in apparent reaction to the publicized results of an exit poll that predicted a landslide victory for Baloha. According to various reports, many local police officers were either too scared to react to the attacks or turned a blind eye. Notably, none of the rampaging hooligans was arrested.
Our Ukraine lawmaker Mykola Polishchuk, an academic and well-known neurosurgeon who was an observer in Mukacheve on 18 April, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 19 April that the attacks intimidated some polling-station commissions to the extent that they were unable and/or afraid to sign polling-station protocols for several hours. However, judging by the results authorized by the protocols from 35 polling stations, the Our Ukraine observers at midnight were all but certain of a Baloha victory, and even began to celebrate. Several hours later, they were informed that the city's election commission had announced Nuser the winner.
A group of Our Ukraine lawmakers tried to obtain information on the decision at the city's election-commission headquarters, where they were met by riot police; six lawmakers were reportedly beaten there. "I am absolutely sure that what is now taking place in Mukacheve has been authorized by the presidential administration," Polishchuk said. "This is being done by the SDPU-o, which has a fascist orientation in its actions." In the end, all the protocols from polling stations disappeared from the election commission's office.
President Leonid Kuchma instructed Prosecutor-General Hennadiy Vasylyev on 20 April to investigate, jointly with the Ukrainian Security Service, possible irregularities in the Mukacheve election. According to presidential spokeswoman Olena Hromnytska, alleged irregularities might include the beating of lawmakers, the disappearance of election documents, dismissals of government employees, and illegal actions by law-enforcement officers. Earlier the same day, Our Ukraine leader Yushchenko met with Kuchma to demand the dismissal of Interior Minister Mykola Bilokon, presidential-administration chief Medvedchuk, and Transcarpathian Oblast Governor Rizak over what he described as "gross violations" in the Mukacheve election. An opposition-sponsored motion in the Verkhovna Rada to request that Kuchma sack those officials fell 12 votes short of the required majority.
Some commentators in Ukraine believe the Mukacheve hullabaloo on 18 April was orchestrated by the SDPU-o and Medvedchuk as a sort of "dress rehearsal" for the presidential vote due on 31 October. According to this line of argument, Medvedchuk tested the way both the Ukrainian public and the international community might react to large-scale election fraud. Judging by the reaction of the domestic public, no significant group apart from independent journalists and commentators, opposition lawmakers, and voters in Mukacheve itself has shown any real interest in what happened in that city on 18 April. Foreign commentators were more vociferous in protesting the Mukacheve ballot, but it remains to be seen whether Kyiv will heed their pronouncements. Primarily, it is unclear whether the official probe into the Mukacheve controversy will provide any tangible results.
What can be concluded ahead of the results of any official investigation into the Mukacheve scandal is that European electoral watchdogs -- including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights -- should immediately start mobilizing and training as many monitors as possible for the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine. The sheer numerical force of foreign and domestic monitors will hardly intimidate the most influential cliques in Ukraine, but it could reassure voters and individuals responsible for signing polling-station protocols.
KAZAKH PRESIDENT SIGNS LAW ON SINGLE ECONOMIC SPACE. President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a law on 28 April confirming Kazakhstan's ratification of the treaty on a Single Economic Space (SES), Khabar Television reported the same day. The SES encompasses Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine and aims to harmonize legislation in order to boost trade ties. Belarus is the only country that has not yet ratified the treaty, which was signed by the countries' presidents on 19 September. DK
FURTHER POSTPONEMENT FOR UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT'S TURKMEN VISIT. A planned 4 May visit by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to Turkmenistan will not take place as scheduled, ITAR-TASS reported on 28 April, citing a Turkmen government source. The two leaders were to have signed a 25-year agreement on the export of Turkmen natural gas to Ukraine. This is at least the fourth time the visit and signing have been postponed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2004). DK