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LITVINENKO CASE RAISES MANY QUESTIONS... British media on November 20 drew comparisons between the apparent poisoning of FSB defector Litvinenko and the poisonings of others who have fallen out of favor with Russian or East European governments over the years. "The Times" recalled the 1978 "umbrella murder" in London of Bulgarian journalist Georgi Markov, who was killed with a rare poison implanted from the tip of an umbrella, and that paper's own role in investigating the case. Several British dailies recalled the apparent attempts in 2004 to poison journalist Politkovskaya, and also Ukraine's then-opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko during his presidential campaign. Litvinenko himself told "The New York Times" in 2004 that "the view inside [the FSB] was that poison is just another weapon, like a pistol." "The Independent" wrote on November 20 that "there is no evidence that President...Putin is personally complicit in the tragedies that sometimes befall his enemies, but vocal opponents of his policies do have a habit of being caught up in often extreme 'personal difficulties.'" The paper added that "Putin's critics tend always to see the dead hand of the Kremlin, while the Russian government writes such complaints off as anti-Russian conspiracy theories." On November 19, RIA Novosti reported basic facts about the Litvinenko incident on the basis of British newspaper articles, as did "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on November 20. PM
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BELARUS TO ASK FOR COMPENSATION IF RUSSIA RAISES GAS PRICE. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on November 17 that Belarus should buy natural gas at Russia's domestic price, Belapan and Reuters reported. "The essence of our policy is that both Belarusians and Russians are one people and that means that conditions also should be equal," Lukashenka said while visiting the Belshyna tire factory in Babruysk. Lukashenka said Minsk will demand compensation from Moscow for transit rights and the use of military facilities in Belarus if gas prices go up sharply in 2007. "We must propose a compensation table and propose that Russia compensate us for losses. Let them pay for what once might have been free," he added. Meanwhile, Russian lawmaker Valery Yazov, head of the State Duma's Committee on Energy, Transport, and Communications, said the same day that Gazprom intends to increase the gas price for Belarus from $47 to $230 per 1,000 cubic meters, that is, to the level currently charged by RosUkrEnergo, which supplies a mix of Russian-Turkmen gas to Ukraine. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR PROBE INTO GAS COMPANY... Viktor Yushchenko said on November 17 that UkrGazEnergo, a company created by RusUkrEnergo and Naftohaz Ukrayiny to sell imported gas to consumers in Ukraine, has posed a "threat to national security" by refusing to supply gas to 16 major industrial enterprises in the country, Interfax-Ukraine reported, quoting the presidential press service. Yushchenko ordered that the Antimonopoly Committee investigate the case and to find out if UkrGazEnergo has violated antimonopoly legislation. The "Financial Times" on November 18 quoted Ukrainian energy analyst Volodymyr Saprykin as saying that UkrGazEnergo is being used as an instrument to put pressure on Ukrainian industrial giants in order to compel them "to fall under the ownership of Russian companies, possibly even Gazprom affiliates." JM
...URGES LIBERALIZATION OF HOUSING, UTILITIES SECTOR... President Yushchenko said at a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council (RNBO) in Kyiv on November 17 that the housing and utilities sector in Ukraine is in a profound crisis and this poses a threat to national security, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "The technical state of major assets of housing companies is critical; the efficiency of technological processes in the sector is still low; it is traditionally unprofitable and the process to liberalize utility tariffs is very politicized," Yushchenko said. "In fact, the state is a monopolistic owner of the services. It limits options that business people can offer more efficiently," he added. According to the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www.pravda.com.ua), Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz quit the RNBO meeting to protest what they reportedly saw as the president's meddling with the cabinet's prerogatives. JM
...AND WANTS TO VETO BILL ON CABINET. President Yushchenko told journalists in Kyiv on November 17 that he will veto the bill on the Cabinet of Ministers that was passed in the first reading by the Verkhovna Rada the previous day, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The endorsed bill was drafted by experts from the Cabinet of Ministers. Two other bills on the Cabinet of Ministers, one authored by the president and the other by a group of lawmakers, have also been submitted to parliament. "When we are speaking about the discussion and passing of the bill on the Cabinet of Ministers, both the government and the Verkhovna Rada went about it the wrong way, I believe," Yushchenko said, adding that the issue should be agreed by the government, the president, and the legislature within a working group consisting of representatives of each branch of power. Yushchenko added that any attempt to pass this bill "unilaterally" has no prospects. JM
MEDIATORS URGE MOLDOVA, TRANSDNIESTER TO RESTART TALKS. International mediators have urged Moldova and the separatist Transdniester region to restart direct talks, RIA Novosti reported on November 17, citing the Russian Foreign Ministry. The mediators in the dispute -- the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States -- met in Brussels on November 16 in an attempt to revive negotiations. "Representatives of the mediators and observers expressed a shared opinion that specific steps need to be taken to revive direct contacts between Chisinau and Tiraspol, which would help find practical solutions to the unresolved problems hindering their relations," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The talks were suspended earlier this year when Moldova and Ukraine implemented a new customs regime on the Transdniester section of their border. Transdniestrian officials called the new rules an economic blockade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 25, and February 3, 2006). BW
BLUE-ORANGE RIFT REEMERGES IN UKRAINE
Following a heated debate, the Verkhovna Rada on November 15 opted to postpone a decision on the fates of Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko.
The two presidential appointees were grilled during the parliamentary session by lawmakers from the ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions. They were accused of poor performance and negligence in office, but were spared the indignity of a vote on their dismissal -- at least for two weeks.
In the meantime, observers are left to debate whether parliament has the right to dismiss ministers nominated to the cabinet by the president. Foreign Minister Tarasyuk, for one, believes that it cannot, since the constitution does not say anything about such a situation.
"The constitution, which was amended hastily [in 2004], does not stipulate how these ministers [appointed by the president] can be dismissed," he said. "There is a legal collision here, whether the Verkhovna Rada can dismiss the two ministers without a presidential request. I don't think it can, because there is the notion of analogy in law: if the dismissal procedure is not defined while the appointment procedure is, legal analogy must apply and the same procedure should be used."
The debate on the two presidential ministers was just the latest clash in the short but uneasy cohabitation of Yanukovych and President Viktor Yushchenko -- two longtime political rivals who have reinvented their relationship since Yanukovych became prime minister in early August.
Cracks began to show in September, when Yanukovych said in Brussels that Ukraine would slow its pace toward NATO membership due to public opposition. Yushchenko rebuked Yanukovych for impinging on the president's constitutional right to shape the country's foreign policy. Simultaneously, Yushchenko reminded Yanukovych that just one month earlier both of them signed the so-called declaration of national unity, in which they pledged to seek NATO membership as one of Ukraine's key foreign-policy priorities.
Yanukovych, however, continued to assert his constitutionally reinforced position by claiming more executive prerogatives. In particular, he refused to implement several presidential decrees, arguing that he did not co-sign them. Yanukovych also questioned in the Constitutional Court the president's right to appoint regional governors without consulting the government.
In October, the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party switched to the opposition, constraining its four ministers in Yanukovych's cabinet to tender their resignations. Then, at a congress last week, the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party adopted a resolution obliging its lawmakers to contest the validity of the 2004 constitutional reform. The decision to question the reform before the Constitutional Court has the potential to spark a serious constitutional crisis.
Ukrainian political analyst Oles Doniy, the head of the Kyiv-based Center for Studies of Political Values, believes that Our Ukraine's move was dictated by the party's intention to save itself from political demise following its withdrawal from the government.
"I think this is a graphic example of how Our Ukraine is putting its narrow, party interests above those of national and state ones," Doniy says. "It considers a change of Ukraine's political system depending on whether it is in power or not, thus threatening Ukraine's future in general."
According to Doniy, the potential reversal of the constitutional reform could have a disastrous impact on the stability of the political system as a whole. Since the constitutional reform was adopted as a political compromise to end a presidential-election standoff between Yushchenko and Yanukovych, Doniy argues that questioning the constitutional reform is tantamount to questioning Yushchenko's legitimacy as president.
"If we question the amendments to the constitution made in that period, we will analogically have to question all the other things that took place at that time," Doniy says. "No Ukrainian law provides for the third round of a presidential election, but it did take place."
But Ihor Zhdanov, deputy head of Our Ukraine's Executive Committee, says his party does not see any link between the constitutional reform and Yushchenko's election. "The vote for the political reform and the presidential vote in December 2004 were in no way interconnected, since [the third presidential-election round] was legitimized by a ruling of the Supreme Court of Ukraine, which passed it proceeding from the evidence of a mass election fraud in the second round," he says.
Zhdanov argues that in adopting the constitutional reform, the Verkhovna Rada grossly violated the procedure for constitutional amendments by approving a version of the reform bill that was essentially different from the one reviewed and endorsed by the Constitutional Court.
So, if now the Constitutional Court heeds Our Ukraine's arguments and rules that the constitutional reform was adopted unlawfully, would this signal that Yushchenko will enjoy the same extensive powers as his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma?
Doniy says that might not necessarily be the case. "There is a collision here. Even if the authorities managed to pressure the Constitutional Court into canceling the political reform, the Constitutional Court's ruling would not automatically mean a change of the constitution," he says. "It would be necessary to vote on constitutional amendments again. At least, this is the opinion of those lawyers who are not prone to official pressure."
But it also seems that apart from a headache for lawyers, the controversy over the constitutional reform, if continued, might provoke a major and protracted political upheaval in Ukraine.
Yanukovych said earlier last week that a reversal of the reform would be illegal. Lawmaker Raisa Bohatyryova of the ruling Party of Regions warned Our Ukraine against pursuing its intention of reversing the reform, saying, "Do not stir bees in the hive if you don't know how to gather honey."
It is telling that Yushchenko, who in 2005 repeatedly vowed to seek a referendum to reverse the constitutional reform, has recently refrained from asking for more powers and now talks about "improving" the constitutional reform rather than annulling it.
Perhaps Yushchenko has realized that revoking the reform, which in theory made Ukraine's political system more balanced and similar to European-type democracies, would eliminate the only long-term achievement of the Orange Revolution, on which millions of Ukrainians pinned so many hopes and which they became disillusioned with so soon afterward.
(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)