Ukraine: King Kuchma

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma speaks to reporters, Nov. 12, 2003 (Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP-Getty Images).

President for life? If Leonid Kuchma continues to have his way, the law will prove no obstacle to his wildest political ambition. On Dec. 24, Ukraine’s parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada, approved a constitutional amendment allowing for election of the president by the legislature rather than by a direct vote of the people. Days later, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that Kuchma could stand for a third term since term limits were imposed in the constitution only after his first election in 1994.

Opposition MPs attempted to block voting on the amendment by barring legislators from the parliament building, even damaging voting equipment. A second vote, by two-thirds majority of the 450-member body, is required for the measure to become law. Such a vote was expected in February or March.

Writing for the Web publication Glavred, Viktor Shlinchak charged that fraud was likely in the effort to collect the necessary votes for the amendment. “It was evident to the naked eye that several representatives of the majority and the Communist Party had not raised their hands. There is another ‘technical’ aspect that could be noticed: A substantial portion of the majority, when interviewed by Glavred, could not explain what they had voted for by raising their hands....”

Serhii Rakhmanin of Zerkalo Nedeli commented (Jan. 10-16): “Amending the constitution in our country seems to have turned into a kind of national sport. In my opinion, it would be most expedient to designate Article 102 of the Basic Law the first, making the following changes: ‘Ukraine’s president is the head of state, the guarantor of sovereignty, and the supreme military commander. The name of the president is Leonid Kuchma.’ There would be no need to read any further or to make any other changes.”

Kuchma saw approval of the law as a step toward responsible political decision-making in Ukraine. Addressing parliament on Dec. 25, he said: “I will not conceal my satisfaction with the event that happened yesterday. The draft law ‘On the Introduction of Amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine’ got preliminary support in the Verkhovna Rada….It is very good that we have crowned the year with a joint result like this.”

Although many commentators decried the amendment’s successful passage, some expressed disappointment in the opposition’s inability to effect constructive change after years of anti-Kuchma protests. Wrote Den’s Maryana Oliynyk (Dec. 26), “The opposition’s refusal to remove the blockade after the vote on the amendment to the constitution had become an accomplished fact testifies above all not to farsighted goals but to poverty of tactics.”

In the same paper, Vasyl Stoyakin argued that that despite the short-term gains to Kuchma, the new system would  benefit society. Among other things, a president elected by parliament would more likely represent the entire country’s interests.