Ukraine Leader Faces Opposition on NATO Drive

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, faced with a rebellious parliament and a bitterly split society, pledged Thursday to keep his nation on a pro-Western course despite resistance by opponents of that policy.

Viktor Yushchenko following his address to Parliament

He also called for a national referendum to undo new curbs on presidential power that he agreed to under pressure as a candidate more than a year ago.

Swept into office on a wave of public support as part of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, Yushchenko spoke in an annual address to parliament just hours after lawmakers rebuked his efforts to move the country toward membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The rebuke came when parliament voted down a bill that would have granted permission for foreign troops to enter the country for training exercises. Such approval is required on an annual basis, and is usually a formality. But the measure failed Thursday, with only 215 of the 226 votes required.

Last year, Ukraine hosted a major NATO security exercise, and it has been expected to host various international training exercises this year.

Ukraine is headed toward a March 26 parliamentary election in which no party is expected to win a majority, and the shape of possible governing coalitions remains unclear. The new parliament could approve the training exercises in a fresh vote.

In a mark of rising political tensions, Yushchenko's speech was preceded by a fistfight in parliament between his supporters and Communist deputies who had attempted to display a placard charging that Yushchenko had not fulfilled campaign promises.

Yushchenko declared that the nation was threatened by political deadlock as a result of constitutional revisions strengthening parliament and weakening the presidency, approved in December 2004 and effective from Jan. 1 of this year. The measures had been a key part of a compromise package of laws that strengthened safeguards against electoral fraud and paved the way for Yushchenko to win the presidency in a revote after a ballot count that favored a rival was ruled invalid.

In his speech, broadcast live on television, Yushchenko called for the establishment of a commission to draft constitutional revisions, which would then be presented for public debate and a nationwide vote.

At a news conference after his speech Thursday, Yushchenko criticized the way that the curbs on presidential authority were enacted under pressure at the peak of the 2004 political crisis.

"Why was compulsion used?" he said, in comments reported by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass. "Why was everybody summoned to the presidential office and lectured on how to vote?"

Oleksandr Ryabchenko, a Kiev-based analyst who heads the International Institute of Privatization, said Yushchenko's concerns about the revised constitution's division of powers have grown in recent months as the opposition has recovered its morale and his hold on parliament has loosened.

"After he was elected a year ago, all his opponents were so demoralized that he could have gotten any powers for himself had he then sought power for the sake of power," Ryabchenko said. "Now the situation is different. Yushchenko is faced with a serious opposition in parliament, and many of his opponents have raised their heads and are ready to challenge him."

Yushchenko has refused to heed a parliamentary vote Jan. 10 sacking Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov and the Cabinet, arguing that the action was illegal. He said Thursday that more such standoffs would be inevitable if the constitution were not reworked again.

Ryabchenko said the constitutional revisions enacted in 2004 were a step forward for democracy in Ukraine because they ended the concentration of power in presidential hands.

"But the changes were made hastily and are not ideal," he said. "Some changes were not quite democratic. That is why the president is right in saying that the changes were part of working out a compromise but were not the result of a balanced effort to build an ideal model of power."

A recent opinion poll by the Razumkov Research Center showed 30% support for the pro-Russian Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovich, who lost to Yushchenko in the 2004 election. Our Ukraine, a bloc that backs the president, placed second with 20% support, while a bloc led by former Yushchenko ally Yulia Tymoshenko took 14%. The Communist Party had 7% support and the Socialist Party 7%.

While polls show Yanukovich's party in first place, it is far from clear that he would be able to win power in the March balloting, as efforts are being made to reunite former allies in a coalition of the parties that united behind Yushchenko in 2004.

Source: LA Times