Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the political party Nasha Ukraina (Our Ukraine), spoke at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. today on February 7th about Ukraine's current political situation and his hopes for a democratic future. He stated that Ukraine is suffering from its deepest political conflict in twelve years, one with battle lines drawn not just between the pro-democracy parties and the oligarchic clans, but between the citizens of Ukraine and the authorities. According to opinion polls, only seven percent of the population supports President Leonid Kuchma and his government, while between 50-65% of the population holds a negative opinion towards the executive. In the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, the nine parties that support Kuchma received only 11 percent of the popular vote, more than two-thirds of all voters favored other political parties.
Yushchenko weighed in on several controversial political issues during his presentation, including the current method of allocating seats in the Verkhovna Rada. "The Rada is the only bright spot of democracy in the country," he said, and to keep it that way, "Ukraine must adopt a proportional parliamentary election system." (Currently half of the seats in Ukraine's 450-seat Rada are divided proportionally among political parties garnering more than 4% of the popular vote, while the other 225 representatives are selected by popular vote in single-mandate districts.) Yushchenko said the opposition has successfully blocked attempts by the pro-presidential clans to control the structure and operation of the Rada.
The opposition forces in parliament, comprised of the Socialist and Communist parties in addition to Nasha Ukraina and Yulia Tymochenko's bloc, hold 204-206 of the Rada's 450 seats. Twenty to twenty-five deputies in the Rada are independent. Thus the government holds no majority. Yushchenko believes, however, that the clans will continue to threaten the democratic functioning of the parliament unless the distribution of seats is changed to a wholly proportional system. Particularly in the single-mandate districts, Yushchenko claimed, "money decides the outcome of the elections, not political competition."
Yushchenko assured the audience that the opposition "will consolidate to oppose changes to the constitution restricting the freedom of choice." He spoke to a concern that a diverse opposition block, parts of which have expressed support for constitutional change, might be unable to put forth a united front against presidential maneuvers.
Kuchma has introduced legislation to reduce the authority of the Executive, transferring certain presidential powers of appointment to the parliament in time for his scheduled departure from office in 2004. Kuchma's proposal of the changes has fueled speculation that he cannot find a suitable successor and hopes to dispel the power of the presidency sufficiently as to render elections meaningless. The proposed constitutional changes, though they reduce executive power, are widely viewed as an attempt to undercut the opposition. Yushchenko characterized the proposals as an attempt to "pass power from one hand to the other, when both hands are part of the same body…We do not trust the powers that be, nor their suggestions."
Yushchenko described serious abuses of executive power, which have nearly driven democracy from Ukraine. Businessmen who attempt to support Nasha Ukraina are intimidated by police and firemen who have the authority to "close down a factory if the owner has the wrong opinion." Pro-presidential clans exert total control over media outlets, many of which they own. When elections come around, democratic forces see their votes swindled away: they lose out from restricted access to the media, and suffer even more from the clans who tamper with ballot boxes.
Yushchenko proposed stemming these abuses of power by cutting off the sources of funding that let them happen, enacting "stronger controls over the nation's finances" and the channels used to distribute money from the budget. He noted that the president's cabinet of ministers retained significant control over legislative processes, and criticized the "redundancy" of the mechanism by which the cabinet was appointed.
Turning to Ukraine's relations with Russia, Yushchenko explained that recent Ukrainian policies towards Russia had led to "deep disappointment among partners in Ukraine, Russia, and the United States" who hoped to work together to improve bilateral relations. Ukraine has suffered a "deep downtrend in the volume of trade with Russia," indicative of how relations with Russia are "growing further apart."
During his recent visit to Russia, Yushchenko met with political leaders to affirm his party's dedication to improving relations based on "rational policies," particularly with regard to trade regimes. Yushchenko assured Russian leaders that Nasha Ukraina is not "anti-Russian-we know that Russia is our eternal neighbor…Relations with Russia must based on mutual understanding of the equality of each state." Yushchenko was surprised to see polls indicating that two-thirds of Ukrainians believed their country's relations with Russia to be unstable, a figure that further demonstrated the necessity for more a "equal, responsible" policy. In his discussion of Ukraine's relations with Russia, and at other points during his speech, Yushchenko alluded to the possibility that foreign governments might influence Ukraine's political development by making clear their attitudes towards those currently holding executive power.