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05/08/2003 | Freemason
Ukraine's Great Undebate
President's reform proposals fail to draw public interest, despite official statistics
By PETER BYRNE
Post Staff Writer
As the two-month term allocated for public discussion of President Leonid Kuchma's plans to change how the country is governed drew to a close, Kyivans did not appear to be showing nearly as much interest in expressing their opinions as official statistics might suggest.
A reception room on the ground floor of the Kyiv City Council building on Khreshcatyk is one of more than a dozen locations across the city where Kyivans have been urged to make their views heard about the proposed constitutional changes, which have been presented as an attempt to shift power from the president to the parliament.
Yelena Karpevych, a receptionist at the mayor's office, said they had received three written responses since the nationwide public debate opened on March 6.
"Most of the people who come here have housing problems," she said.
Iryna Bekeshkina, a sociologist and director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, told the Post on May 7 she viewed the low turnout at public consultation offices as a positive sign.
"The fact that few people are attracted to the offices is a sign that most people are mentally healthy," Bekeshkina said.
Meanwhile, officials across the country have been reporting impressive participation in the reform debate.
Luhanksk Oblast Deputy Governor Volodymr Hryshchenko reported that 317,000 people have registered their opinions in the region. That is about a tenth of the oblast's total population.
"Our main task has been to allow all citizens to take part in the discussion," Hyrshchenko told the Luhansk-based Skhid-Ost news agency on May 5.
Lesya Rudaleva, chief of the Justice Ministry's department for education and political work in Kyiv Oblast, told the Post on May 6 that 221,000 oblast residents had participated in the discussion of the president's proposals.
She said that 118,000 respondents supported the proposals completely, 9,000 citizens rejected them outright, and the remainder gave them qualified endorsement.
"We increased the number of public reception points from 42 to 80 in expectation of a large response," she said.
With the debate officially due to end on May 12, more public discussion is in store. The Presidential Administration's information department announced on May 4 that members of workers collectives, teachers, doctors and soldiers in Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Odessa oblasts would mull the proposals before May 9.
The information department has also launched a special presidential Website (www.reforma.org.ua/polemic), which is updated daily with news and information about the public debate of political reforms.
Yevhen Kharkovchenko, first deputy head of the Presidential Administration's directorate for domestic policy, said on May 7 that a team led by Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych would analyze the results of the great debate between May 12 and May 14 before reporting to Kuchma.
Kharkovchenko dismissed suggestions that there are plans to use the report as a pretext to extend Kuchma's term in office or to hold a referendum on the proposals.
Kuchma first proposed his ambitious reform program in an address to the nation on Independence Day last August. The reforms include transferring some presidential power to a bicameral legislature and introducing a fully proportional voting system.
However, lawmakers and analysts have stated that there is not enough time, support or political will to implement Kuchma's reform proposals in a constitutional manner before presidential elections next November.
Kuchma announced March 5 in a televised national address that he had decided to take the discussion out of the political realm.
"If politicians cannot come to an agreement, ordinary citizens should be the judge," he said.
He did not specify how the proposals resulting from the public debate would be implemented.
Dozens of deputies shouted "Shame!" and returned copies of the bill, titled "On Introduction of Changes to the Constitution of Ukraine" to Kuchma when he formally presented it to parliament on April 15.
Even Rada Speaker Volodymr Lytvyn, former head of the Presidential Administration, appears to be having second thoughts about the bill, which would require a constitutional majority, or 300 deputies, to become law.
"Whenever the system does not work here, we embark on inventing a Ukrainian bicycle," Lytvyn said on May 7.
Yury Yakymenko, a political and legal analyst for the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies in Kyiv, said that there is a clear inconsistency between the reforms that Kuchma says he wants and the way the message is being delivered to the public.
"Kuchma says he wants to give more authority to deputies, but at the same time he is trying to win popular support by denigrating the legislature," said Yakymenko.
In particular, he mentioned a poster being displayed in lighted billboards around Kyiv. It depicts a navy serviceman with the slogan: "Do you want to know who is looking out for your security?" In the text, it urges people to participate, and says that responsibility for maintaining peace should lie with "the guarantor of your security and the nation's, not a group of politicians with varying interests and views."
"Public debate of political reform is admirable, but the means that are being used to achieve the desired result already look dubious," said Yakymenko, citing recent Razumkov poll data showing that less than 10 percent of respondents nationwide said they had actually taken part in the debate.
"This statistic will probably be artificially inflated when the Justice Ministry reports to the president," Yakymenko said.