Historic vote breaks Ukraine stand-off

Ukraine’s Parliament passed a controversial plan to weaken the presidency on Wednesday, breaking a tense stand-off between outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and the opposition, and smoothing the way for a new presidential vote on December 26.

The vote was hailed in Ukraine and abroad as a breakthrough in the political crisis that has split this strategic nation in two polarised camps and sparked a Cold War-like conflict between Russia and the West.

By an overwhelming vote of 402 to 21, deputies at the Upper Rada approved the Kuchma-backed amendment, which transfers many of the president’s powers to Parliament, along with electoral law changes demanded by the opposition.

The chamber erupted in applause as the vote result appeared on a huge electronic board on the wall. The 66-year-old Kuchma, who made a rare appearance in the chamber to urge deputies to support his pet legislation, was among those clapping.

“Ukraine has gone through crisis several times and we always had the political will and understanding to make the right decisions,” he told deputies minutes before the vote.

“This is an act of consolidation and reconciliation that proves Ukraine is united and indivisible,” Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Litvin said afterward.

Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was due to address his supporters later in the day in Kiev’s Independence Square, where tens of thousands of people had gathered in his support round the clock for weeks in a so-called “orange revolution”.

Following the vote, the opposition lifted its blockade of government buildings in Kiev while the Pora youth group, which has sent thousands of university students to the protests, called on them to return to classes.

Better chances at poll

Parliament’s vote broke a tense face-off between Kuchma and Yushchenko, sparked by a disputed election on November 21 that was later annulled because of fraud, and clears the way for the new round of the poll on December 26.

It is expected to boost Yushchenko’s chances of winning that poll, which will once again pit him against pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, but significantly weaken his powers in the post in case of victory.

The amendment transfers important powers from the presidency to Parliament, where opposition forces are now in a minority, and is due to enter into force by January 1 2006 at the latest.

Under the reforms, the president loses the power to appoint all top posts except for the prime minister, defence and foreign ministers. His candidates for these three posts need to be approved by legislators as well.

Analysts say Kuchma has pushed the measure in a bid to retain influence after he steps down following a decade of oft-authoritarian rule in this former Soviet republic.

Yushchenko had earlier sought to delay the changes coming into force until after the 2006 legislative elections, by which time the opposition forces had hoped to increase its representation in Parliament.

But he compromised in exchange for Parliament passing changes to electoral law aimed at reducing the possibility of ballot fraud in the next election.

Many hailed the deal, saying it boosts Yushchenko’s chances at victory and will go a long way toward reconciling the country.

“We have begun to talk in the language of national consolidation,” beamed Stepan Gavrish, a pro-government deputy.

“This paves the way for Yushchenko’s victory,” said Olexander Derhatchyov, an analyst.
“The compromise between the government and the opposition eliminates concerns about attempts to scuttle the next election” by the ruling regime.

Some happy, some not

European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, who had thrice travelled to Kiev to mediate talks between Kuchma and the opposition, hailed the vote as a breakthrough.

“These decisions should paved the way for a free and fair rerun of elections in Ukraine on December 26,” he said from The Hague, adding that he is “very, very happy”.

But some in Yushchenko’s camp slammed the compromise.

“This is a victory for Kuchma,” fumed Yulia Timoshenko, one of Yushchenko’s main allies. “This vote helps reduce the powers of a president Yushchenko ... We could have won without it.”

Yushchenko and Yanukovich had squared off during the November 21 run-off, a vote officially won by Yanukovich but later annulled by the Supreme Court amid massive fraud.—Sapa-AFP

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