From Fri May 26 06:44:14 2000
Date: Wed, 19 Apr 2000 22:17:15 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <>
Subject: POLITICS-UKRAINE: Russia Hails Referendum Results
Article: 94129
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Russia Hails Referendum Results

By Sergei Blagov, InterPress Service, 18 April 2000

MOSCOW, Apr 18 (IPS)—Ukraine's controversial weekend referendum, which increases presidential powers over parliament, has been welcomed by Russia.

Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, who is on a visit to the Ukraine, Tuesday congratulated President Leonid Kuchma, on his referendum victory.

The vote results “indicate confidence” by the Ukrainian people in the country's leadership, Putin was quoted as saying by Russian Interfax news agency.

Both Kuchma and Putin are fresh from recent ballot victories. Kuchma received overwhelming support in the referendum on April 16 to increase his powers, while Putin was elected president on March 26 in the first round of vote.

Kuchma, who has maintained uneasy relations with the country's parliaments over the past six years, argued he needed expanded powers to push for more reforms.

Ukraine's parliament, Verkhovna Rada, was dominated by the country's Communist Party until earlier this year and was critical of Kuchma's market reform efforts.

Kuchma initiated the referendum—despite objections by the Council of Europe, which called it unconstitutional.

Nonetheless, 90 percent of the voters supported the number of MPs to be cut to 300 from 450 and 85 percent suggested the president could dismiss the assembly if it did not pass a budget within three months or form a majority within a month.

A total of 82 percent of Ukrainians voted in favour of forming a two-chamber parliament, and 89 percent supported an end to deputies' immunity from prosecution.

Kuchma's opponents have already lashed out at the referendum as a drift towards authoritarian rule.

Communist leader Petr Simonenko, who had been beaten by Kuchma in presidential elections last November and had called for a boycott of the referendum, accused the government of falsifying referendum results.

One of the leading contenders in Ukraine's presidential election last October, radical politician Natalia Vitrenko, told Russian NTV television that referendum came as a first step towards the dissolution of parliament and introduction of more authoritarian rule.

Kuchma said he would address parliament once the official result had been published by April 26 to ask deputies to amend the constitution.

However, the referendum may open way to a political crisis - notably in the event the deputies decline to approve the referendum results. Under the current legislation, the president may dissolve parliament only if it does not open sessions within a month.

During his visit Putin also discussed a long-running dispute over Ukraine's multi-million-dollar debt for Russian gas. In recent months the Kremlin has been increasingly insisting on demanding energy debt repayments from Ukraine—which depends on Russia for about 80 percent of its energy needs.

The two sides have yet to agree on the exact size of Ukraine's gas debt. Ukraine has acknowledged 1.4 billion US dollars, but Russia claims it totals more than two billion US dollars.

Ukraine depends heavily on energy imports from Russia and is entitled to a certain amount of free gas as payment for a pipeline which crosses its territory. But Russia says it consistently takes more than the agreed amounts.

Gazprom chief Rem Vyakhirev, who accompanied Putin to Kiev, had accused Ukraine of stealing gas.

But on Tuesday, Putin and Kuchma agreed to set up a joint commission to tackle debt issue within a month. Ukraine's leader also conceded that the practice of illegally siphoning off gas from export pipelines to Europe is far from being “civilised” and promised to crack down on Ukrainian offenders.

Moscow had also called on Kiev to pay back some of its in debts to Russian enterprises with Ukrainian state property set to be privatized. However, Kuchma recently ruled out the idea.

Despite disagreements over the debt, both Putin and Kuchma visited Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which rents its harbour in the port of Sevastopol from Ukraine, is also at the heart of complicated financial arrangements between the two countries.

The neighboring states see each other as natural partners, but their relations have been marred by countless disagreements since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Russia and Ukraine had been at odds since 1991, they differed over the division of Soviet assets, Ukraine's wish to join NATO and particularly the Black Sea Fleet based in the mainly Russian- inhabited Black Sea port of Sevastopol in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.

Former Soviet leader, Ukrainian-born Nikita Krushchev, ceded Crimea to Ukraine as a “gift” in 1954, and Ukraine inherited the peninsula when it declared independence seven years ago. Russian nationalists question the legality of this move.

In February 1999 Russia approved a controversial friendship treaty with Ukraine signed in October 1997—as well as three separate accords on the Black Sea Fleet based on the Crimean peninsula, condemned by nationalists as a betrayal of Russian interests. Under the treaty, Russia confirmed its recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty over the Crimean peninsula.

Moscow would lease the Crimean port of Sevastopol for 20 years and base its share of the Black Sea Fleet there. The fleet itself was split between the two countries after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.

Russian nationalists are especially worried that Ukraine itself might one day try to join NATO, which they still regard as a threat to Moscow's security.

Russia must review its policy towards Ukraine, Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Institute of CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States Studies), Moscow-based think tank, told IPS. Moscow should not prioritise gas and energy issues, whatever important, instead highlighting need to defend rights of Russian- speakers in the Ukraine, he said.

The real issue is Kuchma's policy of severing all cultural and spiritual ties with Russia, argues Zatulin.

Thus Russia and Ukraine, two largest Slavic nations, have long vowed to improve ties and give further boost to bilateral economic cooperation. However, much heralded “strategic partnership” is still yet to materialise.