Ukraine opposition fears Kuchma may rule by 'legal coup'

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A ruling by Ukraine's highest court has cleared the way for President Leonid Kuchma to force through Soviet-style constitutional changes which the opposition claim would be tantamount to a coup. Opposition parties fear Thursday's ruling indicates that the regime is tightening its increasingly authoritarian grip on power after organised attempts to wreck opposition meetings and rallies.

Fair elections next October are seen by opposition parties and Western governments as crucial if the country hopes to chart a democratic future. But President Kuchma, in power since 1994, and the tightly knit circle of wealthy "oligarch" cronies that surround him and control much of the Ukrainian government, are worried that if a reformist opponent becomes president next year the ruling elite could face trials for corruption and even murder.

The man they fear is Viktor Yuschenko, the leader of the biggest democratic faction in parliament, Our Ukraine. He consistently wins the highest opinion poll ratings, and most observers believe he would be president in a fair election.

But the regime asked the supreme court to rule on proposals which could yield loopholes to allow President Kuchma to retain power as, say, prime minister while downgrading the office of president to a ceremonial role. The court, which regularly sides with Mr Kuchma, decided his proposals, allowing parliament rather than the electorate to choose the next president, would not violate the constitution.

The court also ruled Mr Kuchma could not be prosecuted for crimes committed while in office. The President is accused of corruption involving hundreds of millions of dollars, abusing human rights, curbing freedom of the press, rigging elections and involvement in the murder of campaigning journalist Georgiy Gongadze. His headless corpse was found in Kiev woodlands months after he went missing. Secret tape recordings made by the President's bodyguards revealed Mr Kuchma threatening the journalist. Mr Kuchma has always denied the allegations.

But the Gongadze affair and the allegations of President Kuchma's complicity, brought thousands of Ukrainians on to the streets demanding his resignation. Under his rule Ukraine, Europe's largest country after independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, has veered wildly between a course for Western democracy and a more sinister route towards authoritarian rule.

The opposition said the constitutional proposals would cheat the electorate. Oleh Rybachuk, an Our Ukraine deputy in parliament and a senior aide to Mr Yushchenko, said Mr Kuchma's proposal was similar to the method used by the former Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to keep power while retaining a constitutional fig-leaf.Mr Rybachuk said: "If the constitution is changed before the election you may have the scenario where Kuchma the President is requested by parliament to nominate a prime minister. So Kuchma the President nominates Kuchma the Prime Minister then the presidency is so reduced in powers it is practically annihilated. If he is saying he is not going to run for election he might be telling the truth because there might be no election."

The present constitution forbids Mr Kuchma a third term but the supreme court also appeared to indicate Mr Kuchma can run again. Opinion polls show he would stand no chance in a fair ballot. The opposition blames the presidential authorities for systematically disrupting meetings in recent weeks. When Our Ukraine tried to hold a rally in a booked hall in the eastern city of Donetsk, regional officials packed the venue with hundreds of anti-Yushchenko demonstrators. Officials tried to stop him and his group getting off their plane. Then police cars and demonstrators blocked their way out of the airport.

Mr Yushchenko and his supporters said many of the demonstrators were drunk and had been paid to take part. Similar disruptions came in two other cities. Opposition supporters were arrested and tens of buses they hired had tyres slashed. Mr Yushchenko said he has a copy of a confidential document, apparently from the presidential administration instructing local authorities to disrupt opposition rallies. The presidential administration denies this. Its spokesman said the documents could easily have been faked.