Ukraine's pro-West opposition insisted yesterday it would not accept reforms to strip much of the presidency's powers ahead of a rerun presidential election that its leader Viktor Yushchenko is hopeful he will win.
With the contested Nov. 21 presidential vote invalidated by the supreme court because of massive vote-rigging and a new date set for Dec. 26, Yushchenko is locked in a fresh standoff with outgoing President Leonid Kuchma.
"If the text [of constitutional reforms] is passed in its current form, all the powers of the president would be transferred to the parliament. This would be unacceptable," said a key Yushchenko ally, Yulia Timoshenko.
"We want the president to be able to name the head of the SBU [intelligence agency] and the prosecutor-general so we can fight with corruption and get rid of the clans," who dominate Ukraine's political and business life, she told journalists.
Kuchma, who keeps close ties to Russia, had pushed for the change amid fears that the opposition could win the presidency in this former Soviet republic.
On Saturday, opposition lawmakers refused to vote for government-proposed changes to the country's 1996 constitution to significantly dilute the powers of the president, and the Upper Rada parliament adjourned for 10 days.
The reforms would transfer power to appoint all top posts except for the prime minister, defense and foreign ministers from the president to parliament, where pro-government forces currently have close to a majority.
And the president's candidates for these three posts would need to be approved by lawmakers, who can also put forward their own candidates.
Opposition leaders last week agreed to negotiate the passage of the reforms during EU-mediated talks to try and resolve the crisis over a presidential poll officially won by Kuchma's protege, pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.
But Timoshenko said that did not mean they would approve the current draft of the constitutional changes and added that the reforms could not take effect until after March, when a new parliament is due to be elected.
She revealed that Yushchenko had offered Kuchma immunity for him and his family.
"But Kuchma doesn't want guarantees [of immunity] but power. Kuchma should calm down and retire, he doesn't want to give up power and is opposing the democratization of the country," Timoshenko added.
Analysts say Kuchma's aim as he steps down after 10 years of often authoritarian rule is to keep his influence through parliament.
The president on Saturday called European negotiators back to Kiev for a third round of talks to break the new deadlock with the opposition, accusing them of reneging on their promise over the constitutional reform.
Yushchenko meanwhile said that his own family has gone into hiding for fear of their safety, in an interview published by Britain's Sunday Telegraph.
"Even today, my family cannot live in Kiev," he told the newspaper after almost two weeks mass street protests in Ukraine.
The supreme court ruled Friday that results from the earlier election were tainted by fraud and ordered a fresh second round, which the central election commission has since set for Dec. 26.