KIEV, Sept. 6 – President Viktor Yushchenko on Thursday responded to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s call for a referendum on NATO and the status of the Russian language by characterizing the proposal as an attempt to destabilize situation in Ukraine ahead of the Sept. 30 election.
Yanukovych and his Regions Party a day earlier pledged to secure the referendum, which would declare Russian as the second state language in Ukraine and halt Ukraine’s accession to NATO.
“The politicians and political groups that try to hold such a referendum during the election campaign seek to destabilize the situation in Ukraine,” Yushchenko said. “Obviously, this is political adventurism.”
But the Regions Party, in an apparent challenge to Yushchenko, said Thursday it will launch a massive campaign across Ukraine on Friday collecting signatures in support of the referendum. The campaign is supposed to hit Ukraine’s biggest cities, the party said.
The development underscores the rapidly worsening relations between Yushchenko and the Yanukovych camp, suggesting the looming clash may trigger serious political turmoil in Ukraine.
Yushchenko said the Regions Party has broken its earlier promises to avoid the sensitive issues that have historically split Ukraine in half between the Ukrainian speaking west and predominantly Russian speaking east.
The launch of the campaign with primary focus on issues such as language and NATO highlights the worst possible reaction from the Regions Party in its on-going standoff with Yushchenko.
It shows the party, which has so far been mainly on the defensive amid Yushchenko’s anti-corruption initiatives, is now launching an offensive campaign and is using the measure of last resort, analysts said.
This comes as the Regions Party apparently failed to secure a promise from Yushchenko’s group, Our Ukraine-People’s Self-defense, to join forces to form the next government after the vote.
This, coupled with rising support for two pro-Western opposition groups, suggests that there is a growing fear within the Regions Party that Yanukovych may be unseated and the party will end up in opposition after Sept. 30.
The constitution allows the president to announce a referendum if a party manages to collect 3 million signatures across Ukraine in support. Boris Kolesnikov, who manages the campaign for the Regions Party, said the party plans to collect 9 million signatures within the next 2.5 months.
The party challenged Yushchenko on Tuesday by joining a controversial emergency session of Parliament in a bid to approve legislation that would scrap immunity for the president and for lawmakers.
Yushchenko said that making changes to the constitution, such as adding a new language as the second state language, require a complicated procedure, including a vote in Parliament, approval by the Constitutional Court and the final approval by 300 votes in the 450-seat Parliament. After that, the issue may be suggested for the referendum, he said.
“Starting the issue with the referendum means violating in a pubic and a rude way of the order of making such amendments,” Yushchenko said. (tl/ez)