After President Yushchenko's dramatic decision to dissolve the parliament on April 2 and schedule new elections on May 27, Ukraine has been plunged into yet another political crisis. In an address to the nation on April 4, deputies from the Verkhovna Rada have decried Yushchenko's move as a coup d'etat aimed, they say, at "creating a precedent that will lead Ukraine down the path of former Yugoslavia." Kiev's Independence Square is once again filled with protesters, though bitterly divided among opposing factions.
The events unfolding on the streets of the capital and in the halls of government are the culmination of a prolonged political struggle that has engulfed Ukrainian politics since the zenith of the Orange Revolution in 2004. The precedent of "people-powered" democracy, noble as it may be, has nonetheless failed to dispel deeply-rooted regional divisions or the venal politics of that country's elite. After much elation in the West over the "victory of democracy," a battle between political ambitions and a genuinely free civil society, unhesitant in expressing its discontent, continues to rage.
Lost in the euphoria a few years ago was the fact that nearly half of the country voted against the Orange Revolution--notwithstanding the few districts where enthusiastic supporters of Viktor Yanukovich employed "dead souls" to garner more than 100 percent of eligible votes. The hero of the revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, was no dissident in the mold of Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa, having held a variety of administration posts during the ancien régime. Even Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine's "Joan of Arc", had previously made a fortune in the cutthroat world of the post-Soviet gas industry.
From Heroes to Foes: The Return of Viktor Yanukovich
The installation of "Team Orange" initially produced few tangible benefits for ordinary Ukrainians. Despite the common goal of bringing Ukraine closer to the West and rooting out entrenched corruption, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko instead squandered their political capital in bitter rivalry. The Ukrainian economy was perhaps the most damning indicator of Orange failure, it grew 12 percent under the stewardship of former president Leonid Kuchma in 2004, but declined precipitously in 2005. Promises to tackle corruption and to reverse shady privatization deals went largely unfulfilled, excluding the dramatic--and televised--public auction of Ukraine's largest steel producer, Kryvorizhstal.
In September 2005, only months after their display of gallant solidarity on the streets of Kiev, Yushchenko unceremoniously fired Tymoshenko from her post as prime minister. Ukraine's "Iron Lady" would not forgive easily. She reenergized her opposition movement--originally formed to propel Yushchenko to the presidency--into an eponymous party ("The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc" or "BYuT") that claimed to uphold the "ideological purity" of the Orange Revolution.
President Yushchenko came off the worse in this power struggle. Last year, he had little choice but to arrange deals with Yanukovych's Party of Regions and oligarchic groups in order to steer the county through political and economic crises, resulting in the appointment of the centrist technocrat Yuri Yekhanurov as prime minister.
Curiously, President Yushchenko's position started to resemble the latter years of Mikhail Gorbachev--a beloved "liberator" abroad, awarded medals and standing ovations, but unable to escape a dubious reputation as a "spineless," "traitorous," and essentially powerless politician at home. To boot, the president lost most of his executive prerogative at the beginning of 2006, when the country's political system switched from super-presidential to a hybrid semi-presidential model.
The failure to reunite the "Orange Team" dealt a serious blow to Yushchenko's goals--bringing Ukraine into the Euroatlantic community and building viable democratic institutions at home. In the March 2006 parliamentary elections, after seeing his popularity plummet, Yushchenko's party "Our Ukraine" garnered only 14 percent of the votes, losing to the resurgent Party of Regions and bested by BYuT as well.
The final tallies from the March elections, however, only reaffirmed the split in the Orange camp--they did not represent a wholesale discarding of the country's pro-Western orientation. But once again, consensus was ditched in favor of personal ambitions: after gaining the largest share of the "Orange" vote, Tymoshenko demanded the post of prime minister. Yushchenko steadfastly refused. The winner in all this was Viktor Yanukovich, who consolidated his position and was transformed from "enemy of the revolution" back to prime minister.
Avoiding the "Russia Scenario"
Yet amidst the chaos and power struggles, a remarkable transformation took place in the Ukraine. The elections last March were the most democratic in the country's history, with 45 parties taking part in the contest. Along with the emergence of a genuinely democratic civil society, the Ukrainian media has been liberated and now plays a key role in exposing corruption in government and business.
Ukraine's economy, despite Russia's sudden decision to cutoff of subsidized gas imports, adjusted well in 2006, exhibiting overall growth on par with its energy-rich neighbor. Following the example of the European Union in 2005, the United States Congress voted to establish permanent normal trade relations with Ukraine, with President Bush signing the bill into law in March 2006. With a view to enter the World Trade Organization early this year, the Ukrainian parliament has likewise adopted all of the necessary legislation to comply with WTO standards.
Will the current constitutional crisis reverse the gains of the Orange Revolution? Prominent analysts of post-Soviet affairs, such as Nicholas Gvosdev of the National Interest, have been quick to draw parallels to the 1993 crisis in Russia, which resulted in a bloody standoff between armed forces loyal to President Boris Yeltsin and the Soviet-era Congress of Deputies. That watershed event has become "Exhibit A" for causal explanations of why the Russians are hesitant to embrace Western-style democracy and for the Kremlin's effective touting of Putin's oil-infused "confidence and stability" over the Yeltsin-era's "shame and chaos." As Gvosdev counsels: "Let's be careful not to repeat history with Ukraine."
Given the nature of post-Soviet politics, avoiding military intervention is critical. However, it is then Yushchenko's perceived "weakness" that should play a favorable role in the successful resolution of the crisis. In August 2006, the president was already faced with a similar choice, when three months of wrangling failed to produce a ruling coalition. Having a legitimate right to call for fresh elections, Yushchenko chose to respect the wishes of the Ukrainian voters instead by signing a broad "unity agreement" with Yanukovich.
Observing the "Rules of the Game"
While the legal basis of Yushchenko's latest decision will remain unclear until Ukraine's Constitutional Court renders its ruling, expected shortly, his motives are ascertainable. With the president already deprived of most of his powers by the recent constitutional reforms, Prime Minister Yanukovych further strengthened his rule in January by passing the "Law on the Cabinet of Ministers," which severely curtailed presidential prerogatives regarding cabinet appointees and veto powers. Tymoshenko joined with Yanukovych in order to secure the "largest opposition party" (currently her own party, BYuT) with the right to nominate the deputy parliamentary speaker as well as the chairs to several parliamentary committees.
Apparently unsatisfied with these gains, Yanukovych actively engaged in rather unsavory methods of ensuring further legislative prerogative, including the alleged bribing of opposition deputies. As the number of "political refugees" climbed steadily upwards, and the prime minister came closer to controlling two-thirds of the parliament (300 deputies out of 450), the presidency of the Ukraine was in danger of becoming analogous to the English monarchy. But Yushchenko reasoned that Ukraine was not ready for "Question Time with the Prime Minister" just yet.
According to Anders Åslund, one of the most prominent Western experts on Ukraine, "The constitutional basis for new elections appears to be missing but the lawlessness of the Yanukovich government is palpable." In a latest poll by the authoritative Kiev International Institute for Sociology (KIIS), a plurality (40 percent) of Ukrainians agreed that "the migration of deputies from the opposition to the [ruling] coalition de facto negates the results of the 2006 elections." It is now up to Ukraine's Constitutional Court to decide whether that is the case de jure.
All is not lost for the Orange Team should fresh elections take place--they could manage to reunite again. According to the latest poll conducted by KIIS and the Razumkov Center, support among the three primary contenders would stay roughly the same as during the March 2006 elections: the Party of Regions would receive roughly 33 percent of the votes, Tymoshenko, who has pushed hard recently for re-election, would get nearly 25 percent, while Yushchenko's depleted "Our Ukraine" gets support from 10 percent. The Communist party, which had traditionally sided with Yanukovych, would provide him with additional support--projected at 5 percent of the votes. Crucially, however, the Socialist party of parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz may not be able to pass the required 3 percent threshold. After the Socialists' unexpectedly bolted from the Orange Coalition and sided with Yanukovych in July 2006, such a failure would be welcomed by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.
Between the West and Russia
After unequivocal support for Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution, should the West once again consider getting seriously involved?
There really isn't much of a choice, especially after the Ukrainian parliament has asked for "international mediation." The European Union is once again sending prominent emissaries, including the former Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski. While the U.S. State Department has since the March 2006 election repeatedly stated the importance of "respecting the choice of the Ukrainian voters and the rule of law," both Congress and the White House have acted far more assertively. Perhaps as another timely gesture of support for the embattled Yushchenko, President Bush on April 10 signed into law "The NATO Freedom Consolidation Act of 2007," which renders Ukraine as one of the countries eligible for financial assistance under the NATO Participation Act of 1994.
During the current period of crisis, however, the West must be careful to support the process, not the candidate. Behind the diplomatic niceties, Ukrainians face a choice between Western democracy and Russia's increasingly authoritarian model. In rejecting a fraudulent power grab in 2004 and holding a free and fair contest in 2006, the Ukrainian people have aptly demonstrated that they are ready to choose the former over the latter. In adopting the system of power-sharing between the branches of government that has worked successfully in the Baltic states and in Eastern and Central Europe, the country took another step in building viable democratic institutions.
The West must now continue to encourage Ukraine's politicians and lawmakers to make responsible choices in order to respect these institutions.
Igor Khrestin is a research assistant at AEI.