The bewildering series of events in Ukraine over the past two months have led to a compromise between the two main factions: the office of the president led by Viktor Yushchenko and the Parliament led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. A third figure, Speaker of the Parliament Oleksandr Moroz, also added his signature to the new agreement. However, most analysts concur that the real struggle is yet to come.
The latest stage of the impasse followed the president’s dissolution of the Parliament on April 2, and his demand for prompt new parliamentary elections. On May 15, Yushchenko threatened to remove the Yanukovich cabinet unless a new agreement to stabilize the country was reached.
On May 24, Yushchenko dismissed a powerful enemy, Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun, a member of the Socialist Party elected on the Regions platform. Piskun appealed the decision at a district court, which rejected the president’s decree. However, the Kyiv Court of Appeal in turn suspended the district court resolution.
The dismissal was a complex affair. Yushchenko maintained that Piskun had illegally combined his prosecutor’s job with his position as a member of parliament. Thus he was combining political activities with an administrative high-level post. Speaker Moroz denied this claim, declaring that Piskun had in fact resigned earlier from his legislative duties. Thus, he stated, the dismissal was illegal.
Subsequently, the two sides began a show of strength, prompted in particular by the reaction of Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko, who dispatched a reported 50 troops from the Berkut SWAT team to storm the building of the Prosecutor-General to prevent Piskun’s removal. The Parliament then convoked an emergency session to confirm that Piskun would remain in office. Allegedly MPs from the Party of Regions (headed by Yanukovich), the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party offered protection to the dismissed prosecutor.
On May 25, Yushchenko took control over Interior Ministry troops, ordering them to march on Kyiv. However, their path was blocked by traffic police. The president maintained that ministry troops were needed to help control a potentially divisive soccer match between Dynamo Kyiv and the Shakhtyar Donetsk team owned by business tycoon Renat Akhmetov, a member of the Regions Party. His opponents charged the president with attempting a coup d’etat. Tsushko has allegedly suffered a heart attack–he claimed initially that he had been poisoned.
After the compromise agreement was reached, new problems emerged when the reconvened Parliament did not take immediate steps for the organization of new elections, now scheduled for September 30. Yanukovich maintained that his prime obligations were to deal with the forthcoming harvest and to focus on pensions. The president then threatened to advance the elections to the end of July.
Where do these tumultuous events leave Ukraine today?
Overall, the president responded forcefully to the critical situation, albeit by bending or violating the Constitution. Of late he has also controversially fired several judges from the Constitutional Court for lack of activity. According to his own statements, Yushchenko is now healthy again after a lengthy period recuperating from the poisoning he suffered during the 2004 election campaign. As a result of his decisive actions his rating among the electorate has improved and hovers at the same level as the leading figure from the parliamentary opposition, Yulia Tymoshenko.
However, the president has demonstrated the fragility of the Constitution, and he and his opponents have contravened their jurisdictional limits. Both the president and parliament continue to fight for control over foreign policy, and there are many instances in which the existing laws proved inadequate to determine where power should lie.
Prime Minister Yanukovich has challenged the president at every opportunity, bussing in supporters to Kyiv from his native Donetsk. The challenges offered have been depicted as legitimate since the Regions Party maintains the largest support in the country. Moroz, the Speaker, is in a no-win situation since new elections could see the eclipse of the Socialist Party. He has thrown in his lot with the Prime Minister, deserting the Orange coalition that he embraced three years ago. His political future is thus in doubt.
Theoretically new elections could result in an assembly not dissimilar to the present one, with the Regions holding a plurality of the votes. Its continuance in power might depend on whether the Yushchenko forces can come to a long-term working agreement with the Tymoshenko bloc. However, new elections will not resolve Ukraine’s constitutional crisis.
A solution will likely require a new Constitution that establishes Ukraine either as a country with a powerful executive or one in which Parliament holds sway and the president’s role is mainly ceremonial. This struggle for power continues under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin’s Russia (which is on better terms with Yanukovich than the president) but has effectively been treated as an internal Ukrainian affair by the United States. Neither faction is likely to give way voluntarily, thus the potential for real conflict remains high.
It is surely incumbent not only on Russia, but also on the United States, Canada, and the European Union to offer mediation and assistance to the fledgling but unstable democracy they embraced so enthusiastically during the “Orange Revolution” of 2004-05.
This article appeared in the Edmonton Journal on June 4, 2007.