David R. Marples
for EDMONTON JOURNAL, 17 September 2008
There seems to be no immediate solution to the political crisis in Ukraine, which on September 16 brought about the final collapse of the Orange coalition established after the 2004 Orange Revolution. The electorate can hardly welcome the fall of the current parliament, leading to the third parliamentary election in only three years. But is that the only alternative? What are the causes of the crisis? Why does Ukraine seem to stutter from one bitter internal conflict to another?
One reason is a deep clash of personalities. The two key figures—President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko—do not get along. To listen to the president of late, an uninformed observer would gain the impression that Tymoshenko is a traitor who has sold out Ukraine to the Russians. Yushchenko has deployed his chief of staff, Viktor Baloha, a Rusyn from Transcarpathia, on a mission aimed at curtailing the career of the flamboyant Prime Minister. According to one account Baloha has forwarded documents to the Ukrainian Security Service that reportedly show Tymoshenko has committed acts of treason.
Tymoshenko is not only the most popular politician in Ukraine, she is—according to an annual ranking of the country’s most notable 100 individuals published in Korrespondent (August 22)—the most influential person as well. Lately she has made a number of maneuvers that seem contradictory: she has supported (with the backing of the Regions Party) the empowerment of parliament over the office of the president; she has expressed a wish to re-form the Orange coalition as the best way out of the current impasse; and she has approached the Regions faction with the goal of forming a new parliamentary majority coalition.
Yushchenko accuses her of joining Regions in supporting Russian actions in Georgia, undermining his own overt support for Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. The president believes she has taken such steps in order to acquire Russian sponsorship for her candidacy in the 2010 presidential election. However, if the Constitution is indeed amended to give more power to the legislature, then the presidency would be reduced to a ceremonial office.
The ambition of the Prime Minister has always been evident. At times there seems to be a contrast between her lifestyle and public appearance and her avowed goal to eliminate corruption or take on the oligarchs. But equally significant is her refusal to take orders from Yushchenko and become a compliant figure. Her initiatives to promote privatization and to carry out reforms through the Parliament with cooperation from various factions rankle with the conservative Yushchenko, who lacks both her drive and charisma.
Four years on from the Orange Revolution that swept him to power, the president is deeply unpopular within his own country (like Gorbachev he is much more respected outside it), and an article in Ukrains’ka pravda in early September declared him “politically dead.” He has issued a decree giving Baloha the authority to inspect internal troops that led some observers (Yuri Butuzov in Zerkalo Nedeli, for example) to suspect that he wishes to impose direct presidential rule. The Parliament has demanded (323 deputies in favor, well more than the 226 required) that the president dismiss Baloha for obstructing parliament as well as alleged illegal land dealings.
Ultimately, a president needs to reflect the sentiments of the public. Yushchenko’s avowed pro-Georgian, pro-NATO, and increasingly anti-Russian policies do not have overwhelming support in Ukraine. In fact they serve to highlight the regional divisions. On Georgia especially a consensus is plainly lacking.
Thus an August poll conducted by the Razumkov Center asked a sampling of respondents in the different regions of Ukraine which country they perceived as the aggressor in the Russian-Georgian conflict (a question that would have received a unanimous verdict in neighboring Poland). In western Ukraine, 55.2% saw Russia in this role, 15.1% both countries, and 7% Georgia. The center was evenly divided. However, Eastern Ukraine perceived Georgia as the main aggressor (37.2% to 13.8%), and in southern Ukraine almost 57% maintained the same, with only 13.8% citing Russia.
Though the same Center’s webpage does not offer a recent poll on NATO membership, a June 2008 survey indicated that 60% of respondents opposed it, with 20.9% in favor. Incidentally in June 2002, according to this same source, 32% supported accession to NATO. Thus as a policy it has lost its attraction, in part because of the war in Iraq.
Yushchenko’s policies are becoming erratic, and his public utterances, particularly about his Prime Minister increasingly far-fetched. The key question is whether a parliamentary coalition could actually work. Western analyst Taras Kuzio pointed out recently that a substantial portion of the Regions’ deputies opposed Russian actions in Georgia. There is thus no necessity to associate the entire faction with the pro-Russian stance of its leader.
If a coalition between the Tymoshenko Bloc and the Regions is possible, then Ukraine might establish the more stable leadership it requires during a time of political crisis and growing tension in its relationship with Russia.