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Ukraine: Weak Institutions At The Root Of Political Crisis

  • Brian Whitmore

Supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych rallying in Kyiv today (RFE/RL) April 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Here we go again. The streets of Kyiv are filling up with opposing demonstrators clad in orange and blue. Just another crisis in the new democratic Ukraine.


Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has disbanded parliament in the name of the constitution. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych -- citing the very same constitution -- has declared the move illegal and vowed to resist.


But why exactly do political disputes in the former Soviet Union tend to spill out on to the streets?


Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations says the problem -- in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region -- lies in the lack of democratic traditions.

"Ukraine has failed to build -- the first country in the post-Soviet space -- a democratic system based on parliamentary leadership and not on the leadership of one single person, namely the president," one analyst said.

"The problem, even 15 years after the demise of the Soviet Union, is to bring the leading politicians into a situation where they obey the rules of the game, which they obviously don't do," Rahr says. "And second, the problem is the mentality of the elites and the broader population, which also favor leaders and not law."


Personality And Politics


Following the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine tried to move away from the powerful executives that have been prevalent in the former Soviet Union and build a true parliamentary system. The presidency's powers were trimmed and parliament's were strengthened.


At the time, many observers hailed the changes as the revolution's most important legacy.


But Yushchenko's decision to dissolve parliament represents the end of this experiment.


"Ukraine is shifting away from the idea of a parliamentary republic," Rahr explains. "Ukraine has failed to build -- the first country in the post-Soviet space -- a democratic system based on parliamentary leadership and not on the leadership of one single person, namely the president."


Rahr says that when faced with difficulties, politicians in the former Soviet Union tend to fall back on what they know best -- attempting to rule with a strong hand.


"If politicians recognize that it is easier for them to try to come to power and rule the country through authoritarian means and not through compromises and democratic choices, then they choose the easiest way, the authoritarian way," Rahr explains.


Looking Around The Region


Ukraine is not the only country in the region struggling with the checks, balances, and competing institutions that characterize Western democracies.


Demonstrators in Bishkek call for the resignation of President Bakiev in November 2006 (RFE/RL)

In Kyrgyzstan, months of stalemate led to the prime minister's resignation on March 29.


So far, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev -- elected after an uprising in 2005 ousted President Askar Akaev -- has tried to placate the opposition and work with parliament. Some opposition groups are nevertheless demanding that Bakiev step down.


Georgia -- which in 2003 ushered in a new wave of democratic revolutions in the former Soviet Union -- has so far escaped such unrest.


But analysts say Georgia's institutions have not yet been truly tested.


President Mikheil Saakashvilli, who was elected after the 2003 Rose Revolution, enjoys an overwhelming majority in parliament -- and Georgia remains largely a presidential republic with a strong executive.


Saakashvilli repeatedly says that he intends to give up some of his presidential power in favor of a stronger parliament -- but has made no moves toward actually doing so.


"I don't think we have a parliamentary republic in Georgia," Rahr says. "We have seen a presidential [system] replaced by a new strong leader, Saakashvili, which he still is. Georgia is not moving toward a genuine democratic system like Ukraine was after the Orange Revolution. Kyrgyzstan is also difficult because there you have local clans and a kind of split in the country [between] the north and the south."


Russia's Influence


Part of the problem lies in the neighborhood these countries are forced to live in -- one dominated by an increasingly authoritarian Russia with strong interests in its neighbors' affairs.


"There is a challenge in their region from countries like Russia, which are backsliding in terms of democracy," says Nadia Diuk, senior director for Europe and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit organization that receives support from the U.S. Congress. "It's not easy for a country like Kyrgyzstan that is surrounded by authoritarian dictatorships."


Russia, of course, had its own showdown between the president and parliamentary opposition back in 1993. At that time, Russia's pro-Western President Boris Yeltsin solved the crisis by shelling what many saw as a reactionary opposition into submission.


At the time, many in the West cheered Yeltsin on and called the move a victory for democratic forces.


Today, many view those events as the end of Russia's democratic experiment and the beginning of the overbearing executive that now rules the Kremlin.

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