Ukrainian lawmakers from the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine returned on May 29 to the Verkhovna Rada after a nearly two-month hiatus to vote on legislation needed to hold early parliamentary elections.
The lawmakers had avoided the Rada since President Viktor Yushchenko's April 2 decree dissolving parliament.
But a May 27 deal between Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz paved the way for their return.
Backing Away From Confrontation
The political crisis apparently reached its peak on May 26.
That was when President Yushchenko reportedly summoned to Kyiv some units of the Interior Ministry riot police, after issuing a decree the previous day placing them under his control.
Police troops loyal to Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko then blocked local highways to prevent the Yushchenko-led riot units from entering the capital.
With bloodshed a possible outcome of the standoff, Yushchenko called for urgent talks with not only Prime Minister Yanukovych -- with whom he has met regularly during the troubled past two months -- but also parliament speaker Moroz, whom he had publicly ignored since the impasse began.
In the early hours of May 27, Ukrainian television showed Yushchenko shaking hands with Yanukovych and Moroz and announcing that "the crisis is over."
The three officials signed a deal setting preterm polls for September 30. This means that Yushchenko will have to issue a third decree on early elections, thus nullifying his April 27 decree that scheduled them for June 24.
According to the May 27 deal, parliament will be legally dissolved after the voluntary resignation of the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (YTB). The two groups jointly control some 170 seats in the 450-seat Rada; their withdrawal would take parliament below the 300-seat minimum it needs to legally function.
For that reason, one should expect not so much a shift in Ukrainian politics in the fall as a continuation of the current state of affairs.
This is different than Yushchenko's two April decrees, which based the disbanding of parliament on accusations the ruling coalition (the Party of Regions, the Socialists, and the Communists) had illegally poached opposition deputies to expand the ruling majority to 300 votes.
The coalition does not want to take the blame for the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada. Asking the opposition to resign instead seems to be the most significant concession Yushchenko had to make in order to strike a deal on new elections.
It remains to be seen, however, if Our Ukraine and YTB leaders can persuade their lawmakers to give up their parliamentary mandates -- something that is meant to happen as soon as the Verkhovna Rada adopts all the legislation necessary to hold the September 30 snap elections.
On the morning of May 29, Yushchenko suspended his April 26 decree dissolving parliament. The suspension was for two days -- just long enough to give legislators time to vote on early-election legislation.
Deputies -- including those from the opposition who have steadfastly avoided parliamentary debates during the past two months -- gathered for a session that afternoon. They made some swift and promising steps toward fulfilling the election deal between Yushchenko, Yanukovych, and Moroz.
First, in a conciliatory move, the Verkhovna Rada rescinded previous resolutions by the ruling coalition lambasting Yushchenko for his dissolution decrees.
Second, lawmakers held fresh votes on the more than 50 bills the Rada had passed during the oppositions' two-month absence.
Ukraine remains a divided country (epa)
In the third and most important move of the day, lawmakers adopted a bill on reforming the Central Election Commission. This was a major concern for politicians on both sides of the conflict.
The bill allows the Verkhovna Rada to change the composition of the election commission following a formal request by the president.
Yushchenko, Yanukovych, and Moroz reportedly agreed that the commission will comprise 15 members. Seven will be proposed by the ruling coalition, seven by the opposition, and one -- most likely, the head of the commission, will be proposed jointly by the president and the prime minister.
It was a constructive day's work -- but one that appeared to exhaust the goodwill and readiness of both sides to continue moving forward.
Opposition lawmakers failed to gather for the morning parliamentary session today, presumably because points of agreement between the coalition and the opposition on any further legislation were in short supply.
This legislation was prepared by the anticrisis working group that Yushchenko and Yanukovych set up in early May in an attempt to defuse the crisis.
The anticrisis group has reportedly coordinated "90 percent" of the legal foundation for the new polls, but has bogged down in arguments over several important issues.
In particular, the sides reportedly disagree on introducing the so-called "imperative mandate" provision into the law on people's deputies. This would prevent lawmakers from defecting from their caucuses in the Verkhovna Rada, precluding a repeat of the apparent poaching that sparked the crisis two months ago.
There is also no agreement on how to compile a voter registry that could be independent from the voter lists held by regional administrations.
The May 27 deal stipulates that the Cabinet of Ministers and the Central Election Commission are obliged to produce such a list before the September 30 polls, but lawmakers reportedly differ on ways of identifying eligible Ukrainian voters.
Yanukovych's Party of Regions is afraid that regional governors -- all of whom were appointed by Yushchenko -- may manipulate the voter lists to the party's disadvantage.
Yushchenko's Our Ukraine had similar apprehensions during the 2004 presidential ballot, when the regional governors controlling the voter rolls were allied with Yanukovych.
Another possible stumbling block to reaching a final agreement on the early polls is the fate of Svyatoslav Piskun, whom Yushchenko fired from the post of prosecutor-general on May 24. The ruling coalition wants Piskun reinstated, while Yushchenko, who simultaneously appointed a replacement for him, is not inclined to back off.
For these reasons, it is not clear whether the Verkhovna Rada will manage to settle its disagreements over the September 30 polls today, as expected by Yushchenko.
To make these elections happen, Yushchenko will need to issue a relevant decree no later than August 2. So there are still two months for Ukrainian politicians to solve the current conflict without setting yet another election date.
If Yushchenko succeeds in having early elections in the fall, some in Ukraine will surely see this development as his victory. But this victory will hardly give him additional political profits.
The problem is that, according to sociological surveys, the future arrangement of forces in the Verkhovna Rada may be very much like the current one. Indeed, given the fully proportional party-list electoral system in Ukraine, it is very likely that the legislature will be predominantly filled with exactly the same faces as now.
For that reason, one should expect not so much a shift in Ukrainian politics in the fall as a continuation of the current state of affairs. And the current state of affairs resembles a permanent institutional crisis, rather than the way to the prosperous and democratic Ukraine that Yushchenko promised during his inauguration in January 2005.