There have been many surprises in Ukraine's political and social life over the past two weeks -- including the momentous invalidation of the runoff by the Supreme Court on 3 December -- but they pale in comparison with the events of 8 December.
Yushchenko commented that 8 December 2004 should be recorded in national annals as a day of historic compromise. He also predicted that the decisions taken on that day cleared a path for his victory on 26 December in 18-20 Ukrainian regions, presumably enough to secure a Yushchenko presidency. Given that the amended election law severely reduces the number of voters authorized to cast their ballots from home and places tight controls on absentee ballots (thus minimizing the risk of massive electoral fraud of the type that marred last month's runoff), Yushchenko's optimism ahead of the new vote is perhaps warranted.
But there was also a bitter undertone to his address to 100,000 orange-clad supporters on Kyiv's Independence Square on 8 December when he interpreted what happened in the parliament earlier that day and thanked the public for its decisive contribution to Ukraine's "orange revolution."
The constitutional reform suggests that the balance of power in the country will be radically shifted from the president to the parliament and the prime minister. Most Ukrainian commentators agree that Ukraine is poised for a transformation from its current presidential system to a parliamentary one. If Yushchenko eventually becomes the head of state, he will thus have significantly curtailed his prerogatives in comparison with those of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma. The power shift will occur on 1 September 2005 if the Verkhovna Rada approves the bill on local self-government "in the second reading" prior to that date, or, failing such passage, it will automatically go into effect on 1 January 2006.
Yushchenko is apparently disconcerted with that prospect. He avoided any reference to the constitutional-reform bill while recounting the events of the day to his sea of orange on Independence Square. Indeed, he even was not among those 78 deputies of his parliamentary caucus who supported the package of bills intended to resolve the political crisis. What's more, the parliamentary caucus headed by his staunch political ally and prominent firebrand Yuliya Tymoshenko voted against the reform bill.
Kuchma The Victor
Ironically, it was Kuchma -- whose handpicked successor was denied the presidency on the strength of the opposition outcry and subsequent events -- who assumed the role of a victor on 8 December. Kuchma claimed the lion's share of the credit for the historic political compromise while signing the reform bill immediately after its passage. Kuchma and his aides devised the political reform as a stratagem for remaining in the political game beyond 2004 through their leverage in a parliament reinforced with extensive powers regardless of who wins the presidency.
At first glance, everything appears to point to a scenario in which a Yushchenko victory is offset by a parliament filled with Kuchma cronies: Yanukovych has arguably lost credibility in the eyes of voters, and the parliament is set to become a pivotal player in the country a year from now. But what of the Ukrainian people, whom the "orange revolution" has miraculously transformed from a pliant electorate into mature and responsible citizens? It is difficult to imagine them allowing Ukrainian politicians to play backstage political games on the scale of the Kuchma era.
The belief that the Ukrainian president will become a figurehead following the implementation of the constitutional reform is an obvious misconception. This misconception might have originated and been nourished for both domestic and foreign consumption by Yushchenko's camp, which entered the 2004 election campaign in an "all-or-nothing-at-all" mood. True, the president loses the right to nominate all cabinet ministers under the constitutional reform. But the president retains the right to propose the country's prime minister, defense minister, and foreign minister for parliamentary approval. No less important, the president has the sole right to appoint all regional governors. And the president's right to dissolve the parliament if it fails to form a viable government coalition can be an effective tool for defusing political conflicts and shaping government policy.
On the other hand, the reform offers an increased set of checks and balances in government, making many important decisions dependent on concerted agreement between the presidency, the legislature, and the cabinet. What can be seen as an impediment to an efficient presidency is in fact an indisputable gain for Ukrainian democracy. It appears that in the long run, the most important achievement of Ukraine's "orange revolution" in 2004 will be neither the democratized presidential-election law (that can be changed at any time by a simple majority in the Verkhovna Rada) nor even Yushchenko's likely presidency. The key accomplishment just might be the constitutional reform that seeks to dismantle the authoritarian executive system of power, so characteristic of many post-Soviet states, and recast it into something more similar to European-model democracy.
Last but not least, providing the parliament with a decisive voice in most political decisions in Ukraine seems the best possible way to heal the country's troubling east-west divide. That rift is more likely to be healed if the responsibility for such decisions lies with 450 deputies elected all across Ukraine, rather than by one man elected by half the country.
It was thus unwise for Yushchenko to remain silent about constitutional reform on Independence Square, implying that the reform represents a Kuchma victory within a broader "orange revolution." First and foremost, it was a victory for hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko supporters who have been taking to the streets for the past two weeks despite the cold and snow. And the political reform fits well indeed into the stunning transformation of Ukrainians, for whom Yushchenko's likely installment as president will be only one stage -- albeit a crucial one -- on their path toward Europe.
"Frequently Asked Questions" about the Ukrainian crisis
"Politicians To Watch" as events unfold
[For more RFE/RL coverage and analysis of the political crisis in Ukraine, click here.]