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Ukraine: Reaping The Harvest Of Presidential Indecision

(RFE/RL) April 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Following the tumultuous Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine is facing its second serious crisis in just less than three years.

President Viktor Yushchenko on April 2 issued a decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and calling for early elections in May, but both the government and parliament refused to obey it. On April 26 Yushchenko signed another decree, rescheduling the early elections for June.

Yushchenko's new decree on early parliamentary elections effectively annuls his decree of April 2, which has been undergoing examination for its compliance with the constitution by the Constitutional Court since April 17. It is expected that the Constitutional Court, in accordance with its rules of procedure, will soon end consideration of this decree now that it is no longer valid.

The Legal Issues

Many Ukrainian legal experts and political commentators have opined that Yushchenko's April 2 decision to disband the Verkhovna Rada was poorly justified, predicting that the Constitutional Court would invalidate it. According to them, by issuing another decree Yushchenko obviates such an unfavorable turn of events.

Yushchenko's decision to dissolve the Verkhovna Rada should have been made in July 2006, when Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party buried all chances to recreate their post-Orange Revolution ruling coalition, and the Verkhovna Rada clearly overstepped the constitutional timeframe for forming a majority.

In his first decree, Yushchenko quoted Article 83 of the constitution, which stipulates that a government majority in parliament be formed by deputy factions. Since the ruling coalition had expanded its parliamentary representation with some 40 lawmakers from other factions in March, Yushchenko argued the coalition violated the constitution, thus providing him with the right to disband the legislature in order to put the political process in the country back on a constitutional path.

Pro-Yanukovych supporters outside the Constitutional Court in Kyiv on April 27 (epa)

However, the moot point for Yushchenko's opponents from the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party is that the reasons for early parliamentary elections are specified in Article 90 of the constitution.

This article stipulates the president may call early elections if the Verkhovna Rada fails to form a majority in accordance with Article 83 within 30 days after its first sitting; fails to approve a new cabinet within 60 days after the dismissal or resignation of the previous one; or fails to gather for a sitting within 30 days during an ongoing parliamentary session. None of these reasons was explicitly mentioned in Yushchenko's April 2 decree.

Yushchenko's new decree refers to Point 1 of Article 90 as a reason for the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada. It remains to be seen whether, as Yushchenko implies, the defection of more than 30 opposition deputies to the ruling coalition in March may be considered the formation of a new majority. But at any rate, as one legal expert recently told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, the new decree at least provides the Constitutional Court with substance for discussion.

Apart from causing headaches for Constitutional Court judges, the current constitutional crisis poses the disturbing question of whether democracy, which was so joyfully celebrated on Independence Square in Kyiv during the 2004 Orange Revolution, has a chance to survive in Ukraine.

Despite ongoing street protests by both supporters and opponents of the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada, the situation in Kyiv and in the provinces has so far been under the government's control. But it is evident Ukraine is slowly edging toward political and legal chaos, which may culminate in a violent scenario if the president, the prime minister, and parliament fail to find a solution quickly.

The Seeds Of The Confrontation

Could the current confrontation between the key institutions of Ukraine's political system -- the president and the Verkhovna Rada -- have been averted?

The seeds of a potential institutional conflict in Ukraine were sown during the 2004 Orange Revolution in a hurriedly passed constitutional reform that enabled all political players at that time to find a way out of an electoral impasse and paved the way for Yushchenko's victory over Yanukovych in the third round of the presidential election.

The 2004 political-reform package included many vague formulations and loopholes that both Yushchenko and Yanukovych tried to use to their advantage. Yanukovych eventually took the upper hand by passing in January 2007 a law on the cabinet of ministers. This law expanded the prime minister's powers at the expense of the president even more than the constitution amended in 2004, which essentially transformed Ukraine from a presidential republic into a parliamentary-presidential one.

However, this law was not enough for Yanukovych, who launched a campaign to poach lawmakers from opposition caucuses in order to build a majority of at least 300 votes that would enable him to override presidential vetoes, amend the constitution, or even abolish the presidency in Ukraine altogether. Had it not been for Yushchenko's decree on early parliamentary polls, Yanukovych might have succeeded in this plan.

But it would be totally wrong to put the blame for the current crisis only on Yanukovych's appetite for power. Yushchenko should also take a measure of responsibility, because on many occasions he indicated he would like to abolish the 2004 political reform and regain the executive prerogatives enjoyed by his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma.

Yuliya Tymoshenko (left) shakes hands with Viktor Yanukovych during negotiations in June 2006 (epa)

In short, both Yanukovych and Yushchenko showed disrespect for the constitution amended in 2004 and the checks and balances that were included in it to shift the country's authoritarian political system toward a more European model. Both Yanukovych and Yushchenko have failed to pass a test of political responsibility and moderation and have showed they are true representatives of the post-Soviet mentality, for which a "strongman" is still the ideal of a political leader.

Yushchenko's decision to dissolve the Verkhovna Rada should have been made in July 2006, when Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party buried all chances to recreate their post-Orange Revolution ruling coalition, and the Verkhovna Rada clearly overstepped the constitutional time frame for forming a majority. At that time Yushchenko could have recaptured political initiative and presented himself as a decisive leader of the nation. What we see now is the direct consequence of his indecision in 2006.

Tymoshenko Behind The Scenes

The current political crisis seems to have been cunningly provoked by his fervent ally in the Orange Revolution, Yuliya Tymoshenko, who helped Yanukovych overcome Yushchenko's veto on the law on the cabinet of ministers and thus goaded Yushchenko into action against Yanukovych. Tymoshenko, for whom there has been no government role following the March 2006 elections, is the actor who most wants early elections and a new political opening.

Sociological surveys indicate that Yanukovych's Party of Regions and Tymoshenko's eponymous bloc are poised to win a new poll and effectively inaugurate a two-party system in Ukraine. For any other country in transition such a situation could be a blessing. For Ukraine -- with Yanukovych's electorate entrenched in the east and the south and Tymoshenko's supporters grouped in the west -- such an election outcome could turn into a nightmare.

For Yushchenko, any resolution of the current standoff does not bode well. If he fails to enforce early elections, he will suffer the humiliation of being marginalized in Ukraine's political arena. If early elections take place and, as generally expected, the results reinforce the Party of Regions and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc at the expense of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, his political stature will hardly improve. The time when Yushchenko could impose his will on Ukraine appears to have been lost.

Ukrainian Voices

Ukrainian Voices

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service asked people on the streets of Kyiv on April 10 what they think of the rule of law in Ukraine.

Leonid, a construction worker:
"I have taken a businessman for whom I worked to court. And I managed to defend my rights under the current government."

Alla Mykhaylovna, pensioner:
"So far, we are defending our rights in the squares. However, everything will be normal in the future and we will be able to defend our rights legally, and human rights will not be violated."

Oleksandr, construction worker:
"Of course it is impossible [to rely on the law]. The laws are not good. You can buy everything here. You can use a law any way you like."

Kateryna, a student:
"It is 50-50. It is not possible for everyone to defend their rights according to possibilities the laws provide. It often happens that money determines the result. On the other hand, there are more and more people who manage to prove they are right under the existing laws."


RFE/RL's coverage of Ukraine. The Ukrainian-language website of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

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