Political Standoff Continues As Parliament Keeps WorkingKYIV, April 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- By the thousands, Ukrainians are gathered in Kyiv outside the Verkhovna Rada in a scene reminiscent of the Orange Revolution of 2004. Only now they're supporting Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, not his political rival, President Viktor Yushchenko.
But Yushchenko's supporters also promise to crowd into nearby Independence Square to show their support for the president in the country's biggest political crisis since the overturned election of 2004.
Yushchenko said on April 3 there's no turning back. A decree dissolving parliament and setting new elections for May 27 had just become official when it was published in the government gazette.
Yushchenko signed the decree on April 2 after seven hours of fruitless talks with Yanukovych's supporters in parliament over what the president says is the prime minister's unconstitutional method of getting members of the legislature to change their political allegiances.
The two rivals met for about four hours at Yushchenko's office, but the meeting ended without a statement from either man.
Parliament Continues Working
Some in parliament kept working despite the dissolution decree. Raisa Bohatyryova, the head of the legislature's pro-Yanukovych Party of Regions faction, said on April 3 that the current parliament needs to keep working until it's replaced.
"We will continue plenary sessions because the laws and the constitution of Ukraine allow the Verkhovna Rada and in fact make it its duty to work until new elections," Bohatyryova said. "Today, we're talking about the next elections to be held in 2011."
Tensions grew as crowds grew outside the parliament. The European Union, Russia, and the United States urged Ukraine's political leaders to act strictly within the law. And they urged the demonstrators to avoid provocations and confrontations.
No major trouble was reported during the night of April 3-4, but law enforcement officers have been on hand constantly.
"We began the reinforcement of police units [in Kyiv] already on Friday [March 30]," Ukrainian Interior Ministry spokesman Kostyantyn Stohniy told RFE/RL. "Following the president's decision, they remain [in Kyiv] now to prevent civil unrest. They are currently in reserve in Kyiv. Some [citizens] support the president's decision; others don't. And they are talking about their intention to go to the capital. To prevent them from using illegal methods to express that, we have reinforced the protection of administrative buildings."
Yushchenko -- who espouses closer ties with the West -- said his decree disbanding parliament and setting new elections was irrevocable. And, as commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, he said he wouldn't permit the political crisis to descend into violence.
Yanukovych -- who wants to maintain strong ties with Russia -- responded by dismissing Yushchenko's decree as a "fatal error" that targets not only Ukraine's political system, but also the people of Ukraine. He filed a formal challenge of the writ in the Constitutional Court. Until the tribunal rules, he said, the Verkhovna Rada will continue to meet.
The Dispute In A Nutshell
Yushchenko and Yanukovych faced each other in a presidential election in late 2004. Yanukovych won, but thousands of Ukrainians converged on parliament to protest what they called a rigged vote count. A new election was held, and Yushchenko won in what has come to be called the Orange Revolution.
Since then Yushchenko had to fire his first prime minister and his power has been diminished as members of his "orange" coalition switched allegiance to Yanukovych.
Eventually Yanukovych formed his own coalition of 239 members of the 450-seat parliament, and Yushchenko was forced to appoint him prime minister in August 2006.
Yanukovych continues to attract an increasing number of deputies to his coalition. If Yanukovych is able to put together a 300-seat coalition, he could override Yushchenko's vetoes.
Yushchenko says Yanukovych's method of getting deputies to switch allegiance is illegal. Under the constitution, the governing coalition can be formed only on the basis of formal factions, not individual deputies or small groups of lawmakers.
Crisis Looms As President Dissolves Rada
A majority of parliament lawmakers, including members of the Party of Regions led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, responded by condemning the decree as a "step toward a coup d'etat" and indicated they would disobey the president's order.
Yushchenko's decision to dissolve the parliament and call new elections followed last week's defection of a dozen opposition deputies to the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party.
That changeover strengthened the government's support base in the 450-seat Rada to some 260 votes.
Yushchenko was evidently afraid that even more defections from his Our Ukraine bloc and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc would follow, allowing Yanukovych to increase the parliamentary coalition to a constitutional majority of 300 votes.
In such a scenario, Yanukovych's coalition would be able to override presidential vetoes, change the constitution, and reduce the Ukrainian presidency to a merely symbolic role or even abolish it altogether.
By dissolving parliament, Yushchenko, who has often been criticized for indecisiveness, made his boldest move since being elected president in December 2004.
In a television address to the nation on April 2, Yushchenko asserted that it was his presidential responsibility to disband the legislature.
"My actions were dictated by the urgent necessity to save the state, its sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and to ensure the constitution of Ukraine, the rights and liberties of people and citizens, are upheld," he said. "I would like to underline that this is not only my right, it is my duty."
Yushchenko stressed that the main legal reason for the dissolution of the legislature was the ruling coalition's push to convince individual deputies from the opposition to switch allegiance to the parliamentary majority.
The constitution, he argued, unambiguously stipulates that such a majority should consist of parliamentary factions, rather than individuals.
Some Ukrainian commentators maintain that Yushchenko's justification for his decree is shaky, to say the least.
They point out that the Ukrainian Constitution explicitly states only three cases when the president may call early parliamentary elections: if the Verkhovna Rada fails to form a majority within 30 days after its first sitting, or a new cabinet within 60 days after the dismissal or resignation of the previous one; or if it fails to gather for a sitting within 30 days during an ongoing parliamentary session.
So did Yushchenko overstep his bounds in issuing the decree to disband the Verkhovna Rada?
Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz on April 2 had no doubt about this.
"The Verkhovna Rada, with all its responsibilities, states that today there are no legal reasons to dissolve this parliament, which people freely elected according to all the democratic standards as recognized by all the Ukrainian and international organizations, and the president himself," Moroz said.
During a late-night emergency session, lawmakers from the ruling coalition adopted an address to the nation, blasting Yushchenko's decree as a "step toward a coup d'etat."
They also passed two other resolutions that have added fuel to the rising political tensions in the country -- they revoked their resolution of December 2004 on the formation of the Central Election Commission, and banned the government from funding a campaign for early parliamentary elections.
Moreover, the ruling coalition today made a formal request to the Constitutional Court, asking it to pass a judgment on Yushchenko's decree.
The Constitutional Court, however, has failed to gather for a single session in the past six months. Some argue that it may take months for the panel of 18 judges to rule on the decree.
Lesser Of Two Evils
Yushchenko formally put his decree into effect today by publishing it in his official bulletin.
There seem to be two immediate options available for Ukraine's main political players to move ahead in the current political crisis.
A less favorable scenario, for Ukrainian politicians, is to wait for the Constitutional Court ruling and, in the meantime, allow people to decide in street rallies who of the two key figures -- Yushchenko and Yanukovych -- is more loved by the electorate.
Such an option would almost certainly deepen the historical divide between the west and the east of Ukraine and, in an extreme case, could lead to bloodshed or even split the country into two political entities.
A better option for both sides is to hold fresh elections in May -- even if the decision would represent a major political boost for Yushchenko, at Yanukovych's expense.
But if Yanukovych wants to maintain the standing of a responsible prime minister and guarantee a public role for himself in post-crisis Ukraine, he should do everything possible to preserve the country's political stability, rather than satisfying his personal ambitions by outplaying and marginalizing Yushchenko.
Yanukovych at the emergency cabinet meeting suggested in enigmatic fashion that he was mulling over a "third" option for resolving the current standoff between Yushchenko and himself:
"If the president does publish his decree... he still has the chance to rescind it," the prime minister said. "I will not say out loud what the third option is. All other [options] would boost tensions significantly in Ukraine, and the president would be fully responsible for that heavy burden."
Some were quick to conclude that the prime minister does not rule out a show of force in dealing with the president.
Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, one of the two presidential allies in Yanukovych's cabinet, felt obliged to immediately clarify whose side the armed forces would take in such a scenario, saying the army would only carry out those orders coming from the "commander in chief" -- Yushchenko.
Irrespective of what course political events in Ukraine may take in the coming days and weeks, Ukrainians are certain to face a newly turbulent and nerve-racking period.
Weak Institutions At The Root Of Political Crisis
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.
"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.
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."
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.