Ukrainian Government Mired in Gridlock

Posted in Europe | 24-Jun-07 | Author: Melissa Hahn

Two months into a constitutional crisis, the Ukrainian government seems to be on pause and has yet to emerge from the gridlock. Alternating periods of tenuous quiet and spikes of scandal have been followed by a flurry of response and re-posturing; the debacle now appears to be a multi-headed monster over which no player has meaningful control. What began as a personal clash between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and President Viktor Yushchenko has spread to the legislature, the courts, and the security services, becoming more complicated and amorphous as it progresses.

Rounds One and Two: Conflict between Arch-Rivals, Instability in the Courts

The initial crisis began in April, when President Yushchenko announced that the parliament would be dissolved in response to unconstitutional poaching of individual members of parliament by his rival, Prime Minister Yanukovych. Yanukovych, correctly sensing that Yushchenko had overestimated his ability to push through his decree, refused to dissolve and rebutted with the accusation that it was the president who was violating the constitution. At this early juncture, Yanukovych came out ahead; he had openly defied the president and appeared the more reasonable by submitting the dispute to the courts.

The Constitutional Court appeared to be of little immediate help, however, as several justices withdrew, citing extensive pressure. Some returned, enabling a quorum, but the original quitting, in combination with tangent allegations of corruption and bribery contributed to an atmosphere of inertia and uncertainty. The waiting game provided both sides with time to attempt power plays, such as Yushchenko's firing of three justices associated with his rival. Supporters of both the prime minister and the president rallied outside the courthouse in an effort to ensure that their side remained visible.

Rounds Three and Four: Increasing Opacity, Threat of Violence and Resolution

In mid-May, the stand-off ballooned into a full-blown governmental crisis, as deeper disagreements regarding the proper division of authority between the branches of government bubbled to the surface. The government experienced multiple spasms in which individual MPs, justices, security force commanders and businessmen attempted to influence the outcome of the crisis, thereby exacerbating it. A real breakdown in the upper echelons become apparent, as individuals re-interpreted the constitution, became draconian rule enforcers, refused to follow orders, delayed implementation of agreements, stonewalled requests for information, launched accusations of foul play, resigned, were dismissed, and filed lawsuits. Digressing from the original issue, the crisis in these stages became distracted by secondary legal concerns, personal vendettas, power-plays by lower-level politicians, and shifting alliances.

The third and inchoate round began on May 17 when Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Ivan Dombrovsky resigned without providing a reason. His replacement, Valery Pshenichny, was one of the judges fired by the president earlier that month for alleged oath violations. His return to judgeship was a clear sign that the president's authority to fire judges, if de jure, is far from de facto, and, as Pshenichny is a supporter of Yanukovych, the move was a victory for the prime minister.

Tension increased more dramatically on May 24 when Yushchenko fired adversary and Yanukovych ally Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun on the grounds that Piskun could not simultaneously serve as an acting member of parliament and as the country's chief prosecutor. When Piskun refused to step down, security officers were sent to oust him, but they were met by riot police loyal to Yanukovych. In dramatic footage on Ukrainian television, Piskun was shown attempting to break into his sealed office, surrounded by both forces. He appealed to a Kiev district court, which he claimed ruled to reinstate him; however, the ruling could not be confirmed and a Yushchenko aide accused him of lying.

The Piskun affair led to the fourth and most precarious stage of the constitutional crisis yet. Two days after firing the prosecutor general, President Yushchenko took direct control of nearly 40,000 national guard troops and dispatched them to the capital. As the force is normally under the command of the interior minister, a Yanukovych supporter, this was seen as an effort by Yushchenko to consolidate command of the country's security forces, possibly in preparation for future hostilities. Troops loyal to Yanukovych responded by blocking the roadways, preventing approximately 3,500 Interior Ministry soldiers from entering the city.

Reportedly, none of the troops were carrying firearms, and no skirmishes resulted, but tension in the country was undoubtedly heightened by the display. Although the move was unmistakably provocative, Yushchenko insisted that he took the step only to guarantee calm in the city. The maneuvers revealed the divisions in the security forces between those loyal to the president and those loyal to the prime minister and were a warning to the country that the constitutional crisis was dangerously close to becoming militarized. Adding to the fragile mood, the interior minister reportedly suffered a heart attack shortly thereafter. In an effort to diffuse the tension and play the part of the peacemaker, both politicians responded with messages of calm and worked furtively into the Sunday morning hours to resolve the issue of the election date.

This stage of the crisis brought the business interests into the fray. One of Ukraine's wealthiest tycoons, Rinat Akhmetov (the owner of the Shakhtar Donetsk football club as well as an influential member of Yanukovych's party) is reported by MSNBC to have played a significant role in the negotiations. His holding company spokesman was quoted as saying that big business was frustrated by the crisis and that it needed stability from its politicians. Yanukovych, then, could be responding to concerns that his party, if it should be victorious in the upcoming elections, may choose not to select him as prime minister a second time. If big business backers of his party require stability, Yanukovych must become an icon of stability to retain his position.

This public step may be the door to a new era in Ukrainian post-USSR politics: the influence of big business on party and governmental policy. While this entry is likely to have both positive and negative consequences, much as it does worldwide, it is a sign that the domestic political sphere could be expanding beyond a few intractable politicians -- which could provide the stability that the government desperately needs.

On May 27, Yushchenko and Yanukovych appeared together at a football match in Kiev, stating that the impasse had been resolved with an election date set for September 30, and that previous hostilities should be left in the past. The announcement was a victory for both politicians, who badly needed to appear vital and in command after nearly two months of stalemate. A slight margin went to Yanukovych, who had pressed for later election dates, believing that the timing will benefit his bloc's performance, but the compromise reflected well on each one.

Round 5: Verkhovna Rada Creates Additional Logjams

Unfortunately, the cessation of hostilities provided only a temporary relief. The election date agreement between the two leaders was predicated on passage of legislation by the parliament, Verkhovna Rada, within two days. By May 31, the third day of stormy sessions, the parliament had failed to approve the necessary laws. Eager to appear reasonable after his bluster of firings, and wanting to extend the opportunity to resolve the crisis, President Yushchenko permitted the parliament to take more time.

Significantly, this episode revealed that the conflict was not simply between the president and the prime minister, but between the president and the parliament as well. It is unclear whether Yanukovych willingly deceived Yushchenko, making an agreement that he knew the parliament would refuse to pass, or if the prime minister had begun to lose control of his bloc. Regardless of intent, the grinding halt of their success was an embarrassment for both the president and the prime minister.

The compromise was given a new breath of life by the next day, when the parliament successfully passed the series of bills required for early elections. Buoyed by the resolution, President Yushchenko confidently made his third decree in two months regarding the election date. The joy was short lived, however: by June 13, MPs who had originally agreed to resign -- a precondition to holding elections -- had changed their mind. According to Article 82 of the constitution, the parliament is to be dissolved when the body shrinks to fewer than 300 deputies. Without MP resignations, all bets were again off.

It seems that after the anxiety cleared the air, many MPs had a change of heart, and their hesitation to sit re-election resurfaced. MPs have again made the point that if they are to sit through an election, then the president, who they accuse of igniting the crisis, should be obliged to do the same. Moreover, as the Constitutional Court has not been forthcoming with a verdict, MPs feel that they may be the sacrificial lambs to resolve the impasse between the feuding politicians. Perhaps, their thinking goes, there will be a resolution in the parliament's favor, and an election will prove to be unnecessary.

Additionally, the Verkhovna Rada head, Oleksandr Moroz, asserted on June 13 that the role of the Central Election Commission (C.E.C.) has been violated in this process, that protocol was not followed and that the dissolution cannot, at this time, take place. Additionally, in a blow to Yushchenko's willingness to set the election date later into autumn, Moroz declared that the president can only legally announce snap elections 60 days in advance. That same day, Prime Minister Yanukovych provided statements of support for Moroz, saying that the issue must be deferred to the C.E.C.

Yushchenko accused Moroz of sabotaging the resolution, and told journalists that in spite of yet another obstacle, that elections would in fact take place on September 30. He appealed to the MPs' sense of honor, stating that the political elite had an opportunity to regain their dignity. While further delays enhance negative impressions of both the president and prime minister by the public, in this instance, Yushchenko could be seen to come out ahead. The public witnessed him step out on a fragile limb to try and reach an agreement with his rival, and Yanukovych's backpedaling in support of Moroz will be seen as a betrayal at the effort toward resolution. This will not likely be enough to hurt Yanukovych's standing with his supporters, but it could rally those of Yushchenko, many of whom had been disillusioned with his progress for some time.


The past two and a half months have seen the longtime rivalry between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych boil over into a full governmental crisis complete with intrigue, sabotage, threats of violence and promises of reconciliation. However, the dispute has not passed a point of no return, and, although a ruling from the Constitutional Courts does not appear to be forthcoming, the country does not seem to have given up on its political institutions.

In general, the frustration continues to be focused on the impasse itself, but the feeling seems to be that it is resolvable. While both politicians and the parade of actors who have contributed to the most recent rounds of the crisis are certainly machinating behind the scenes to ensure their victory, they have limited themselves to delay tactics and posturing thus far.

Perhaps most importantly, this debacle has highlighted the weaknesses and strengths of Ukraine's political institutions, which have nearly all been compromised by the power struggle, but so far not completely undermined. If the current power struggle continues to play out on its current path, it may well turn out that the political institutions will emerge stronger, as the winners will move to more clearly define the powers and checks placed on the government's branches and agencies.

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