Ukraine was plunged into yet another political crisis in early April, but few
news sources have had the time or patience for anything more than an occasional
Since the heady days of the "color revolution" and the year of political
turmoil that followed, the rest of the world can be forgiven for having lost
track of the endless twists, turns and dead ends of Ukrainian politics. But as
the date for a possible new election approaches, it is well worth sorting out
On April 2, President Viktor Yushchenko issued a presidential decree to
dissolve the country's legislature, the Verkhovna Rada (VR). He set May 27 as
the date for a new parliamentary election.
The VR and cabinet of ministers immediately rejected the presidential decree,
which they deemed "unconstitutional".
The parliament also demanded that the constitutional court rule on the
legitimacy of the presidential decree. The president and prime minister reached
a tentative compromise on May 4 agreeing to hold early elections, but they have
yet to decide on a specific date.
Ukraine's constitutional court is still deliberating over the legitimacy of
the presidential decree. The country's political turmoil seems set to continue.
Ukraine has experienced three major political crises since the 2004 color
revolution, all resulting from power struggles at the highest level.
Three major forces are currently fighting one another in the country's
political arena. The Party of Regions (PoR) headed by current Prime Minister
Viktor Yanukovych, has its main base in industry-heavy eastern Ukraine and is
known for its pro-Russia political lineage.
Its two major rivals are former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's namesake
Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (YTB), which is unflinchingly pro-US (West), and President
Yushchenko's Our Ukraine Party (OUP). Both YTB and OUP get their support from
western Ukraine. OUP walks a somewhat middle path between PoR and YTB.
There are a few other parties, including the Socialist Party of Ukraine, led
by VR Chairman Oleksander Moroz, the People's Party of Ukraine, and the
Communist Party, all pursued by the three heavyweights as potential allies.
In October 2004, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and
brought the presidential election to a dramatic conclusion. Early favorite
Yanukovych was unexpectedly defeated by Yushchenko in the second round.
The country's political scene caught world attention with the series of
conflicts and confrontations that followed. In September 2005, Yushchenko
disbanded the cabinet of ministers headed by ambitious former ally Prime
Minister Tymoshenko in order to shore up his presidential authority.
In the parliamentary elections of March 2006, the Party of Regions emerged on
top, resulting in a new legislature without a chairman for more than 100 days.
The country reeled in confusion for more than four months without a government,
until the PoR, Socialist Party, Communist Party and OUP signed the Declaration
of National Unity and reappointed Yanukovych as prime minister.
Then, according to President Yushchenko's promise to the people, the country
began the transformation from the president-parliament system to
parliament-president system, which puts the prime minister in the political
spotlight. This change triggered a fresh round of power struggles among the
president, parliament and government. The conflicts continue.
The adoption of the parliament-president system left President Yushchenko
with only the power to nominate the foreign and defense ministers plus veto
power over legislative decisions.
After the parliament passed the Cabinet Law by overriding a presidential
veto, the fight between the president and cabinet was focused on the power to
appoint regional government leaders.
The parliamentary majority, consisting of the Regions, Socialist and
Communist parties, tried to further weaken the president's power as VR Chairman
Moroz claimed he would expand the VR majority to 300 deputies.
With the total number of seats standing at 450, the VR majority would be able
to amend the Constitution, fire the president and override his veto if it had
Under the circumstances, President Yushchenko signed a decree to dissolve the
less than year-old parliament with the excuse that "it is unconstitutional for
some lawmakers to quit their parties to join the parliamentary majority as
The New York Times commented afterwards that when President Yushchenko
dissolved the parliament on April 2, the fragile power-sharing deal within the
The precarious political situation in Ukraine can be traced back to very
In 1645, Ukraine's eastern region formed an alliance with Russia to become
part of the Russian empire and later of the Soviet Union.
For centuries the western half of Ukraine was under the rule of the Grand
Duchy of Lithuania and Poland till it joined the Soviet Union after World War
Eastern Ukraine is mostly populated by ethnic Russians, who are Eastern
Orthodox, while Christian Ukrainians are the majority in the western region.
Thus, the nation has long been divided into east-west blocs.
In terms of geography, Ukraine borders Russia to the north and east; Poland,
Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova to the southwest and west; and the Black
Sea and Sea of Azov to the south with Turkey on the other shore.
Its location makes Ukraine a buffer between NATO and Russia. NATO has been
trying to turn Ukraine into one of its own, while Russia does its best to keep
Ukraine as a barricade against NATO's eastward expansion.
Both Russia and the United States responded swiftly when President Yushchenko
dissolved the Ukrainian parliament. The Russian Duma (parliament) issued a
statement accusing Yushchenko of violating the country's constitution, while the
US State Department called on the leaders of Ukraine's political parties to
Both powers pleaded with the Ukrainians to solve their problems peacefully.
As The New York Times pointed out at that time, Ukraine's political turmoil
reflects the conflict between the West-leaning president and pro-Russia prime
The country has to depend on the US without upsetting Russia. For this reason
Yushchenko is playing two hands. He has reiterated that Ukraine is still
pursuing the goal of integration into NATO and the European Union and promised
that talks on Ukraine's joining NATO and establishing a free trade zone with EU
will proceed as scheduled.
On the other hand, he has repeatedly emphasized that Ukraine attaches great
importance to its ties with Russia and will actively cooperate with Russia,
Byelorussia and Kazakhstan within the framework of the United Economic Space and
respect the interests of its giant neighbor Russia.
Needless to say both the US and Russia are sparing no effort to get Ukraine
to head in the direction that serves their interests.
Currently, with the political stalemate yet to be broken, the development of
the situation in Ukraine will be determined by the following factors:
First, people have grown tired of elections. According to Ukrainian media
reports, the great majority of Ukrainians have lost much of their political
enthusiasm after two turbulent years.
Some political organizations have resorted to offering people 50 to 100
hryvnia (about $5 to $10) a day to join marches and rallies. The latest opinion
polls indicate more than half of the Ukrainians are opposed to early elections.
Many of them are worried early elections might ruin Ukraine's efforts to join
the World Trade Organization.
Second, all political parties have to weigh the pros and cons of competing in
the power game. Recent opinion surveys show that support for the pro-president
OUP is very low and the possibility of the president reaching a compromise with
the parliament cannot be ruled out.
Meanwhile, US and Russian media maintain that the Tymoshenko Bloc could win
more seats in parliament than other parties if an early election is held. The
PoR and OUP cannot afford to overlook this possibility.
Third is the economy. The country's annual economic growth averaged 10 to 11
percent during the administration of former President Kuchma. It has slowed to
merely 3 percent since Yushchenko took over, with 10 percent of the population
watching their standard of living sink below that of the Soviet era.
A re-election requires a huge amount of money, which is not included in the
2007 state budget. Even if money were available, the cabinet, which reports to
the parliament, would not dare to spend it on the re-election.
Fourth is the diminished intervention by outside forces. Earlier, the US
pushed for Ukraine to join NATO, but it is now reluctant to do so because the
country cannot be expected to meet the necessary conditions.
In his telephone conversation with Yushchenko on April 6, Russian President
Vladimir Putin emphatically told his Ukrainian counterpart he sincerely wished
for Ukraine to return to normal and all parties concerned help end the crisis
through political consultation.
Ukraine stands to lose a lot in terms of national development as long as the
political turmoil persists. The only way out is to stabilize the political
situation, which is easier said than done.
The author is a senior researcher with the Beijing-based Research Center of
(China Daily 05/16/2007 page11)