From color revolution to Ukraine political blues

By YU SUI (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-05-16 07:03

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 headline.

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 the complexities.

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 300 votes.

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 independents."

The New York Times commented afterwards that when President Yushchenko dissolved the parliament on April 2, the fragile power-sharing deal within the government collapsed.

The precarious political situation in Ukraine can be traced back to very complicated origins.

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 II.

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 remain calm.

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 minister.

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 Contemporary World

(China Daily 05/16/2007 page11)

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