Ukrainian crisis: is there a way out of the deadlock?


MOSCOW. (Alexander Konovalov for RIA Novosti)

We will never know what former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had in mind in 2004 when he initiated an amendment to the country's Constitution shifting the balance of power from the president to the Supreme Rada, Ukraine's parliament, and making the formation of the government directly dependent on the alignment of forces in the Rada. What his intentions, the important thing is that the Ukrainian people were given the chance to become real players on the domestic political scene.

The origins of the crisis

But let's not idealize the Ukrainian model, all the more so since the 2004 constitutional reform was implemented in a rush. In a way, it actually made possible the current political crisis.

There are two views on how the latter started. The supporters of the coalition led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych declared that President Viktor Yushchenko violated the Constitution by dissolving the Rada. Indeed, Article 90 of the Ukrainian Constitution cites only three reasons for disbanding parliament before it serves its term. The president's opponents maintain that Yushchenko had none of these reasons, dubious as they are. The Constitution also says that the president can make a decision to dissolve parliament only after consultations with its speaker, his deputy, and leaders of the parliamentary representations of political parties. But it does not specify what these consultations should amount to: simple notification, a compromise, or consensus. Vague wordings that allow for various interpretations have provoked the current crisis.

The president's supporters have a completely different view of events. They believe that the crisis started not with the decree on the Rada's dissolution but much earlier - when 11 deputies left the Yulia Tymoshenko and Yushchenko parties to join the Yanukovych coalition. It is rumored that they were motivated more by financial considerations than a change in political views. In other words, they were paid. Moreover, the ruling parliamentary coalition announced that this was just the beginning, and that very soon defectors would increase the Yanukovych coalition to 300 or more deputies, and the prime minister would receive a constitutional majority in parliament. He would thereby be able to amend the Constitution, which would turn the president into a purely decorative figure. Under the circumstances, the president declared that the ruling coalition was trying to change the alignment of forces in the Rada by unconstitutional methods, thereby distorting the results of the parliamentary elections. He said that he had no other choice but to dissolve the Rada and call early elections.

It goes without saying that the causes of the crisis are not limited to these political and legal reasons. Standing behind the conflicting groups are serious economic interests because business in Ukraine has a direct influence on politics. There is another factor at work: politically Ukraine is so divided along regional lines on many key issues that there are doubts that it will remain a unitary state. Its future will probably involve significant federalism.

Last but not least, the personal traits of Ukrainian political leaders are also playing a major role in the current events. The real driving force behind the crisis is neither President Yushchenko, nor Prime Minister Yanukovych, but Yulia Tymoshenko and her supporters in parliament. Tymoshenko is certainly Ukraine's strongest politician. She has indomitable energy and a striving for power. She is already preparing for new parliamentary elections, and she has signed an agreement with Yushchenko's party, Our Ukraine, on the distribution of seats in the future government depending on the results of elections to parliament. Needless to say, she will not settle for less than the job of prime minister. However, now it is important to get out of the deadlock without breaking the law and provoking a power confrontation.

Who will referee the conflict?

It is encouraging that in spite of all the rallies on the streets of Kiev, political leaders went to the Constitutional Court to resolve the dispute. Moreover, both sides promised to obey its ruling, whatever it may be. But the court may not be of great help. Immediately upon receiving the inquiry into the legitimacy of the presidential decree to dissolve the Rada, the court's chairman, Ivan Dombrovsky, resigned because he said he could not work under pressure. The president did not accept his resignation, but several days later five of the 18 members of the Constitutional Court refused to deal with the inquiry for the same reason.

They published a statement saying that many politicians had already called the president's decree on the Rada unconstitutional, even though this was the prerogative of the Constitutional Court. Moreover, these five judges demanded protection by government guards. The court consists of three groups of six judges - one appointed by the president, another by parliament, and the third by the national congress of judges. The five judges who complained of pressure were all from the president's list. It looks like the court is trying to avoid being a referee in this conflict. In the last eight months it has not made a single decision or replied to a single inquiry on constitutional problems. For the time being, the hearings have been suspended until April 17, although it is clear that the situation in the country leaves no room for any arbitrary delays.

The situation in defense and law-enforcement agencies is very complicated. The defense minister stated publicly that he would only support the Supreme Commander, that is, Yushchenko. The heads of security agencies and the Ministry of Internal Affairs backed the government and parliament. An attempt to involve these agencies in the conflict is bound to result in a confrontation between the army and the police and interior troops. Judging by the circumstances, nobody is going to risk that.

Finally, there are calls to impeach the president for his unconstitutional decree. That road leads nowhere. First, there are not enough grounds for such a measure, and second, the laws required to do so still have not been passed, for instance, a law on special prosecutors.

Is there a way out of the deadlock?

Today, everyone wants to know whether it is possible to avoid the use of force in settling the crisis in Ukraine. There is a risk of military involvement, but it is not very great. There are a number of factors in favor of a peaceful settlement of the crisis, although it may take more time than we would like. The most important factor is the Ukrainian mentality and its tradition of settling disputes. The second factor is directly linked to the first one: accumulated parliamentary experience. The Rada's low threshold (3%) allows rather small political parties to get in, and decision-making requires a search for compromise between groups with quite different political views. The ability to negotiate instead of imposing one's views on others is a very important quality of the Ukrainian political elite. The interests of business groups are also influencing Ukrainian policy. Let's not forget that there are concrete business interests behind practically every political party. This fact has its pluses and minuses, but what matters here is that the business community has no stake in the country's complete political destabilization or disintegration.

The above factors do not guarantee the peaceful and smooth operation of the democratic process. Any Ukrainian leader will have to consider the gap in views between the eastern and western regions on many key issues, as well as rampant corruption, the boundless striving for power of politicians like Yulia Tymoshenko, and the willingness of such politicians to seize power whatever the cost. Under the right circumstances, all these things and many others could prevail and push the country into a power struggle.

There are still many opportunities to avoid such a scenario. Many Ukrainian analysts believe that it will not be possible to avoid early parliamentary elections. It would be best if the warring sides went back to where they started. The president could annul his decree dissolving the Rada; the government coalition could cancel all the laws that it passed during this period, first and foremost, the law on the cabinet that limits the president's powers; the dates for early elections could be fixed, and work on improving the Constitution could continue in order to rule out a repetition of the current crisis.

Alexander Konovalov is president of the Institute of Strategic Assessments.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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