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Dateline Ukraine: The Yushchenko-Yanukovich-Tymoshenko Tango

Is Ukraine’s budding democracy in peril — just two years after the Orange Revolution?

April 18, 2007

Is Ukraine's budding democracy in peril — just two years after the Orange Revolution?

Just one year after parliamentary elections that brought Viktor Yanukovich and his Regions party back to power, Ukraine is engulfed in yet another political crisis. President Viktor Yushchenko has issued a decree to dissolve parliament, which deputies from the Regions party are currently challenging in Ukraine's Constitutional Court.

Prime Minister Yanukovich's "anti-crisis" coalition, uniting Socialists and Communists with his Regions party, established a government with a majority 240 of 450 seats in parliament.

The ruling coalition has since been luring deputies from the opposition to their side, with the stated aim of attaining an absolute majority that would give parliament the power to override presidential vetoes, impeach the president and amend the constitution.

A March 13, 2007 joint statement that initiated a boycott of parliamentary sessions by the opposition, comprising Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party and Yulia Tymoshenko's opposition bloc, referred to "a possible creation, by coercion and graft, of a 300-strong constitutional majority in the Verkhovna Rada [Ukraine's parliament] by the present ruling coalition."

Tymoshenko has accused the ruling coalition of offering deputies from her party $5 million to cross the floor. On March 23, eleven deputies from the opposition defected to the ruling coalition.

On April 2, Yushchenko issued his decree to dissolve parliament, citing, among other factors, "the unconstitutional process to form and expand the parliamentary coalition." Yanukovich declared that the president's decree "is aimed at usurping the power."

In parliament, 257 deputies voted to demand the president cancel his decree, and a group of 53 deputies submitted to the Constitutional Court a request to rule on the decree's constitutionality. The next day, Yanukovich stated his refusal to respect the president's decree until the court ruled on it, and the Cabinet of Ministers forbade the Finance Ministry to allocate funds for a new election.

262 parliamentary deputies voted to restore the previous members of the Central Election Commission from the presidential elections of 2004, headed by Serhiy Kivalov, who presided over the voter fraud that preceded the Orange Revolution.

In a foreboding sign of the frailty of Ukraine's democracy, on April 4, the Chairman of Ukraine's Constitutional Court, Ivan Dombrovskiy — who was appointed by Yushchenko under the presidential quota for judges — submitted a letter of resignation that was refused by his colleagues on the court.

On April 10th, five Constitutional Court judges who are considered to be Yushchenko loyalists, citing pressure from undisclosed political groups, requested protection for their personal security.

On April 10, U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law an act of Congress supporting the prospective membership of Ukraine, Georgia, Croatia, Macedonia and Albania to the NATO alliance. Just a few weeks before Yushchenko issued his decree to dissolve parliament, a U.S. delegation from the Pentagon met with Ukrainian officials in Kiev to discuss plans to expand the U.S. ballistic missile defense system into Poland and the Czech Republic.

Four activists from the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine interrupted a press conference with the U.S. delegation by unfurling an anti-NATO banner. U.S. Ambassador William Taylor took the provocation in stride: He grinned and commented on how Ukraine has such a vibrant democracy.

Kremlin officials surely do not share the U.S. ambassador's sense of humor. While Russian President Vladimir Putin acceded to the membership of the Baltic States in NATO, Ukraine's membership would represent a further encroachment into the former Soviet sphere.

Most critically, it would represent an important stepping-stone for Ukraine toward Europe, by embracing transatlantic values of democratic processes, an open civil society and free markets.

Yet to reduce the current Yushchenko-Yanukovich standoff to a tug-of-war between Europe and Russia would in itself be a gross oversimplification. Both politicians have demonstrated a capacity to embrace democratic principles — and to stray from such principles as well.

Yushchenko rose to the presidency as the hero of the Orange Revolution, surviving a lethal dioxin poisoning and ensuring that democracy would prevail over election fraud. Yet after dismissing Tymoshenko's government just nine months after taking office, he granted amnesty to the perpetrators of the election fraud to secure the support of his nominee for prime minister by Yanukovich's Regions party.

While Yushchenko has guaranteed newfound freedoms for Ukraine's press, political crimes, such as the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze and his own dioxin poisoning, remain unsolved. Accusations of corruption in the president's inner circle have also been leveled during Yushchenko's presidency, in particular by Oleksandr Zinchenko, the former head of the Presidential Secretariat.

Yanukovich became the culprit of the Orange Revolution when Ukraine's Supreme Court ruled that election fraud had been perpetrated on his behalf. But in the parliamentary elections one year later, he retained a team of U.S. political consultants, rolled up his sleeves, and took his message to the people. Yanukovich's Regions party led the voting in what Yushchenko himself described as Ukraine's freest and fairest elections ever.

Russia's ongoing influence in Ukraine may ultimately have more to do with gas prices than whether a government representing the Regions party or an "Orange coalition" prevails in the current political standoff. This year, Ukraine expects to import 56 billion cubic meters of natural gas through Russia, nearly three-quarters of its annual consumption.

At a price of $130 per thousand cubic meters (kcm), Russia offers an effective subsidy of about $120 per kcm with respect to European gas prices, for a total subsidy of $6.7 billion in 2007 alone. The world has to wonder: What quid pro quo does Russia demand for a subsidy of such magnitude?

With his popularity having steadily declined to single figures, Yushchenko is in a lose-lose situation: calling elections was his sole recourse to stop the hemorrhaging of deputies to the ruling coalition, yet new elections would likely leave his Our Ukraine party even more marginalized in parliament.

Yanukovich's Regions Party could expect as strong a result as in the parliamentary elections a year ago, but he could not necessarily expect to pick up seats that he gained through defections since then. His coalition may even lose its Socialist partners if they do not surpass the 3% threshold.

If the accusations of "corruption and graft" that have been leveled by the opposition are legitimate, Yanukovich and his backers could also lose any "investments" that were sunk into luring deputies to their side.

As leader of the opposition, Tymoshenko could emerge as the real winner of new elections. At a minimum, elections would forestall further defections from her party, while allowing her to cleanse her party list of those who have crossed sides. New elections could even accord her the possibility to regain the premiership and lead a new government, while positioning her for a run for the presidency in 2009.

More critical than how the political cards may be redistributed through new elections is whether they will be redistributed in the first place — or whether Yanukovich's Regions party will just continue undeterred on its course toward an absolute majority.