So far, the Bush administration has adopted a prudent course of action vis-à-vis the unfolding political crisis in Ukraine. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack reiterated: “[O]ur view is that any political questions in Ukraine need to be resolved by the Ukraine Government and in accordance with their laws and their constitution.”
Two hundred sixty two deputies of the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) have asked the Ukrainian constitutional court there to assess whether or not President Viktor Yushchenko’s decree dissolving the legislature and calling for elections is constitutional or not with a request for the court to provide a ruling within a week. (As of the time of writing the court had not yet indicated it would even hear the case.)
The crisis was triggered by the ongoing defection of parliamentary deputies from the parties which once formed the “Orange Coalition” to join the coalition of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. The last straw for Yushchenko was the departure of his former national-security adviser Anatoliy Kinakh and ten other deputies from the “Our Ukraine” grouping to Yanukovych’s team, putting Yanukovych within striking distance of having a supermajority within the Rada that could not only override presidential vetoes but also be in a position to amend the constitution (and so be able to turn the presidency into a largely ceremonial office, stripping Yushchenko of any remaining real authority).
There is a serious issue at stake — whether or not a deputy elected as part of one party has the right to individually change his affiliation. Unlike in the United States, where a member of Congress can change parties without having to immediately receive a new mandate from the voters, on the grounds that we vote for people, not parties — the working assumption in Ukraine is that a voter cast a ballot for a bloc and only secondarily for a specific individual. Yushchenko claims that the recent defections — as well as ongoing allegations that deputies have been bribed to support the Yanukovych government — give him sufficient authority to dissolve the Rada and call for new elections — but the constitutional provisions are vague on this front. It is not clear at all whether the constitutional court will support the president — and allegations have already begun to circulate that some justices are prepared to sell their votes to the highest bidder.
The best solution would be for the court to hear the case and make a ruling and for all parties to abide by it. However, President Bush is going to come under increasing pressure to give Yushchenko a “blank check” to act, especially if the court does not back the decree of dissolution. He should resist that temptation.
Conservatives who draw inspiration from Edmund Burke place an emphasis on upholding process and procedure even when the results are flawed and corruption is present in the system because it is all too easy for today’s exception to become tomorrow’s precedent. Gary Kasparov’s point in this week’s issue of Time — that Russia’s liberals (and those on the outside who saw Boris Yeltsin as the embodiment of freedom and democracy) who turned a blind eye to the violation of norms and procedures because all that mattered was the end goal of “reform” paved the way for Russia’s current electoral autocracy — is a useful warning.
We also need to be leery about overstating the appeal of even a reunified “Orange Coalition” or assuming that dismissal of one troublesome and problematic legislature will automatically clear the way for something better (it didn’t in Russia in 1993). I remember hearing confident predictions in 2004 that Yushchenko would win more than 75 percent of the vote in a free and fair election (he got 54 percent). Today, some analysts fall into the same trap that bedeviled so many observers of Iran’s presidential elections who couldn’t understand how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won when so many reform candidates had run in the first round. They made the mistake of assuming that support for disparate reform elements would translate into an overwhelming majority. Even if the court does approve the dissolution and new elections are held in May, most analysts I have read still predict that, in the end, Viktor Yanukovych would still end up as prime minister because his party, along with his coalition partners, are projected, based on current poll numbers, to still end up with a slight majority of seats.
Ukraine’s divisions are deep. There is no getting around the numbers. There remains a strong Russophile constituency in the country, particularly in the south and east. (One of the most dramatic indications of this is that, 15 years after the creation of a independent Kyiv Patriarchate, the majority of Orthodox congregations in Ukraine continue to be affiliated to the Moscow-based branch of the Orthodox Church.) No more than 22 percent of Ukrainians support membership in NATO. There are a number of vested economic interests who in turn are connected to some segments of the middle class which have benefited from Yanukovych’s stewardship of the economy — growth is now projected at eight percent. And as I have consistently argued in these pages for the last three years, this situation can only be changed if the United States and Europe are prepared to make the massive investment that would be needed to fundamentally reorient Ukraine (and also pay the costs — including the impact on relations with Russia). Absent that commitment, Ukraine will continue to languish as the “borderland” between the West and Eurasia.
There seems to be an unwillingness to recognize these facts. The inability of the Orange team to win a convincing national victory is explained away by pointing to evidence of corruption, or that the voters must be brainwashed or misinformed. Many here in Washington don’t want to see any non-Orange politician as having any legitimate claim to represent the Ukrainian people. But unless we plan to adopt a Catch-22 proposal to give the Ukrainians we like “extra votes,” any commitment we have to majoritarian democracy must accept these realities. Our long-term interests are best served by the emergence of a truly nation-wide consensus in Ukraine about the country’s future evolution.