Yushchenko’s Gamble

News Abroad

Dr. Umland is editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society.”

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s recent decision to dissolve the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, is so risky a step that it may threaten the integrity of his political legacy. Contrary to the tenor of current heated discussions about the legal quality of Yushchenko’s decree, the main question about his decision is not a juridicial, but a political one: Yushchenko can, arguably, not win the fight into which, oddly, he got himself. Not only might the Constitutional Court strike down his decree as unconstitutional which would leave his reputation fundamentally tainted. Yushchenko has created a political condition in which provides his political opponents with an opportunity to choose from a variety of possible counter-strategies. Moreover, he has plunged the country into a process the results of which are impossible to predict, and might get out of control. In a hubris similar to Yeltsin’s in 1993, Yushchenko and his entourage seem to think that they have, finally, put themselves into the saddle when, in fact, they have created a fragile situation which may well turn against them.

This move is merely another addition to a series of awkward performances by Yushchenko’s team since the Orange Revolution: the break-up of the first Orange Coalition of 2005, the embarrassing results of the “Nasha Ukraina” (Our Ukraine) bloc in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and the failure to form a functional second Orange Coalition in their aftermath. Oddly, a major protagonist, in all three of these major bungles, was Petro Poroshenko, a prominent “oligarch,” godfather of Yushchenko’s children, and one of the most disliked public figures of Ukraine.

In 2005, Poroshenko drove Timoshenko out of the government with his attempts to transfer governmental prerogatives to the Security Council which Poroshenko was then briefly heading. During the electoral campaign of early 2006, Poroshenko was a major public face of “Nasha Ukraina” making, among others, regular (and often bizarre) appearances on ICTV’s popular political talk show “Svoboda slova” (Free Speech). After the poor showing of “Nasha Ukraine” in the March elections, it was “Nasha Ukraina’s” insistence that not the well-respected Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, but the widely abhorred Poroshenko should become Head of the Presidium of the Verkhovna Rada. With reference to the infeasibility of a second cohabitation of Timoshenko as Prime Minister with Poroshenko as Rada Speaker, the disillusioned Moroz switched sides, and the second Orange Coalition fell apart before even having formed a government.

What Yushchenko and Co. are unable to accept is that, after these and a number of other lapses, it is, in some ways, natural that they have recently been loosing power to their political opponents. Like the market punishes companies when their strategies do not fit current economic conditions, politics is a game where, often, not the “bad guys” but the weaker organizers and less effective campaigners loose. By now wanting to cut out their previous blunders with one great strike – new elections – Yushchenko’s team is making the Ukrainian state a hostage of its own incapacity and is risking the break-up of the country.

It seems less important how the Constitutional Court will assess Yushchenko’s decree, and more relevant how the people will react to his proposal to have new elections. What happens, one asks oneself, if the elections will – in Yushchenko’s best-case scenario – really happen? Ukraine’s exceptionally low 3%-barrier makes many combinations possible that are difficult to foresee. The elections may create an even less advantageous situation for the Orange factions in the Rada than the current correlation of forces. One is reminded of Russia’s December 1993 State Duma elections after Yeltsin had dissolved the Supreme Soviet three months before. It was Zhirinovskii’s triumph in these elections that created the political atmosphere within which Moscow decided one year later to intervene in Chechnya. In turn, the Kremlin’s Chechnya adventure in combination with the new 1993 constitution have been the two factors that helped most to undermine post-Soviet Russia’s nascent democracy, and prepared the ground for Putin’s recent perversion of Russia’s public sphere. While the current Ukrainian situation is very different from Russia’s in 1993, the recent course of events in Russia illustrates what an eventually miscalculated act the democratic camp’s 1993 gamble, in particular, was, and what unexpected results radical political steps in transition societies may, in general, have.

In Ukraine, the socio-cultural context for Yushchenko’s move is, one might argue, even more complicated than in Russia: What happens if large numbers of voters in Eastern and Southern Ukraine – whether encouraged by Yanukovich and Simonenko, or not – fail to show up at the parliamentary elections on May 27, 2007? The Western oblasts will, to be sure, take part in large numbers in such elections. Perhaps, as a result of such an imbalance, Timoshenko’s bloc could receive an absolute majority in the elections. But what would a parliament where the russophone regions bordering with Russia are heavily underrepresented mean for the future of the Ukrainian state? Crimean politicians have voiced some of the most aggressive critiques of Yushchenko’s move during the last days. What happens if the Crimean parliament decides to leave Ukraine and declares itself a part of Russia, as a result of Yushchenko’s unpopular move?

In view of these scenarios, Yushchenko and his team are, one suspects, merely bluffing, and not seriously expecting that the elections will actually take place. Whether that is the case or not: They are playing with fire. The results of their previous operations make one wonder how well they will play this game. It is not even clear whether they comprehend how high the stakes are.

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Arnold Shcherban - 4/9/2007

What Yeltsin and his "team", as well, as Yushchenko and his friends, such as Poroshenko, did were not "mistakes" or political miscalcalutions, but deliberate acts to subvert the fledgling democracy in
favor of oligarchic pseudo-democracy, essentially, selling the democracy in exchange for political power. That's what the FACTS tell any
unbiased historian and that's the main reason those two became so unpopular (among the majority of the populus) in their respective countries with the time. Let's call the spades the spades, shall we?