Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko stood side-by-side in the snow and cold last November and December as tens of thousands of brave Ukrainians stood down the then-incumbent government’s attempt to steal the presidential election in which Yushchenko was rightfully elected.
However, today they no longer stand side-by-side in the government of Ukraine’s dual-executive structure. Today, President Yushchenko fired Tymoshenko from her post as Prime Minister. Under Ukraine’s constitution, this means the entire cabinet must resign. As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty put it, Ukraine is in a deepening political crisis.
The president’s move comes amidst a hail of accusations and resignations over corruption at the highest levels of power, as the parliament opens its last session to be held under the current configuration of executive-legislative relations, and as politicians jockey for position ahead of parliamentary elections in March.
The current parliament was elected in 2002, well before the fraud of last fall awakened the Ukrainian masses to stand up to what by all accounts has been a highly corrupt and conspiratorial political system since shortly after independence in 1991.
The third major figure of the top levels of Ukraine’s political system, parliament speaker Volodomyr Lytvyn (once the chief of staff for Leonid Kuchma, who was president when the electoral fraud was perpetrated) opened parliament’s session with a blistering attack on the government and alleged corruption within it.
It seems we are doing everything in a new way, but most things are just like they were during Kuchma’s regime.
(The cynic might note that he should know.)
The firing of the PM was apparently a surprise, as the Kyiv Post had carried another AP story only an hour before noting that the resignation this morning of the head of the Security and Defense Council, Petro Poroshenko,
…suggests that Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, with whom he regularly feuded, is likely safe in her job, along with most of the Cabinet.
Poroshenko had been the target of many of the corruption allegations, including some statements made by Yushchenko’s chief of staff, Oleskander Zinchencko, upon his own resignation Saturday.
Earlier in the day today, the deputy prime minister for humanitarian affairs, Mykola Tomenko, also had resigned, stating:
I have realized that some people steal and others resign. I don’t want to bear common responsibility for people who have created a corrupt system.
It has been an eventful and crisis-ridden few days in Ukraine.
The backdrop of all this is the re-sorting of political alliances at the midpoint between the Orange Revolution and the upcoming elections. Many of the leaders of the revolution against Kuchma’s attempts to install his handpicked successor have become sharply critical of what they see as a government drifting away from the heady promises of a New Ukraine. The economy has not opened and grown as fast as expected, and the US State Department on July 27 had criticized Tymoshenko for slow progress on essential market reforms. Legislation to permit Ukraine’s entry into the World Trade Organization has lagged, and there are fears among reformers that Russia could get into the WTO first and then impose new conditions on the entry of its erstwhile partner, Ukraine.
The elections in March are absolutely crucial to the direction of the country, because constitutional changes that were part of the package of reforms that allowed for the re-run of last fall’s presidential election will eliminate the current power of the president to initiate the appointment of the prime minister.
These reforms are not always reported properly in the media, including, surpsingly, one of the stories in the Kyiv Post today (which is actually an AP story):
The reforms will hand many presidential powers to parliament, which will be given the right to approve candidates for the prime minister’s job as well as other key positions, such as the defense and foreign ministers.
This is quite misleading, as current constitutional provisions already require parliamentary consent to the president’s nominee for prime minister. As we saw this morning, the constitution also currently allows the president to fire the prime minister; it also allows parliament to oust a cabinet in a vote of no-confidence (with some limitations).
But the new provisions that are about to take effect, mandate that it will now be the parliamentary majority that initiates the appointment of a prime minister (with the president apparently having no ability to reject parliament’s choice); the new provisions also strip the president of the right to dismiss the prime minister (or any member of the cabinet).
The only cabinet posts over which the president will retain iniative are the defense and foreign ministers, but these will have to be ratified by parliament. The prime minister and the entire cabinet will serve at the exclusive pleasure of the parliamentary majority.
Ukraine is currently and will remain a semi-presidential system, but the president is about to lose almost all his formal powers over the composition of cabinets (except for the two posts mentioned).
That is why the elections in March are even more critical than they would have been without the reforms. They will be the first test of the power of the various players in the Orange Revolution: Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, and Lytvyn (the latter of whom changed sides rather opportunistically last fall).* The elections will be held under a new system of national party-based proportional representation (the single-member districts, from which half of parliament’s current members were elected, having been abolished), and whoever organizes the majority in parliament will determine the government’s direction.
The charges, counter-charges, resignations and firings of the past few days have complicated, if not ruled out, the possibility of a grand alliance between the “parties” of Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, and Lytvyn, which might have formed a pre-election coalition capable of winning a majority outright. Other than the Communists and a few smaller organizations, there are hardly parties in Ukraine in any meaningful sense. If the pro-reform forces go into the March elections separately, it will mean that post-election horse-trading, rather than any clearly expressed mandate of the voters, will be the dominant factor in determining who governs.
The Orange Revlution and all its promise is very much at stake.
* Late growth flush: I should also have mentioned the Socialist Party of Oleksander Moroz as a member of the Orange coalition. Moroz contested the first round of the 2004 presidential election separately, but later joined Yushchenko and Tymoshenko in creating a governing coalition.