Political crisis threatens fragile democracy in Ukraine

Alex Rodriguez
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

KIEV, Ukraine - Amid a sea of orange flags and banners crammed into a small downtown roundabout, Vyacheslav Kireichuk angrily jabs his finger toward Independence Square about 200 yards away. There, thousands of opponents of President Viktor Yushchenko have seized what Kireichuk regards as sacred ground - the place where the Ukrainian democracy movement known as the Orange Revolution all began.

They have hunkered down in canvas tents in and around the square, just as Kireichuk and thousands of other Orange revolutionaries did in the frigid winter of 2004. And they have been dancing in the plaza day after day, just as Kireichuk's compatriots did.

The Maidan, as Ukrainians call Independence Square, "is where I stood for so many days in the snow for the sake of the revolution," Kireichuk says, spying legions of countrymen draped in the opposition's color, sky blue. "Looking over to the Maidan today, I feel as if this place has been corrupted."

In the topsy-turvy world of Ukrainian politics, about the only thing anyone agrees on these days is that their country is in the throes of another political crisis - the latest in a series of crises that have dogged Yushchenko's presidency ever since the Orange Revolution launched him into power.

The latest imbroglio, however, is by far the country's worst since the revolution, pitting Yushchenko on one side against Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and parliament on the other, with the country's constitution hanging in the balance.

And for every Orange devotee like Kireichuk, you'll find a sky blue-clad loyalist of Yanukovych who says it's Yushchenko, the Orange movement's leader, who has made a mess of Ukraine's politics and economy.

After seeing his presidential powers steadily eroded by Ukraine's Yanukovych-led legislature, Yushchenko on April 2 decided to fight back by ordering the dissolution of parliament. He said new parliamentary elections would be held May 27, just 14 months after Ukrainians elected the current parliament.

Yushchenko and Yanukovych had been at loggerheads since Yanukovych's Party of Regions won the largest share of votes in the March 2006 parliament election. For Yushchenko, however, the last straw came with the defection of 11 lawmakers from Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party and Orange ally Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc over to Yanukovych's ruling coalition.

The defections gave Yanukovych 260 lawmakers in the 450-seat parliament, drawing him closer to the 300-vote supermajority he would need to override any Yushchenko veto.

Yanukovych and his allies have refused to abide by Yushchenko's decree and have continued to work in parliament. They also have bused thousands of Ukrainians from Yanukovych's support base in the east and south to Kiev's Independence Square to demonstrate daily against Yushchenko's decision.

The impasse has been put in the hands of Ukraine's Constitutional Court, which is expected to begin discussing the legality of Yushchenko's decree April 17. They were scheduled to begin their work this week, but hearings were postponed after five of the court's judges complained they were being pressured by Yanukovych's allies.

For many Ukrainians, the latest political row has left them deeply disillusioned about the value of the Orange Revolution, a milestone that was supposed to mark an end to years of post-Soviet corruption and political chicanery.

Instead, Ukrainians have anxiously watched as Yushchenko's presidency has reeled from one crisis to the next. Yushchenko's partnership with Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc broke down long ago. Corruption allegations have brought down other key members of Yushchenko's circle. In the March 26, 2006, parliament election that resurrected Yanukovych's place in Ukrainian politics, Yushchenko's party finished a distant third.

"Right now, the overriding sentiment in Ukraine is one of lost opportunity," says Volodymyr Polokhalo, a Kiev-based political analyst. "After the revolution, Yushchenko had a chance to make so many changes and reforms to improve politics, the economy, the judicial system. But he didn't do it."

So far, Yushchenko has refused to back down, though on Thursday he said he would be willing to postpone the holding of early parliament elections to ease the crisis. "This is a political crisis, and politicians must use their best skills to make sure that this conflict is resolved by political means," Yushchenko said at a news conference in Kiev. "This is the best way."

Yanukovych says he won't agree to early parliament elections unless they are accompanied by an early presidential election, a contest Yanukovych's allies believe their leader is in an ideal position to win.

The standoff is being eyed closely by the West, which regards Yushchenko as a pivotal ally wedged between the European Union's easternmost border and Russia. Yushchenko has been actively pursuing Ukraine's possible membership in NATO, despite strong opposition from Yanukovych and much of Ukraine's population.

Further weakening of Yushchenko's authority in Ukraine jeopardizes the country's pro-West agenda, says Vadim Karasyov, an analyst with the Kiev-based Institute for Global Strategies.

"This crisis is demonstrating to the West just how unstable Ukraine is right now," Karasyov says. "It suggests we haven't reached a certain level of development. No matter who comes out the winner, I'm afraid this instability will go on for many years."

Such dire forecasts may have more to do with Ukraine's history than with its current cast of political players. Ukraine's pro-Yushchenko western and central regions are oriented culturally and economically toward Europe, while the eastern and southern sections of the country are staunchly pro-Russian. Ukrainian is spoken in the country's western half, Russian in the east.

Many in Ukraine believed that the momentum the Orange Revolution supplied Yushchenko would give him the clout he needed to erase Ukraine's east-west divide. By rallying thousands of orange-clad Ukrainians to Independence Square every day for several weeks in 2004, Orange movement leaders mustered enough support to overturn rigged election results that would have given the presidency to Yanukovych instead of Yushchenko. A rerun election was held, which Yushchenko won with 51.9 percent of the vote.

However, even members of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party acknowledge that Yushchenko didn't do enough to unify the country after the election rerun.

"Yes, we can blame him because right after he was elected, he didn't act decisively," says Yuri Artemenko, an Our Ukraine lawmaker. "This division between east and west just festers and worsens. And I'm afraid new elections won't help. The only hope is to negotiate."

Yushchenko and Yanukovych have been meeting regularly, but neither side has shown signs of backing down. Appearing onstage before thousands of his supporters at Independence Square on Wednesday, Yanukovych made it clear he was digging in his heels.

"Two and half years ago, there were people here under a different flag-an orange flag-and they promised a happy life," Yanukovych said. "Did we get that happy life? I don't think there is anyone in Ukraine who is happy with their life. . . . Today we have crisis, and it has a visible negative impact on every person and every family."

Yanukovych asserts that the president's order to dissolve parliament was illegal and tantamount to a coup. He has ordered his government to not pay for the holding of new parliament elections. Yushchenko's decree, Yanukovych told parliament April 3, "aims at power usurpation."

Constitutionally, Yushchenko has the power to dissolve the legislature and order new elections under certain circumstances. In this case, he said Yanukovych and his allies violated the constitution by recruiting opposition lawmakers over to Yanukovych's side. According to Ukraine's constitution, parliament is elected on the basis of political party factions, not individuals. Switching parties, therefore, is unconstitutional in Yushchenko's view.

Both sides have agreed to abide by whatever decision the constitutional court makes, but that ruling could take weeks. On Independence Square, Yanukovych's supporters insist they're willing to wait, in part because they are in no big hurry to relinquish the Maidan.

"Being here on the Maidan, it means we're the winners now," said Alexander Elytch, 26, of Zhitomyr in central Ukraine. "The Orange camp, they had their chance and lost it. They promised so much, and never kept their promises."





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