Ukraine's crisis to test Yushchenko's nerve

By bne IntelliNews April 17, 2007

Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv -

Ukraine's president, Viktor Yushchenko, is engaged in a desperate attempt to catch up for lost time by acting and sounding tough. But as Ukraine's worst political crisis in years stretched into its third week, the embattled president is showing signs he might be losing his nerve and trying to compromise on his bold presidential decree from April 2 to dissolve parliament and hold early elections.

But Prime Minister Yanukovych, Yushchenko's nemesis since the Orange Revolution days, is in no mood for compromises. Backed by a majority of legislators who refuse to recognize the presidential decree as legal, the PM's governing coalition has challenged Yushchenko's decree in the Constitutional Court and refuses to provide state funding for early elections.

The decree, Yushchenko contends, is a necessary last-ditch attempt to salvage Ukraine's fragile democracy by thwarting "unconstitutional" monopolisation of power by a hostile governing coalition.

The crisis has plunged Ukraine into a full-fledged constitutional clash and Kyiv's worst political predicament since the Orange Revolution, when the spat between Yushchenko and Yanukovych first erupted. This newest Ukrainian crisis is the culmination of a longstanding power tussle that traces its roots to that Orange Revolution where Yanukovych suffered a humiliating defeat losing a contested presidential election to Yushchenko.

Can he hold his nerve?

Many in Kyiv doubt the Constitutional Court will rule on the appeal anytime soon. Judges are themselves locked up on party lines, as are other key state institutions. The court last week postponed hearings on the issue for a week, until April 17. Legal experts doubt the judges will be able to speedily produce a clear ruling interpreting vague laws capable of ending the stalemate.

Therefore, the country is once again caught up in a stalemate that will test the nerves of both leaders. This time, millions of Ukrainians who backed Yushchenko over Yanukovych in the contested 2004 presidential bid, are wondering whether their leader has the necessary grit to push for victory.

Déjà vu all over again

More than two years have passed since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution propelled Yushchenko to power after a fraudulent presidential vote favouring Yanukovych was cancelled. The extraordinary event raised hopes that the anguished former Soviet republic would join the ranks of civilized European countries.

The Orange Revolution presented Yushchenko with a larger-than-life victory, but his epic battle with an enduring nemesis, and cutthroat infighting within his own political camp, had just begun.

His on-and-off-again ally, firebrand female politician Yulia Tymoshenko, asserts that a strategic blunder was made early on in the heat of the Orange Revolution when Yushchenko conceded to a compromise deal shifting presidential powers to parliament.

"The political crisis we are seeing here traces its roots to 2004. These rushed political reforms [that changed the constitution] were very vague and created deep imbalances in power that have set Ukraine on a course of political turmoil," says Hryhory Nemirya, a member of Tymoshenko's camp.

Tymoshenko, who played a big role in rallying public support for Yushchenko in the 2004 presidential elections, favoured an all-out fight for power followed by reforms. Instead, Yushchenko opted for the democratic route and quickly found himself locked in a desperate wrestling match over presidential authority. Without his authority repeatedly in question, his speedy Western integration agenda also fell off track. While economic growth has remained high, many badly reforms required for sustained growth were put on the backburner. Increasingly busy with the ping-pong power tussle, Ukraine's leaders have devoted little attention to passing badly needed reforms.

Part of the problem for Yushchenko is that infighting has also been rampant within his own camp. Tymoshenko backed Yushchenko in the 2004 presidential race, but her radical line-of-attack and presidential ambitions sparked a bitter falling out. She was ousted as prime minister in the fall of 2005 as a result.

The president gambled last August by accepting Yanukovych as premier in return for guarantees that his treasured Western integration initiatives would be preserved. Those guarantees were quickly dispensed with as Yanukovych

has spent the past eight months systematically backing out of agreements and eroding presidential authority. The president's allies also accuse the premier of putting Western integration, the holy grail of Yushchenko's platform, on hold in favour of reviving ties with Moscow, a key energy supplier to Ukraine. It's a trade-off that benefits many of the big business tycoons backing Yanukovych, as their steel, chemical and machine factories are highly dependent on natural gas imports controlled by Russia's Gazprom.

Desperate moves

The possibility of becoming completely marginalized triggered Yushchenko's desperate move to dissolve parliament last week.

"Yushchenko has always been very set on seeking compromise, but realized there is little choice this time. He now clearly sees the threat Yanukovych's government poses for Ukraine," says Oleksiy Ivchenko, a close political confidant who was entrusted to manage Ukraine's lucrative state oil and gas firm.

Allies of Tymoshenko have dubbed Yushchenko's liking to compromise as an Achilles heel. They welcome his rejuvenated fighting attitude, last seen during the Orange Revolution. But there are concerns he won’t be able to hold his nerve, leading to another failed compromise.

Yanukovych's governing coalition, backed by more than 30% of voters, is not budging. They control the government and continue to block funding for the elections. The concern now is that there is simply not enough time to hold elections on May 27, as originally scheduled. Public support for Yushchenko has sunk to below 10% in the past two years. Many of his voters have switched support to the more radical Tymoshenko.

While the presidential ouster of parliament brought fresh hopes that Yushchenko was about to get tough again, many in Kyiv still wonder whether the president is too soft; or whether his actions are too little, too late.

Ivchenko insists that Yushchenko's resolve is today stronger than ever. "Opponents that doubted Yushchenko's resolve realize today that he is the boldest president Ukraine has ever had. He will firmly stick to this important decision and will not allow Ukraine to be derailed," Ivchenko argues.

Late last week, however, the embattled president exhibited signs he might back down.

Yushchenko ruled out a forceful military ouster of Yanukovych's insubordinate government and offered the hand of compromise: elections could be postponed for several months if the governing coalition submits to his presidential decree.

The goal should be to find a formula "that does not have winners or losers, that allows all sides to save face and recognize their joint responsibility," Yushchenko said on April 12.

Thus far, though, Yanukovych has shown no signs of his willingness to accept a compromise solution. Parties backing Yanukovych's coalition have, instead, vowed to boycott the elections.

"Neither I nor the political parties that form the government are afraid" of early elections, Yanukovych wrote in a letter to the Financial Times published on April 13.

Rather than accepting Yushchenko's call for compromise, he struck back, slamming the president and accusing him of denting the rule of law in Ukraine by signing an "unconstitutional" decree to dissolve parliament.

"Calling an early election without a legal justification has challenged one of the foundations of democracy: the rule of law. The only basis for political compromise in Ukraine lies in respecting that," he added.

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