“As Ukraine’s economic, social and political crisis sharpens, more and more Ukrainians may question the wisdom of conducting a costly presidential election when the Ukrainian state is almost bankrupt–if not on the brink of collapse.”
Constitutional Reforms and Political Stability in Ukraine by Dr. Andreas Umland
Source: Harvard International Review
After several years of impressive economic growth and encouraging political change, Ukraine has recently entered troubled waters. The democracies west of Ukraine are institutionally consolidated and internationally embedded enough to circumscribe the political repercussions of their so far relatively mild economic contractions. While being hit almost as hard as Ukraine by the world financial crisis, Russia has managed to build considerable financial reserves thanks to the enormous cash inflow into her state budget during the years of rocketing energy prices, allowing her to soften the social repercussions of the economic downturn.
Ukraine, in contrast, has neither a consolidated political system nor significant financial reserves. During the first quarter of 2009, the Ukrainian economy seems to have contracted between 20-23 percent, and its industrial production might have fallen as much as 30 percent. Given the limited capacities of the Ukrainian government to deal with the social aftermath of these developments, the effects of the crisis on Ukrainian domestic politics and foreign relations are unpredictable. To be sure, Ukrainians have shown considerable maturity in earlier periods of political crisis, such as during the country’s last contested presidential elections. It is often ignored, however, that 2004 was not only the moment of the Orange Revolution, but also a year of steep economic growth of almost 10 percent. In contrast, Ukraine’s economy today is experiencing a depression that rivals the 1992-1994 plunge in industrial production.
As if this were not challenging enough, Ukraine is facing an increasingly assertive Russia on which it is economically dependent. Until recently, Ukraine’s energy reliance on its Eastern neighbour was partly neutralized by Russia’s heavy dependence on the Ukrainian gas pipeline system which delivers Russian gas to the European Union (EU) and on the Kremlin’s stated interest in preserving the Sevastopol naval base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Neither of these two balancing mechanisms is fully functional today. Out of parochial interests, the EU has been pressuring Ukraine to “internationalize” energy transportation. While understandable from a Central and West European view, “internationalization” is weakening Ukrainian control of perhaps the most important instrument of securing Ukrainian independence from Russia. Out of his familiar political myopia, President Viktor Yushchenko has prematurely declared that Ukraine, in any case, intends to close Sevastopol for the Russian fleet when the current contract for the lease of the Crimean port expires in 2017. Whereas earlier, the Russian and Ukrainian governments had something to negotiate about, Kiev’s diplomatic leverage has diminished today. The Kremlin, aware of Ukraine’s new weakness on a daily basis, threatens via mass media to cut gas deliveries if Ukraine does not pay in time for them.
Moreover, in 2008, the Moscow leadership demonstrated in Georgia – not the least to Kiev – that it is prepared to use military force to defend vital interests in her “near abroad.” Many Russian politicians have let it be known, in public, that the Crimea’s majority Russian ethnic makeup places the peninsula within Moscow’s natural sphere of influence. Some even see Crimea as a part of Russia’s historic territory.
Worse, Ukraine’s political system prescribes new presidential elections in January 2010, when a new standoff between Ukraine and Russia concerning gas deliveries and payments is likely to occur. In fact, given the Ukrainian state’s current financial difficulties, Russia may regard it politically opportune as well as domestically and internationally justifiable to cut gas deliveries to Ukraine already before January 2010. Polling data shows that anti-Ukrainian sentiment is growing in Russia’s population as a result of the daily xenophobic brainwashing by the Kremlin-directed propaganda machine. As a hard line against Kiev becomes increasingly popular among ordinary Russians, the Moscow leadership may conclude that cutting gas deliveries to Ukraine would kill two birds with one stone: it would divert attention from its own omissions in reforming Russia’s post-Soviet state and economy, and it would cause serious trouble for Kiev’s Orange government, in domestic affairs and/or foreign relations.
In the case of new gas delivery cuts, the government of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will face an awkward choice. If it chooses to stomach the cuts, it will alienate the Ukrainian population when further industrial plants come to a standstill and Ukrainians’ flats become cold. If it chooses to siphon gas from the Ukrainian pipelines that deliver gas from Russia to the European Union, Ukraine’s Orange cabinet will alienate its EU partners and violate international law.
“Not only is the current Ukrainian dual power system deficient, but semi-presidential systems, at least in transition countries, are generally a bad choice”
As Ukraine’s economic, social and political crisis sharpens, more and more Ukrainians may question the wisdom of conducting a costly presidential election when the Ukrainian state is almost bankrupt – if not on the brink of collapse. After all, Ukraine does have a legitimate legislature as well as a more or less operational government. In the increasingly difficult situation that Ukraine awaits during the coming months, the election of a second ruler appears as luxury. Moreover, by participation in these elections, Ukrainians would legitimize the semi-presidential system that is obviously unsuitable for Ukraine – as has been manifestly demonstrated by the agonizing intra-executive conflicts, during the last years.
Not only is the current Ukrainian dual power system deficient, but semi-presidential systems, at least in transition countries, are generally a bad choice, if one believes the results of comparative research into this political system. For instance, in 2008, the Irish government professor Robert Elgie and American political researcher Sophia Moestrup published the collected volume Semi-Presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe. This book contains research papers by leading specialists on post-Soviet institutional design and performance in Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. The study confirms previous scholarly work that has indicated concerns about the political system that Ukraine inherited when it acquired independence in 1991. Elgie’s and Moestrup’s paper collection shows once more that the impact of semi-presidentialism on the transition to and consolidation of, democracy is negative or at least unhelpful. In the case of Central and Eastern Europe, this concerns both highly presidentialized semi-presidentialism, like Ukraine until 2005, and balanced presidential-prime ministerial semi-presidentialism, like Ukraine has had since 2006. The scholars conclude that, “if democracy is fragile, then semi-presidentialism of any form is probably best avoided.”
With presidential elections scheduled for January 17, 2010, Ukraine is about to reproduce a political system that will be detrimental to its interests, especially considering the possibly grave domestic repercussions of the world financial crisis and Moscow’s continuously growing imperial appetite. In the unlikely best-case scenario that the latter issues do not become salient, Ukraine will still be losing if it decides to go ahead with the 2010 presidential elections.
“Hard times are awaiting Europe’s youngest and largest democracy, and one can only hope that the encouraging sanity and moderation that Kiev’s elites have shown before will also prevail in the current situation.”
Recent rumours in Kiev are indicating that at least a part of the Ukrainian political elite seems to be interested in serious institutional reform. From late May to early June 2009, secret negotiations were conducted between Tymoshenko’s Bloc and Viktor Yanukovych’s opposition Party of Regions about the formation of a coalition to change the constitution, create a parliamentary republic, and cancel next year’s presidential elections. The idea was to have Ukraine’s parliament, instead of the people, elect the President. This would preserve the current dual executive and power-sharing arrangement while depriving the President of a direct popular mandate. Although Ukraine would still be ruled by both a President and Prime-Minister, the two leaders would be dependent on parliament and on each other; they would be less inclined to enter into the agonizing conflicts prevalent throughout the last few years. While these changes would not have solved Ukraine’s two major headaches – payment for gas deliveries and Kremlin hostility – they would have calmed down political bickering in Kiev and stabilized the Ukrainian government. The modification was obviously designed to provide Yanukovich with an important office in the executive. It would also have avoided the dirty electoral campaigning that has already started and the costly two-round voting process scheduled for early 2010. However, Yanukovich decided to leave the negotiation table. As of today, the presidential elections will thus continue as prescribed under the current Constitution.
Hard times are awaiting Europe’s youngest and largest democracy, and one can only hope that the encouraging sanity and moderation that Kiev’s elites have shown before will also prevail in the current situation. Ideally, Yanukovich and Tymoshenko will return to the negotiation table and reconsider the issue of the upcoming elections. Preserving the current semi-presidential system serves neither the short-term nor the long-term interests of Ukraine. Switching to a parliamentary republic would free Kiev’s political elite to focus its attention on numerous other pressing problems. In the coming months, Kiev’s political elite will need to concentrate on far more important issues than electoral campaigning.