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Ukraine in Political Crisis


Ukraine is in the midst of a constitutional crisis, the most serious one since the days of the so-called "Orange Revolution." What has brought about the latest political confrontation?

The current political impasse engulfing Ukraine involves two bitter political rivals: President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, whose coalition is the largest in the 450-member parliament, or Rada.

Robert Legvold, a Ukraine and Russia expert at Columbia University in New York, says the crisis erupted when Yanukovich tried to increase his power in parliament. "Power shift that has evidently occurred when 11 of the deputies who were part of the 'Our Ukraine' - - that is the Yushchenko forces - - defected, or went over to the "Party of Regions" - - Yanukovich's party. And it looked as though at that juncture, the Yanukovich forces were attempting to create a veto-proof majority of 300 in the Rada, which Yushchenko interpreted as rendering him utterly impotent," says Legvold.

Yushchenko reacted by signing a decree earlier this month [April 2] dissolving parliament and calling for new elections on May 27. Yanukovich and his allies have described the president's move as unconstitutional. They have refused to abide by the presidential decree and are continuing to work in parliament.

Legvold says the constitution is vague in terms of what Yushchenko has done. "If you look to Article 90 of the constitution, as members of the 'Party of Regions' have said, there are only three conditions in which the president can dissolve the parliament and they all have to do with whether or not the government has been formed in a timely fashion - - not whether, as Yushchenko claims, the constitution has been violated when these members of 'Our Ukraine' have moved from one faction to the other. He claims that's an unconstitutional act and that justified dissolving the Rada. But it's hard to see that in the constitution," says Legvold.

History of Confrontation

Yushchenko and Yanukovich have a history of political confrontation. Yushchenko was elected president in December 2004 after hundreds of thousands of his supporters took to the streets to protest the results of an earlier election declared fraudulent by international monitors. That massive protest became known as the "Orange Revolution,' named after Yushchenko's signature color. The man he defeated for the presidency was Viktor Yanukovich.

Many experts at the time felt Yanukovich's political career was over. But he engineered a comeback with his "Party of Regions," getting the most votes in parliamentary elections last March. He became prime minister in August after forming a coalition with communists and socialists.

Frank Sysyn, Director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies in Toronto, says over the past few years, there has been a change in the political power structure in Ukraine. "In a series of moves that occurred in 2004, the presidency has been gravely weakened and the Rada's power has been increased greatly - that is, Ukraine went from being a presidential-parliamentary republic to a parliamentary-presidential republic with ever limited roles of the presidency," says Sysyn.

For his part, David Marples, a Ukraine expert at the University of Alberta, says the powers of the presidency and parliament are not well delineated. "Changes were made after the 'Orange Revolution' that gave the parliament more powers - - for example, appointing the cabinet of ministers and things like that - - that in the past had been in the hands of the president. And in certain areas, particularly things like foreign policy, it's not always clear where the distinction lies over who has the power," says Marples.

Marples adds, "Yanukovich has deliberately pushed his authority in that area, making statements at public meetings or international gatherings that he's really got no right to make. It's very different from the situation in Russia where the parliament is completely dominated by the presidency and would not have that kind of authority. In Ukraine it's more democratic - - quite clearly it's more democratic than it is in Russia. But at the same time it's muddled. And it's very difficult to determine exactly who should be doing what."

Uncertain Future

Marples and other experts say since last March's parliamentary elections, the political landscape in Ukraine has been confusing - - and the current crisis has aggravated the situation even more. Analysts say resolving the latest political stalemate now lies in the hands of the 18-member constitutional court.

Marples says its decision will be crucial to President Yushchenko. "I don't necessarily think it will affect Yanukovich, because if the court rules in favor of having parliamentary elections, then I think Yanukovich will still do okay. But if it rules against having them, then I think Yushchenko's career is basically over. And if his decision is overturned, then I don't think he really has anywhere to go and I would see him resigning at that point," says Marples.

But many experts say there is no guarantee that the constitutional court will render a verdict. And so resolving the situation will be back in the hands of Yushchenko and Yanukovich.

Margarita Balmaceda, a Ukraine expert at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, says having those two politicians find a solution would send the wrong message. "This is another installment, one installment of elite politics conducted outside the realm of transparency, elite politics conducted outside the realm of accountability and another good reason for the majority of the Ukrainian citizens to feel quite betrayed by the whole political leadership, including Mr. Yushchenko."

Balmaceda and others say the majority of Ukrainians have been disappointed by Mr. Yushchenko's leadership - a fact confirmed by recent polls. Analysts say he has squandered the potential of the "Orange Revolution" and they believe his lackluster leadership is one of the main reasons for Ukraine's current political crisis.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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