Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Opinion

Ukraine - Never a boring moment

  • Sign at defunct Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. Some worry the constitutional change opens the door to authoritarian rule (Photo: Ratcliff, Trey)

There is a European country which never fails to amaze. That country is Ukraine. The 2004 Orange Revolution came as something of a surprise to the West, which embraced it with open arms believing it would bring increased stability, prosperity and democracy. EU leaders welcomed Viktor Yushchenko, hardly batting an eyelid at the somewhat rushed-through constitutional reforms that followed his victory and which left the country with a complicated structure of governance.

Unfortunately these changes led, within a few months, to political gridlock. Rather than the expected increase in stability and prosperity the result was a country spiraling into chaos and disorder - endless internal quarrels and back-stabbing, a repeating cycle of elections, bitter conflicts with Russia and very patchy reform efforts.

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It came as no surprise that the Orange team lost power early in 2010 and that Party of the Regions leader, Viktor Yanukovych, took over the presidency. Stereotyped as a Kremlin man, few expected him to deliver on his election promises - to introduce key economic and political

reforms and to maintain Ukraine's path towards the EU.

But since coming to power Yanukovych has carried out more reforms than in the whole of the last five years put together, including a new gas law which helped bring about Ukraine's recent accession to the EU's Energy Community; a new procurement law, which legally ended the shady schemes of state procurement which existed under former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and judicial reforms which will help bring Ukraine closer to obtaining a visa-free regime with the EU.

While not everything he has done, for example the decision to extend the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol for a further 25 years, has been unanimously welcomed, there is no doubt that Ukraine has become increasingly stable and promises, which previous Ukrainian governments usually used to break the day after they were taken, have been honored. The economy, while still battered by the global financial crisis, is beginning to make a slow recovery, relations with Russia have been normalised and ties with the EU continue to strengthen as Kiev makes steady progress towards its Association Agreement.

Despite all this, the decision of Ukraine's Constitutional Court on 1 October to cancel the amendments made to the Constitution in 2004 came as something of a shock to Ukraine's partners and friends. The result of this change is that the political system will revert to that of the 1996 Constitution – a presidential system of power - meaning it will be the president, not the prime minister that will be the head of the executive branch of power.

Immediately, alarm bells have begun to ring and many people have rushed to declare this as Yanukovych making a "grab for power" or a "return to the Kuchma era." However, it is worth reflecting on this more carefully. The constitutional changes made in 2004 were not only rushed through very quickly and without proper consultation or discussion, they were also highly criticized by everyone - from Ukrainian political parties to international institutions including the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the Venice Commission.

The way in which they were carried out also represented a violation of legal and democratic procedure. Back then, Yulia Tymoshenko called the changes unconstitutional citing them as the main reason for political chaos in Ukraine. It created a hybrid system which resulted in a totally dysfunctional system of governance.

What does this mean now? There are different readings for the future. Tymoshenko has suddenly become the strongest proponent of maintaining the changed constitution. Not surprisingly, President Yanukovych has said the Court ruling must be respected and that he will initiate an inclusive process of constitutional reform. He has also guaranteed that the changes will in no way influence the way in which Ukrainian foreign policy is carried out but rather serve to speed up reforms.

Yulia Tymoshenko may decide to mount a campaign of protest seeking support from the international community. While such an effort would put her back in the spotlight it would also serve to destabilise the country. Taking into account how Ukrainians were disappointed by her achievements (or rather lack of) as prime minister and, more generally with the results of the Orange Revolution as a whole, it is doubtful whether she would be successful in garnering substantial support.

While she may not find success at home she could do better abroad. Within the last few weeks she has already succeeded in having the European People's Party issue a number of negative statements concerning political developments in Ukraine.

As for the EU reaction, it is no secret that many would have preferred this decision to have been taken by parliament. But after years of dealing with an unstable and unpredictable Ukraine where pandemonium and unruliness were the norm, for many EU leaders the idea of a stable and functioning state probably seems quite appealing. This development should certainly not represent the end of the road for Constitutional reform which should continue in a broader and inclusive format, however. Democracy needs to continue to be upheld and how President Yanukovich handles his beefed-up powers will be crucial for his credibility.

The writer is a Policy Analyst on EU Eastern Neighbourhood, Russia, Turkey & Eurasia Issues at the European Policy Centre

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