Ukraine's Window of Opportunity

Andreas Umland
19 December 2008


In a poll by FOM-Ukraina in mid-November 2008, Viktor Yushchenko's popularity reached a new low. With 3% of the respondents saying they would vote for him in elections, Ukraine's current President trails not only far behind his main contenders Yulia Timoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich. Yushchenko's support is also below the percentage of popular backing that such minor politicians as Arseny Yatsenyuk, Petro Symonenko and Volodymyr Litvin currently receive. It has been clear to most observers for a couple of years now that Yushchenko's chances for a second term are, at best, dim. One hopes that now even the detached President and his myopic aides will acknowledge that a re-election of the incumbent is beyond reach. As bitter as this might be for the hero of the Orange Revolution, this circumstance also provides the Orange camp with a window of opportunity to complete its second push for democratization started four years ago. In 2009, Ukraine will have a  rare chance to get rid of its ill-construed semi-presidential system.

After the fall of the USSR, most countries emerging from it adopted a slightly transfigured version of the Soviet executive structure in which the respective republic's First Party Secretary was replaced by the President - a model that had been provided by Gorbachev, on the Union level, already in 1989. In the aftermath, this transmutation was, in public, rationalized as an adoption of the "French model of government." In reality, the division of executive power between the President and Prime-Minister in much of the post-Soviet world had little to do with learning from France's experiences, but was, instead, the result of idiosyncratic power-struggles in each of the former Soviet republics. The seemingly novel configurations of institutions in the central apparatuses of the Newly Independent States were christened "parliamentary-presidential" or "presidential-parliamentary" though, in most cases, these political systems were or, still, are neither.

 Rather, they constitute(d) autocracies or oligarchies with a rubber-stamp or/and toothless parliament, and with a "Head of Government" who is no head and does not govern, but is merely the country's highest ranking bureaucrat, and often plays the role of a scapegoat, in the case, things go wrong.

In Ukraine, this started to change in late 2004 when it were, oddly, the opponents of the Orange Revolution who - out of ad hoc calculations - initiated a partial shift of prerogatives from the President to the Prime-Minister as well as to the Rada thus creating something close to real semi-presidentialism. As important as this transfer of power was for the re-democratization of Ukraine, it did not solve, but merely transformed the problem. Since then, Ukraine has a divided government with a duumvirate, at its top. To understand that this is unsatisfactory is not something that Ukrainians need to be explained by political scientists. Since 2005, the country has experienced such agonizing conflicts between the President, on the one side, and its two "cohabitating" Prime-Ministers (Timoshenko, Yanukovich), on the other, that there are, probably, few Ukrainians left who think that this political solution has been good for their homeland.

What (not necessarily foreign) political scientists could and should be still telling Ukrainians is that this problem is, contrary to what many believe, not something unique to Ukraine. One often hears from both younger and older citizens of Ukraine that democracy does not properly work there because of the low political culture, moral inadequateness or similar deficiencies of Kiev's political elite. While hardly anybody will disagree, these shortages are not the only and, probably, not even the main reason for last years' destructive confrontations between Ukraine's power-holders. International experience shows that these clashes President vs. Parliament, the Head of State vs. the Head of Government are inherent to duumvirates, in general, and typical for semi-presidential regimes in emerging democracies, in particular. Ukraine's chaotic politics of the last years has, contrary to commonly held opinion there, less to do with the culture of its nation, than with the structure of its state. The problem with semi-presidentialism - everywhere and not only in the post-Soviet world - is that it elevates conflicts between political parties or camps into confrontations between the branches of power or constitutional organs. An old democracy like France is able to deal with these tensions and euphemistically calls the conflict emerging from different parties occupying the country's highest posts "cohabitation." In young democracies and especially in post-colonial ones like Ukraine, the stakes of the decisions to be taken by the top officials are, however, much higher. Here minor inconsistencies in the voting behaviour of the electorate or in the coalition building of the parties or factions may transform into major political stand-offs that, in the worst case, come close to civil war (like in Russia in September-October 1993). Contrary to what many in the post-Soviet world believe, the Prime-Minister of Britain or Chancellor of Germany have more power, in their national contexts, than the President of the United States - at least, in those situations in which the President's party does not have a majority in Congress.

It should be noted that not only Moscow's "political technologists", but also a number of serious international political scientists advocate presidentialism, and see this form of democracy as superior to parliamentary systems - the world oldest democracy, the US, being the obvious example. However, concerning the specific challenges that young democracies are facing, study after study has shown that the stronger a new republic's parliament is the better are the chances that genuine political pluralism will survive and that the novel system of government will consolidate. Notably, these findings are not outcomes of theoretical considerations by experts who may have a preference for this or that form of government. Instead, the inference that parliamentarianism is better for an emerging democracy than a presidential or semi-presidential system is based on empirical research and results from more or less wide-ranging cross-national investigations.

The conclusion for a country like Ukraine is that, in order to become a more stable and effective democracy, it should transform sooner rather than later into a parliamentary republic. While political conflicts will continue to be fought ferociously in such a system, they will happen within the parliament, and not between parliament and president. Coalition building will become the major feature of the political process, and replace such strategies as brinkmanship, intimidation and bluffing prominent during intra-executive confrontations in semi-presidential systems. Parlamentarians able to build bridges between political opponents and not ideologues whipping up their political camps will take center-stage. Apart from that, for Ukraine, simply saving the costs of another round of elections, and having only one national poll every four years will help to save much money and energy that is dearly needed to further reform and stabilize this young  nation-state.



Dr Andreas Umland is editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" (www.ibidem-verlag.de/spps.hmtl) as well as the Russian journal "Forum for the Contemporary History and Ideas of Easter Europe" (http://www1.ku-eichstaett.de/ZIMOS/forumruss.html) and administers the website "Russian Nationalism" (groups.yahoo.com/group/russian_nationalism

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData