Ukraine crisis ends in overthrow of constitution

Issue 

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — The parallels with Russia in 1993 were uncanny. As the economy crashed, the president demanded a speeding-up of free-market reforms as the only solution. And if these reforms were to be implemented, an essential precondition was — broadly increased powers for the president, at the expense of parliament!

There were no tanks pumping shells into the Ukrainian parliament building during the first week of June, but during these days constitutional order broke down, and Ukraine was faced with a province-by-province struggle for power between competing civil authorities. By June 8 the issue had been decided: the constitution had arbitrarily been thrown on the scrap-heap, and President Leonid Kuchma enjoyed near-undiluted control over the government and its policies.

The key difference with Russia was that the parliamentary majority in Ukraine did not wait for the tanks to roll, but surrendered while their jobs and privileges were intact. A minority of deputies protested bitterly at the blows being dealt to democracy, but could not argue their case before the Constitutional Court. Ukraine at present does not have one.

The political crisis began shaping up in October, when Kuchma sought to introduce a package of neo-liberal "shock therapy" economic measures backed by the International Monetary Fund. Democracy and monetarist "reform", Kuchma had clearly decided, were incompatible; "shock therapy" was therefore to be accompanied by a "Law on Power", which would override large parts of the constitution.

Under this new law, the president was to receive expanded rights to issue legislation in the form of decrees. The country's parliament, the Supreme Rada, was to lose the right to veto senior ministerial appointments, a safeguard against cronyism and corruption that is almost standard in presidential systems of government elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, elected local authorities were to be brought under much closer central control.

The push to replace constitutional "checks and balances" with concentrated presidential power received implicit blessing from the IMF, which promised a stand-by loan of US$1.8 billion if its economic prescriptions were met.

During last winter Kuchma's demands for hard-line monetarist policies and for the Supreme Rada to adopt his "Law on Power" underlay a steep rise in tensions. Kuchma scored an important victory when he forced the resignation of Prime Minister Vitaly Masol, known for his sceptical attitude to neo-liberal dogmas. Chronic conflicts then broke out between the parliament and Masol's successor, monetarist Yevheny Marchuk.

Antagonism between the government and parliament came to a head on April 4, when the Supreme Rada almost unanimously voted no confidence in the cabinet, compelling it to resign. The ministers, however, remained at their posts in a caretaker capacity.

Referendum

Following this show of defiance, the deputies quickly retreated. On April 6 they passed Kuchma's budget, clearing the way for the IMF loan. During the weeks that followed Kuchma stepped up the pressure on the deputies to adopt his Law on Power.

His main weapon was a threat to call a referendum on confidence in himself and in the parliament. Opinion surveys indicated that his own popular support, though receding, was far greater than that of the Supreme Rada. Armed with a favourable referendum result, Kuchma would be well placed to stage a Yeltsin-style coup.

Faced with this threat, and offered compromises on minor points, the parliament on May 18 voted by 219 to 104 to adopt the Law on Power. However, implementing the law required the passage of no fewer than 68 constitutional amendments, each requiring a two-thirds vote in the 450-member assembly. Left-wing opponents of Kuchma, led by the Communist Party with its 86 deputies, were able to block these amendments.

Declaring that further coexistence with the parliamentary opposition was impossible, Kuchma on May 31 issued a decree calling a referendum for June 28. The poll would be structured to guarantee the president the result he wanted. Voters were to be offered a strict either-or choice on two questions: "Do you have confidence in the Supreme Rada?" and "Do you have confidence in the President?" Ballots that expressed confidence in both, or neither, would be ruled invalid.

The parliament's first response was a spirited counter-attack. On June 1 the Supreme Rada voted overwhelmingly to veto the president's referendum decree, also banning the government from financing the referendum. Local authorities were ordered to ensure that voting did not take place. On June 2 Kuchma pledged to press ahead regardless, issuing his own instructions to the regions. For the next few days, Ukraine stood on the brink of civil chaos.

Surrender

Then on June 7 parliamentary leaders presented the Supreme Rada with the draft for a "constitutional treaty", hammered out the previous evening in a meeting between Kuchma, the Presidium of the Supreme Rada and leaders of the parliamentary fractions. The following day, 240 members of the Supreme Rada voted to accept the deal.

As one of the elements of the "treaty", the Law on Power was arbitrarily proclaimed to be in force. Leaders of the Ukrainian parliament brushed aside the lack of the required two-thirds majority as a technicality.

Kuchma duly cancelled his referendum. Prime Minister Marchuk and his government, sacked by the parliament only two months before, were reconfirmed in office.

For defenders of democratic institutions, there was the comfort that the "constitutional treaty" set a one-year deadline for the adoption of a new constitution. But for the present the disposition of power in Ukraine, as in Russia and Belarus, has shifted radically in the direction of one-person elective dictatorship.

The lesson Ukrainians learned during the first week of June was that the constitution and the rights it codifies have force only until those who would like to violate them feel confident they can get away with it.

The question remains: why did several hundred Supreme Rada deputies suddenly abandon their opposition to Kuchma, and agree meekly to liquidate much of their own power? This development is a testament to the strength of the blow that Boris Yeltsin dealt to democracy throughout the former Soviet Union when he launched his assault on the Russian parliament. If Kuchma did not threaten the parliamentary leaders explicitly with a repeat of October 1993, the deputies inevitably had that example on their minds.

For most of Kuchma's parliamentary opponents, the decision to cease active resistance no doubt followed a reflection that, when all was said and done, their interests were quite compatible with presidential dictatorship and harsh anti-popular policies. Whatever their formal political affiliations, most deputies owe their jobs to local nomenklatura circles that have much to gain from privatisation and two-dollar-a-day wages.

Even among self-proclaimed "democrats", a commitment to democracy was lacking.

The Ukrainian Communist Party proved an honourable exception. Almost alone, the Communist fraction in the parliament bitterly denounced the "constitutional treaty" and voted against it. "Ukraine has switched from the path of democracy to the road toward authoritarianism", Communist leader Petro Simonenko declared.

The Communists, in fact, have shown themselves to be the only sizeable Ukrainian political group with a serious commitment to defending representative democracy. To people familiar with the political mechanics of the former USSR, this situation is less paradoxical than it might seem.