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06/02/2010 | In Ukraine, Democracy's Main Woes Are Structural

Andreas Umland

With Ukraine set to vote in the second round of its presidential election on Sunday, both candidates -- Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych -- have promised closer ties with Russia. Most foreign coverage of the campaign has focused on popular disillusionment with the Orange Revolution in particular, and with democracy in general, as the explanation for this dramatic shift since the heady days of 2004.


Indeed, a survey of attitudes toward democracy in post-Soviet countries published by the Pew Research Center in November 2009 was sobering: The popularity of democracy had fallen in Ukraine by 42 percent between 1991 and 2009 -- the sharpest decline in all the post-Soviet countries where surveys had been carried out. The 30 percent of Ukrainians who still supported democracy in 2009 was the lowest figure of the countries in the study.

One factor contributing to Ukrainians' growing discontent with democracy has rarely been acknowledged, in either Ukraine or the West: the semi-presidential political system in place in Kyiv since the Orange Revolution. At the height of that uprising, a quickly reached political compromise between pro- and anti-Orange groupings led to a hasty constitutional reform enacted on Dec. 8, 2004. When it came into force on Jan. 1, 2006, it formalized a division of executive power between the president and the prime minister that had only been nominal under former President Leonid Kuchma. 

As a result of the changes, the power of both parliament and the prime minister were increased vis-à-vis the president. For instance, Ukraine's original 1996 constitution gave MPs only the right to give their consent to the prime minister, as proposed by the president. The amended constitution of 2004 states that the president shall put forward the candidate for the post of the prime minister following a proposal by parliament's majority or dominating coalition. Another change concerned the naming of ministers, who are now appointed and can be dismissed by Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada, the one-chamber national parliament. And in the event the president tries to block the adoption of a new law, the amended constitution allows the chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada to sign and promulgate the law instead. 

The gravest practical implication of the constitutional reform during the past few years has been what the French euphemistically call "cohabitation," meaning that the posts of president and prime minister are occupied by representatives of opposing political camps. In as mature a democracy as France's, this situation is inconvenient, yet not critical. In unconsolidated democracies like Ukraine, however, the resulting permanent confrontation between the president and the prime minister has far-reaching consequences.

Both Ukrainian attitudes to democracy and the international reputation of Ukrainian politics and politicians have been negatively affected by the destructive repercussions of the conflict inherent in the divided executive. The new balance of power between the presidency and the parliament was a significant -- if not the chief -- determinant of the prolonged standoffs between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Ministers Yanukovych and Tymoshenko.

Comparative research has amply demonstrated that such a semi-presidential form of government is problematic for societies transitioning to democracy. But the failure to trace Ukraine's problems and the nature of its political crisis to the semi-presidential system has distorted not only Ukrainian attitudes to their young democracy in recent years, but also the opinion of foreign commentators who are not familiar with recent political research. As a result, instead of questioning the suitability of a semi-presidential system for this post-totalitarian state, some have questioned the suitability of democracy for Ukraine -- or even of Ukrainians for democracy.

Ever since the fall of the semi-presidential Weimar Republic in 1930-33, comparative studies have shown that a divided executive is ineffectual, especially in transitioning countries. But outside a narrow circle of international analysts and political scientists, few observers have recognized that this problem is not specific to Ukraine. As a result, dissatisfaction with Ukraine's government at home and abroad has bred fatalism. The strange political spectacles in Kyiv during the past few years are seen as reflecting the political immaturity of the Ukrainian elite or even of the whole population. 

What needs to remembered, however, is that from 1991 to 2004, Ukraine carried out one of the most impressive democratizations in recent European history. And it did so in the face of tremendous difficulties. Seen in the proper perspective and context, Ukraine's performance has, in fact, been remarkable. Take, for instance Germany -- universally considered a mature democracy -- as a comparison: The first time the Germans actually removed their leader from office via popular vote was Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in 1998. By contrast, Ukrainians had, already in 1994, voted out their ruler and first post-Soviet president, Leonid Kravchuk, who had been elected in 1991. Since then, Ukrainians have twice more rejected incumbents in presidential elections: Yanukovych, who had been prime minister since 2002, in December 2004, and Yushchenko, as president standing for a second term, in January 2010. 

This illustrates that, for all the messiness of its politics, Ukraine is today a solidly democratic country. Instead of writing it off as a lost cause, the West should do more to help Ukrainians restructure and consolidate their current political system. The primary instrument with which to do so should be the long-term perspective of EU membership, which is desired by virtually all relevant sections of Kyiv's elite as well as large parts of Ukraine's population. The carrot of a credible prospect for Ukraine to "return to Europe" would allow the West to apply, more effectively than it is now able to, the stick of demanding from Kyiv thorough economic as well as legal reforms. By making the introduction of a parliamentary system a precondition for entering the EU, the West would provide Ukrainians with an incentive not just to criticize their democracy, but to improve it.

**Dr. Andreas Umland is an assistant professor of History at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt in Upper Bavaria, the general editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society," and the co-editor of the German print and Russian Web journal, "Forum for the Ideas and History of Contemporary Eastern Europe." He also administers the Web archive, "Russian Nationalism," on recent trends in radical Russian right-wing thought and politics.

World Politics Review (Estados Unidos)


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