Behind Ukraine's power struggle

The president's call to dissolve parliament has brought the greatest turmoil since the 2004 revolution.

Ukraine sits on the sensitive geopolitical border between East and West, and two years ago its "Orange Revolution" set off a dynamic toward greater democracy and independence from old ties to Moscow.

Yet a major political impasse has emerged amid a call for new elections in Ukraine on May 27 and an effort to dissolve parliament by embattled President Viktor Yushchenko, the guiding spirit of the Orange movement.

Mr. Yushchenko is locked in a power struggle with Moscow-leaning Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, creating a crisis of authority between the military and the interior ministry, and a battle over constitutional interpretations – all of which could awaken ethnic and regional divides, though no one expects tanks or troops in the streets.

While political tensions in Ukraine are often portrayed as the result of competing pulls from Moscow and the West, this crisis is seen more as a standoff between internal competitors and institutions. The underlying trouble, say some analysts, is that the same post-Orange Revolution reforms that brought multiparty democracy, separation of powers, and a free press to Ukraine also allowed for such loose, competing power centers between the parliament and the president that resolving disagreements between them has become the subject of intense disagreement.

"Many issues have not been regulated and this leaves lots of holes, which each side can interpret as it prefers," argues Alexander Sushko of the Independent Institute of Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev. "When it comes to a conflict, it is rather tough because Ukraine has no traditions to solve such a crisis."

Mr. Yanukovich, who controls the interior ministry and a majority in the parliament, the Rada, is dead set against new elections. He's thrown the question to a constitutional court, which is now in such a hot seat that on Wednesday, its chief, Ivan Dombrovsky, tried to resign. Yushchenko, who has the military on his side, says the elections will move ahead even if the court rules against it.

In the two years since mass protests in fall of 2004 led to an overturning of a rigged election that had placed a Moscow-friendly leader in charge, the Orange coalition of Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko has been steadily losing support in the parliament. Yushchenko may have felt he had no choice but to ask for fresh elections, some sources say. Tymoshenko is a popular candidate who could well benefit from a new vote – though the opposition denies this.

Ukrainians, meanwhile, have been disillusioned by the high cost of living and by the perceived ineptitude of politicians charged with ushering in reforms, which have stalled. Yushchenko's decision to call elections followed a defection on March 23 of 11 of Ms. Tymoshenko's party members to the opposition – giving them 260 members of parliament. Only 300 are needed to create a different political culture, to reverse some of the checks and balances in power wrought by the Orange Revolution.

The Rada has refused to dissolve. This week it voted not to fund new elections, dismissed the Central Election agency, and reinstated the same election oversight commission that was disbanded for counterfeiting election results in 2004. With new elections, Yushchenko hopes to reawaken Ukrainian voters to the original "orange spirit," experts say, to frame the direction of Ukraine in a way he feels will more closely reflect popular sentiments.

Politicians in Ukraine have been "pressed to change factions by promises or money or even threats," says Alexandr Chekmyshov, deputy director of the Institute of Journalism and chairman of The Equal Access Committee in Kiev. "It was a struggle for power ... [and] gave reason for the president to say that the balance of forces in parliament didn't correspond to the voters' will expressed during the election [of 2004.]"

Vera Nanivska, president of the Academy of State Management in Ukraine, says that the current political standoff is a manifestation of democratic growing pains. "It is a "serious crisis but it ... means that democracy is being developed, even if it is 'groping along.'"

However, others say this isn't democracy at all. "The Orange Revolution didn't bring democracy to Ukraine," says Kirill Frolov of the Institute of CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] Studies in Moscow. "The state interferes in the affairs of church and even dictates to the citizens what language they have to speak. This is no democracy."

Yet in Mr. Frolov's view, the success of the Orange forces in a new election would be troubling. "If nationalists – I mean Yushchenko and Tymoshenko – win ... it will bring destabilization of the situation in Eastern Europe and confrontation with Russia."

Olga Podolskaya contributed reporting from Moscow.

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