Ukraine's Constitutional Court handed down a politically explosive ruling Friday, declaring "illegal" a complex deal that peacefully ended the Orange Revolution six years ago by redistributing power from the presidency to the more broadly based parliament.
Supporters say Ukraine needs a strong hand to guide it through economic and political crisis. But critics say the decision will enable President Viktor Yanukovich, who was elected in a hard-fought contest in February this year, to rapidly consolidate power and carry out a far-reaching political agenda.
That agenda has included repairing Ukraine's tattered relations with Moscow, ending its bid to join the Western military alliance NATO, and perhaps seeking to give Russian – spoken by nearly half of Ukrainians – official language status.
"This is disastrous. It will make Ukraine look more like its eastern neighbors, like Belarus or Uzbekistan, and eliminate the checks and balances," says Volodymir Horbach, an analyst with the independent Institute of Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev. "The sovereignty of the Ukrainian people has been trampled, and our people will have real cause for popular revolt."
'A political nuclear weapon'
It may also lead to a fresh outburst of political strife. Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko told a Kiev press conference Friday that if the decision is carried out, the Ukrainian state would be on the road to collapse.
"Ukraine is now outside the bounds of political and legislative culture and has stopped being a part of democratic civilization," said Ms. Tymoshenko, who was narrowly defeated by Mr. Yanukovich earlier this year. "It displays anti-Constitutional madness on the part of our authorities, who have decided that law means nothing in Ukraine. This is a political nuclear weapon, personified in an inadequate leader [Yanukovich] who is claiming for himself the powers of a dictator."
Announcing the decision, chief judge Anatoly Holovin said that the Dec. 8, 2004, constitutional amendments that were agreed to following three weeks of rolling street demonstrations in Kiev, remembered as the Orange Revolution, "do not correspond to the Constitution of Ukraine, are unconstitutional, due to violations of constitutional procedures for its consideration and adoption."
The impact of the decision will be to return Ukraine to the terms of its 1996 Constitution, which granted the lion's share of power to the president, including the authority to name the prime minister and government cabinet.
Years of gridlock, massive corruption
Critics maintain that the old "presidential" constitutional system led to massive corruption and power abuses under former President Leonid Kuchma. It also spawned the alleged vote rigging that enabled Mr. Kuchma's handpicked successor, Yanukovich, to win the first round of the controversial 2004 presidential election, and which triggered the Orange Revolution.
Those compromises six years ago arguably prevented full-scale confrontation between two sides in Ukraine, which is deeply divided between its Russified and pro-Moscow east and more nationalistic and westward-leaning western regions.
But they also led to years of gridlock between pro-West former President Viktor Yushchenko and the opposition-dominated Supreme Rada, which stymied most of his attempts to reform Ukraine's economy and align the country more closely with the European Union. Mr. Yushchenko also fell out with his Orange Revolution ally, Ms. Tymoshenko, and ended his presidency in a humiliating electoral debacle earlier this year.
Who supports the court decision, and why
Supporters of the court decision say Ukraine needs a strong executive hand to guide it through the ongoing economic crisis and help it navigate the rough diplomatic waters between Moscow and the West.
"The court has canceled badly thought-out constitutional changes that were hastily – and it turns out illegally – made back in 2004," says Dmitro Vydrin, director of the independent Institute of Integration and Development in Kiev. "I hope we will now be able to move forward. After all, Ukraine's 1996 constitution was hailed around the world at the time as 'the most democratic' in the former Soviet Union. If there were abuses, they happened because Kuchma broke the constitution, not because the system was bad."
The Kiev court's decision will probably be welcomed by the Kremlin, which dispensed with its own strong legislature in a two-day Moscow gun battle back in 1993, and has repeatedly expressed discomfort with pro-parliamentary eruptions in its own region – most recently in Kyrgyzstan – ever since.
"Theoretically speaking, when all power is concentrated in the hands of a single person, management becomes simplified. But, of course, that depends on whether the person in question knows what to do."