Stalled By Conflict, Ukraine’s Democracy Gasps For Air

KIEV, Ukraine -- Two and a half years ago, the “Orange Revolution” promised Ukrainians a freer, more democratic system of government. Instead, the country now finds itself mired in perpetual political crisis, punctuated by confusion, chaos and, at times, comedy.

Svyatoslav M. Piskun, the prosecutor general, says the president has exceeded his authority.

In April, President Viktor A. Yushchenko issued a disputed decree dissolving Parliament. That led to charges, countercharges and dueling protests between the country’s warring camps, led by Mr. Yushchenko on one side and the prime minister, Viktor F. Yanukovich, on the other.

On Wednesday, for example, protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the prosecutor general, a member of Mr. Yanukovich’s party whom the president had already fired two times.

Drawn by rumors of an imminent assault by government commandos, they blockaded the leafy streets while their leaders issued instructions on how to resist and warned of nefarious NATO plans to subjugate the nation.

“We don’t want to be imprisoned by America, like Yugoslavia was,” one protester said.

Inside, a dozen members of Parliament occupied a landing by the elevator, vowing to protect the prosecutor general, Svyatoslav M. Piskun. “Give me the Constitution,” one deputy demanded, and then thumbed through the one produced in search of some legal justification for all of this.

Mr. Piskun, who has accused Mr. Yushchenko of criminal conduct for exceeding his constitutional powers, has refused to step down.

The president, in an interview, accused him in turn of politicizing the justice system. He had already appointed somebody else to the post, only to have his decree, like most of late, ignored.

The country’s leaders agreed early last Sunday morning to end a prolonged political impasse by holding new parliamentary elections, the second in less than two years.

But that agreement, which appeared to be unraveling on Thursday, has done little to resolve the underlying disputes.

They include an unclear division of power between a weakened presidency and an empowered Parliament; allegations of corruption in Parliament and the courts; and a lack of mature democratic institutions able to emerge from the shadows of the oversize political personalities who dominate Ukrainian politics.

The result has been not only endless conflict, but also public apathy, tinged with disappointment, which even the country’s leaders acknowledge having caused.

“We started a kind of judicial game, using the flaws of our laws,” Mr. Piskun said in his barricaded building, referring to legal challenges that have been swirling around him. “We make people lose trust in the judicial system.”

Ukraine is immeasurably freer than it was in 2004, when President Leonid D. Kuchma tried to orchestrate the fraudulent election of a successor, Mr. Yanukovich, setting off protests that led to a new election, won by Mr. Yushchenko.

One measure of that is that Mr. Yanukovich’s Party of Regions won enough seats last year in parliamentary elections to make him prime minister.

Ukraine, though, has failed to consolidate its democracy, even as it has embraced the theatrics of democratic politics.

Protests abound, though often with paid protesters, as do the tents that in 2004 filled Independence Square, known as the Maidan. So, ominously, do political threats and brinkmanship.

Those activities nearly resulted in violence when Interior Ministry troops, following orders from the interior minister, a Yanukovich loyalist, occupied Mr. Piskun’s office after the president tried to dismiss him.

Mr. Yushchenko then declared the ministry’s military forces under his command, and the top uniformed commander declared his loyalty to the president.

The interior minister, Vasyl P. Tsushko, was hospitalized Wednesday, reportedly with a heart ailment.

On Thursday, a member of his Socialist Party declared that the minister had been poisoned by his opponents, implicitly Mr. Yushchenko’s supporters.

Poison is a motif of Ukrainian politics, the most notable case being Mr. Yushchenko’s poisoning before the 2004 vote.

That crime remains unsolved, an emblem of Ukraine’s uncertain embrace of the rule of law. The twist is that Mr. Yushchenko is now accused of abusing the law.

That stems from his decision — with the parliamentary majority led by Mr. Yanukovich growing and members of his own party defecting — to issue a decree dissolving Parliament in April on narrow grounds that members were switching parties, which he called “an issue of political corruption.”

His opponents assailed the move as unconstitutional, but when they took the matter to the Constitutional Court, Mr. Yushchenko dismissed 3 of the court’s 18 judges, accusing them of corruption.

The Constitutional Court, Mr. Piskun retorted indignantly, is “the backbone of democracy.” He acknowledged that there might have been justification for Mr. Yushchenko’s charges, but he said there was a judicial and parliamentary process for resolving them.

Mr. Yushchenko defended his actions, though he appeared subdued, even resigned. “I would like to emphasize this is not a political crisis,” he said of the turmoil surrounding the prosecutor’s office. “It is just a reality of political life in Ukraine.”

Ukraine remains a deeply divided country, with a large Russian-speaking population that has bristled at Mr. Yushchenko’s embrace of the European Union and NATO at the expense, as widely seen, of fraternal ties with Russia.

Increasingly, though, the divisions appear less substantive and more political and personal.

Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, a former foreign minister and an adviser to Mr. Yanukovich, said that the Yanukovich camp was equally committed to integrating Ukraine into the global economy and, eventually, into the European Union, though NATO remains unpopular.

Instead, he said, elections increasingly turn on personalities.

“People here vote most likely for the leader whom they like,” he said in an interview. “I would hesitate to say trust, but like is the right word.”

Others said that Ukrainian politics had simply become a struggle over access to business. “Having power gives you the instruments to do business,” said Oleksandr O. Moroz, who became speaker of Parliament after breaking with Mr. Yushchenko’s camp last summer. “They are fighting for power to obtain these instruments.”

The biggest concern in Ukraine is that elections are unlikely to significantly change the makeup of Parliament.

They could simply prolong the failures to bolster the institutions necessary to allow democracy to flourish, including prosecutors and courts independent of presidential decrees and street protests.

Without institutional changes, said Anatoly K. Kinakh, who became minister of the economy after defecting from Mr. Yushchenko’s camp this year, “this election will not produce any better quality of democracy.”

Source: The New York Times