Did Ukraine Just End The Orange Revolution?

WASHINGTON, DC -- It looked, at first blush, like the final, ignominious end of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, the people power movement that swept aside Kyiv's authoritarian government in 2005 and ushered in democracy.

Viktor Yanukovych

Last week, Ukraine's constitutional court annulled changes to the country's system of government passed in 2004 that had weakened the powers of the executive. Now President Viktor Yanukovych -- the same man whose fraudulent election triggered the 2004 Orange Revolution, but who won a legitimate contest this year and was inaugurated in February -- plans to use the court ruling to expand his prerogatives at the expense of the legislature.

People power, it seems, is dead, and a strongman is back in charge of Ukraine. At least, that's how the opposition is spinning it.

But don't be so sure -- the storyline isn't nearly quite that neat. For one thing, in the short term, the court ruling won't actually change much in terms of the distribution of power in Ukraine.

Since their commanding victory early this year, Yanukovych and his Regions of Ukraine party have already dominated the presidency, the cabinet, and parliament.

For another, investors hope the change will bring some badly needed political stability to a country that has seen precious little in the past ten years -- and that this stability will improve the business climate.

Then there's the fact that Ukraine's current political system -- the one that the court just overturned --wasn't one the Orange Revolution's leaders really wanted.

While they accepted the current setup in 2004 as a compromise after the revolution, it was former President Leonid Kuchma (whose strong-armed rule triggered the uprising) that, facing term limits, decided to weaken his own office and bequeath the current diminished version on his democratic successors.

The result was a government that politicians across the spectrum complain has become increasingly unworkable.

The main problem is with how the government is formed. Parliament currently has the power to appoint the prime minister, which has allowed it to influence nominations for most cabinet posts.

As a result, Yanukovych's predecessor, President (and Orange Revolution leader) Viktor Yushchenko, had to contest with prime ministers foisted on him by an unfriendly legislature.

This led to gridlock even when Yushchenko and the prime minister agreed on policy, as well as battles for control that blurred lines of authority. The conflict slowed the response to the economic crisis that cut Ukraine's GDP by 15 percent in 2009.

If Ukraine's new system was so dysfunctional, why didn't anyone change it before now? The problem was that no faction in the country's bitterly divided political system trusted any other faction to change the setup, fearing that reform would benefit one political group at the expense of all others.

Thus when Yulia Tymoshenko, currently an opposition leader, proposed changes as prime minister, the attempts foundered.

The move back to a presidential system now will give Yanukovych powers Yushchenko lacked, allowing him to hire and fire ministers with far less interference from parliament.

By promoting calm, this could benefit all of Ukraine, though whether stability ultimately improves or not will depend on how Yanukovych follows up on the court's ruling.

He has two options. He can either work with parliament to change the constitution -- the more promising path. Or he can unilaterally declare the previous 1996 constitution in effect, an approach guaranteed to fire up the opposition and estrange his coalition partners in parliament.

As for the opposition's charges that the court's ruling could usher in a new era of authoritarianism, these should not be taken lightly.

For one thing, Ukraine has a history of government abuse, and it was opposition to such behavior under Kuchma that helped drive Ukrainians into the streets in 2004-2005.

For another, accusations since February of media repression, NGO intimidation, and politically motivated investigations -- denied by the government -- are a cause for concern. If such tactics continue, Ukraine could once more be rocked by destabilizing protests.

But don't expect Ukrainians to start manning the barricades simply in response to last week's court decision. The public -- and Orange Revolution supporters in particular -- are exhausted after five years of constant political infighting and are disillusioned by the failures of their leaders to govern.

So while opposition leaders may scream that Yanukovych is undermining their revolution, it's not clear that Ukrainians agree -- or are ready to join them once more.

Source: Foreign Policy