Pifer: A Primer on Ukraine’s Political Crisis

Pifer: A Primer on Ukraine’s Political Crisis

Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, sees little chance a constitutional court will resolve Ukraine’s political crisis, and points to missteps by the Ukrainian president.

April 18, 2007 12:25 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the end of the Clinton administration, says a serious political crisis is underway in Ukraine, pitting long-time foes Viktor Yushchenko, the president, against Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Parliament has refused the president’s decree to dissolve itself and Pifer sees little chance the constitutional court will settle the stand-off. Pifer, a former top State Department official on Russian affairs in the Bush administration, said Russia is taking a “restrained” approach to the crisis after its missteps in 2004.

Many people were quite excited at the end of 2004 when the so-called Orange Revolution took place and President Viktor Yushchenko came into office. But there seems to be almost a political paralysis now. The President has called for new parliamentary elections, and the parliament refuses. What happened?

First of all, the Yushchenko government, once he became president in 2005, did not prove as effective as people had hoped. Moreover, there was a division within the Orange ranks. Yushchenko made his political ally, Yuliya Tymoshenko, prime minister. It didn’t work so well, and in September of 2005, Yushchenko fired her.

What led to that break-up? They seemed like such an attractive team.

While they were unified in the Orange Revolution, they had different visions about where government should go. And so there were some contradictions between the two programs they were pursuing. And second, there was infighting between their two teams. There was a disillusionment with the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko effort in 2005 when they were in government. The second factor was Yushchenko’s democratic instincts. In 2005 he basically created an open political environment. And that allowed Viktor Yanukovych, his opponent in 2004, who had been badly discredited in the Orange Revolution, to recoup his political position and lead his political party, the Party of Regions, to victory in the March 2006 Rada [parliamentary] elections.

How did that happen? Was it for geographic and demographic reasons?

Yanukovych’s power base is primarily in the eastern and southern part of Ukraine. And remember even in the third round, the final round of the presidential elections in December 2004, Yanukovych still got 44 percent of the vote. After Yushchenko became president, Yanukovych was able to rebuild his position without any of the pressures or harassment that Yushchenko had encountered between 2002 and 2004 when Yushchenko was getting ready to run for president. That’s to Yushchenko’s credit, but it led to the rehabilitation of his main political rival.

And then the third factor was Yushchenko’s hesitation. After the March 2006 elections, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions came in first with about 32 percent of the vote. Tymoshenko’s bloc came in second with about 22 percent. And Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party finished at about 12 percent. However, because of the continuing animosity between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych, Yushchenko was basically the kingmaker. He could have decided the coalition that would set up the majority in the Rada. And he could have had an Orange coalition.

But he hesitated for three months, and this is one of those mysteries. I don’t really understand what he was waiting for. And after three months, the Socialists defected and Yanukovych’s Regions party, allied with the Socialists and the Communists, was able to put together a thin majority in the Rada and form the majority coalition.

So in other words, it was sort of a lack of leadership by Yushchenko you think that led to this?

I use the term “hesitation,” and I think part of the problem was when one looked at a restoration of an Orange coalition, Tymoshenko certainly wanted to come back as prime minister. Yushchenko had hesitations about that. And then again there were reported contacts between Yushchenko’s party and the Party of Regions, and it’s not clear exactly why those fell through. So you basically had this period from the end of March of 2006 up until the middle of June, when Yushchenko could’ve formed a coalition but didn’t. And then the Socialists bolted and Regions then in July were able to put together a party that formed the majority in the Rada.

And that takes us to last summer.

And then there’s a fourth factor, which adds a layer of complexity. As part of the resolution to the Orange Revolution in 2004, the Ukrainian parties agreed on constitutional amendments. In general, they were a good thing because they moved Ukraine away from the super presidency model that had been abused in the period of President [Leonid] Kuchma’s rule from 1994 until he gave up office to Yushchenko. It was changed to more of a parliamentary-presidential system, with greater balance between the president and the Rada, and greater balance between the president and the prime minister. The problem was that those amendments were drafted fairly hastily, and they left some ambiguities, and that caused friction between the president and the prime minister and the president and the Rada as they each sort of tested the limits of their power. And so Yushchenko ends up with Yanukovych in August of last year in a cohabitation relationship, and it really doesn’t work.

That brings us up to this year.

The triggering event for the April 2 decree by Yushchenko for new parliamentary elections occurred in March when a number of deputies from Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party and the Tymoshenko bloc, in effect, defected to the majority coalition. So the majority coalition which last summer had around 240, 245 deputies, was moving beyond 260 toward 270 in March. And you had some members of the Regions party openly saying, we’re going to continue to poach members, and our goal is to get three-hundred. The key thing about three-hundred is at that point, in a parliament with 450, the parliament could override any presidential veto, and then has a constitutional majority so it could change the constitution at will. And some members of Yanukovych’s party were basically saying, once we get that constitutional majority, in effect, we’re going to make the presidency a ceremonial position.

So that led the president to say, I want to have new elections.

Right, and so he put out a decree late on April 2. The decree basically dissolves the Rada and ordered new elections to be held on May 27.

Does the constitution allow that? Is that clear in the constitution?

This is where it gets unclear. The president’s philosophical reason here is that he says, in March of 2006, Ukrainian voters did not vote for individual members of the Rada, they voted for parties, they voted for party lists. And therefore, he says, if now deputies leave one party to go to another party, they are in effect disenfranchising voters who voted for that party back in 2006.

It’s a proportional representation system. Sort of like the Israeli system.

And moreover, he says, that if you look at the constitution—he’s correct here—the constitution says that the majority coalition will be based on factions, on political parties. And he’s saying that now, by adding in individuals, you’re creating, in effect, a coalition that is unconstitutional. There’s a logic there. The question is whether that would conform to the terms of the constitution which provide for fairly explicit circumstances under which the president can dissolve the Rada. And so there are going to be contrasting interpretations of the constitution here.

And the matter is now in the constitutional court.

Right. There are a couple of ways forward. One would be a political compromise, and Yushchenko and Yanukovych have met probably five or six times in the last two weeks. At this point, they’re talking, but they both seem to be holding to their positions, Yushchenko’s being that there should be early elections, Yanukovych saying, “No, these elections and the dissolution are unconstitutional.” Ukraine’s constitutional court has just begun meetings today on the question, and we’ll see where that goes. There are many allegations in Ukraine that the court cannot be impartial [because it] is corrupt. Moreover, in the last eight months since the cohabitation began, the court has been given a number of cases that would ask it to rule on the question of, “Who has the authority, is it the president or the parliament?” And in those eight months, the court has never once pronounced.

What do people say? If they had an election in May would the Regions party do even better?

This is very uncertain. The polls seem to be swinging. Two weeks ago polls showed a majority of Ukrainians opposed the idea of early elections, but there was a poll that just came out which said about 60 percent now support the idea. If you take the Orange parties on one side and if you take the parties that are more pro-Yanukovych, they’re both going to be somewhere in the 45 [percent] to 55 percent range. It’s not going to be a huge swing one way or the other. So, obviously, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko are hoping that they can pull enough votes where they could then rebuild an Orange coalition.

What do major foreign powers think about this?

Washington is definitely more sympathetic to the Orange vision for Ukraine, that is, a democratic Ukraine, a strong market economy, increasingly integrated into Europe and Euro-Atlantic institutions. But the dilemma for Washington here is that up until now, you basically had a fight between a democratically elected president and a Rada majority that was elected in a democratic election last year. Thus far, the position that Washington has taken is, in essence, to support the democratic process. What this government has called for is a peaceful resolution that is consistent with democratic norms and the rule of law.

I guess the Russians are watching this with great interest, right?

The Russians are following this with a lot of interest. My sense is so far that the Russian government has been fairly restrained. The Russian government has said, “We hope that they can work it out in a democratic fashion. If they would like Russian assistance, we’re prepared to help out.” Part of this is the Russians learned their lesson in 2004. In 2004 for both the first round and the second round of the Ukrainian presidential elections, Putin went to Ukraine in what was a barely disguised campaign trip on the part of Yanukovych. And that, I believe, generated a backlash. So the Russian government now is much more careful.

What’s your guess? How’s it going to end up?

My hope is that they would find some kind of a compromise, which would have to deal with a couple of elements. One, there would have to be, as a nod to Yushchenko, some kind of agreement on not poaching deputies. And that might have to be reflected in legislation.

A second element would be appointing some kind of group of wise men or a commission that could sit down and look at the constitution and say, “Where are the ambiguities, how can you fix them?” and then come up with some suggestions. Because if they don’t address those problems, even if they have new elections or if they avoid new elections, they may be right back in the same sort of constitutional mess four or five months down the road.

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