In Ukraine, Tymoshenko heads to the opposition

Whether Yulia Tymoshenko retains her position as prime minister or not, it appears she will be Ukraine’s main opposition voice.

On Saturday, she withdrew her challenge of Ukraine’s election results, claiming the court would not consider her evidence. It remains unclear whether the court actually refused to consider evidence or whether the evidence did not fit within its legal competence. But regardless, the withdrawal of the case before the completion of the hearing provided Tymoshenko with the ability to appear wronged. She has now retreated to regroup for the next battle, which will occur following Viktor Yanukovych’s inauguration on February 25.

See this Reuters video for background on the withdrawal of the court case. Embedding is disabled, so for best viewing, right click to watch on YouTube. (Also, ignore the reporter’s mispronunciation of Yan-U-ko-vych instead of Yan-u-KO-vych.)

Should Tymoshenko remain head of government for any significant length of time, this would create a potentially mammoth battle between the offices of president and prime minister. The battle has the potential to either help Ukraine maintain the most developed political pluralism in the region or be as damaging as the 2005 war between Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko. Or perhaps both.

The scenario is created by Ukraine’s complicated (and convoluted) mixed parliamentary-presidential system. In essence, Ukraine’s prime minister holds significant and important powers, but they often overlap with the president.

According to hastily approved constitutional amendments in 2004, the prime minister is chosen and approved by the parliament.

The head of government then chooses the majority of the cabinet based on parliamentary majority coalition negotiations and approval. Economic policy, social policy and most other domestic matters technically are within the portfolio of the prime minister. The president retains control of the Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry.

The president also controls the State Security Services and the Prosecutor-General’s Office. And he retains decree powers that appear to have few limits.

In recent years, the prime minister has negotiated and signed most international agreements dealing with economic matters. Tymoshenko signed these agreements primarily under the authority of Article 116, Point 8 of the Constitution, which states that the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine “organizes and ensures the implementation of the foreign economic activity of Ukraine.”

However, it is unclear whether the new president can insist on signing these agreements instead of Tymoshenko. It is likely that he will do so based on Article 106, Point 3 of the Constitution which says that the President of Ukraine “represents the state in international relations, administers the foreign political activity of the State, conducts negotiations and concludes international treaties of Ukraine.” A Constitutional Court battle could be ahead, and it could influence the direction of Ukraine’s foreign policy.

Should the two offices compete for control of both domestic and international policy, the country may enter a prolonged period of stalemate – assuming both offices are effective.

Yanukovych, of course, will attempt to remove Tymoshenko before that happens. In fact, his Party of Regions has already introduced a parliamentary motion of no confidence in the government. In a possibly ominous sign for the President-Elect, Tymoshenko’s government quickly announced its support for the idea.

Most important, while Yanukovych likely could muster a simple majority to vote no confidence in Tymoshenko, he may not actually be able to replace her with a new government. This could lead to another round of snap parliamentary elections – which still would provide no guarantee of a solution to the stalemate.

More on that tomorrow……