The accustomed division of prerogatives in Ukraine, whereby the president handles foreign policy while the prime minister oversees the economy, is no longer operational. The constitutional reform has shifted the balance of power in prime minister’s favor. By turning down a NATO-Ukraine Membership Action Plan, and receiving the support of parliament and government against the president over this issue, Viktor Yanukovych has just demonstrated that the prime minister can and will conduct foreign policy in a hands-on style. President Viktor Yushchenko’s team seemed not to recognize this new reality when it opted for a governing arrangement with Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. The presidency continued describing its authority to conduct foreign policy as the holy of holies of presidential powers. However, it now seems unable to defend that authority in practice from the prime minister’s and parliamentary majority’s far-reaching forays.
Following the Cabinet and Rada resolutions in his favor, Yanukovych felt emboldened enough to tell foreign journalists in Kyiv, “Viktor Andriyovich’s [Yushchenko] wishes sometimes exceed his possibilities” (Interfax-Ukraine, September 20). He also cautioned the presidentially appointed ministers of defense and foreign affairs to “act more correctly,” stop mounting the “political tribunes,” coordinate their positions with him and the government, and limit themselves to expressing consensus views when going public. Yanukovych tersely ruled out Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s suggestion to implement MAP reforms de facto, without a formal MAP, on the basis of presidential authority. “That can’t be and won’t be,” Yanukovych retorted, warning that he would impose “strict discipline” in that regard (Interfax-Ukraine, September 20).
The beleaguered presidency now seems to realize that the vaguely worded National Unity Declaration — ostensibly the basis of the governing coalition — is no defense against Yanukovych’s and Regions’ expansion of power. Blindsided by Yanukovych’s move in Brussels, Yushchenko initially issued a “first political warning” to the prime minister, which the latter demonstratively ignored. The presidency then considered calling a special meeting of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) to reaffirm Yushchenko’s supreme authority on foreign and defense policies and to instruct all branches of power to follow the presidential line. Moreover, a statement by Viktor Baloha, newly appointed head of the Presidential Secretariat, rebuffed the Rada’s resolution as “provocative,” “confrontational,” and encroaching on the president’s prerogatives (Interfax-Ukraine, September 19). However, the presidency was quick to retreat from a confrontation.
The NSDC’s session, held on September 20, introduced a note of realism to the presidency’s discourse on NATO membership and Yushchenko “would not like Ukraine to be drawn into senseless discussions about NATO membership, as the issue is not on the agenda at this stage,” he told the country after the session. The president redefined the issue as involving a determination of whether Ukraine will be ready for MAP in a follow-up stage of cooperation with NATO (UNIAN, September 20). The pro-NATO ministers of foreign affairs and defense, Borys Tarasyuk and Anatoliy Hrytsenko, have fallen back on the position that Yanukovych’s renunciation of Ukraine’s MAP has no long-term consequences, but only slowed down Ukraine’s advance toward NATO for the short term (UNIAN, Interfax-Ukraine, September 22-24).
However, the presidency’s would-be coalition partners have quickly found mechanisms to offset or bypass the president’s formal authority over foreign policy. On the legal side, these mechanisms include: the hitherto overlooked constitutional Article 85, paragraph 5; the prime minister’s responsibility to a newly empowered parliament; his ability to demand cabinet discipline; and the parliament’s ability to raise legislative obstacles to Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership. On the extralegal side, the method just seen consists of ignoring or even excluding pro-NATO ministers from key deliberations and delegations. Not used or tested as yet is the circumvention of presidential policy by under financing military reforms (although public information funding is already threatened). This can be applied even in the absence of rhetorical opposition to NATO.
Thus, the debate needs to be substantially recast with account taken of the shift of political power in the country. It must begin by recognizing that MAP was no longer available to Ukraine this year after the thwarting of joint military exercises in early summer, the formation of the Ukrainian government in its present form, and the full if belated realization of NATO’s low popularity rating in Ukraine. Ultimately — as Bruce Jackson, president of the U.S.-based Project on Transitional Democracies, points out (Interfax-Ukraine, September 20) — Yanukovych’s stance in Brussels could not have been different and becomes in that way comprehensible. The situation underscores the need to change perceptions in Ukraine’s public opinion and, equally, to work patiently with the Party of Regions leadership, educating it to a better understanding of law-based governance and national interests.