Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 1

On January 1, 2006, Ukraine began its transformation from a semi-presidential republic into a parliamentary democracy. The reform is in line with the constitutional amendments that the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) passed at the height of the Orange Revolution in late 2004. This was a compromise deal between Viktor Yushchenko and a faction of the supporters of his rival Viktor Yanukovych, which made it possible for Yushchenko to be elected president in a repeat runoff election sanctioned by the Rada. Yushchenko now wants to revise the reform, arguing that it is not in the nation’s interest.

In the early 1990s, Ukraine preferred a French-type republic with a strong president and a weak prime minister to a parliamentary republic, the system chosen by Ukraine’s western neighbors like Hungary and Poland. In the beginning, this choice probably helped consolidate a nation that had no history of statehood. But later on, especially during Leonid Kuchma’s term as president, many critics started to argue that a strong presidency had become a hindrance to progress.

Closer to the 2004 presidential poll, when it was becoming clear that Kuchma’s team would lose to Yushchenko, the tables were turned. The vanquished elite started to push for constitutional reform in order to weaken the future president. They succeeded on December 8, 2004, when Yushchenko agreed to back the reform in exchange for the Rada majority’s go-ahead to the “third round” of the presidential election after the falsified November runoff election, in which Yanukovych had claimed victory. After winning the election, Yushchenko did not conceal his dislike of the reform, but he agreed not to torpedo it for the sake of stability.

In accordance with the constitutional reform, the new Rada, which should be elected on March 26, 2006, will serve five, rather than four years, as previously. It will also be institutionally stronger. The Cabinet appointed before the election will have to resign, which was not necessary before the reform. Now the Rada majority, rather than the president, will appoint the prime minister and most of the Cabinet ministers. The president will lose the right to fire the prosecutor-general, which will be the Rada’s prerogative. It will be up to the Cabinet, rather than the president, to create new Cabinet ministries and other executive bodies.

The reform, however, stopped short of a transition to a fully parliamentary republic, as the president retains certain important functions and acquires several new ones. The president retains the right to nominate the foreign minister, the interior minister, and the defense minister, as well as to appoint the prosecutor-general and regional governors. Additionally, the president obtains the right to dissolve the Rada if it fails to form a majority within 30 days after election or to form the Cabinet within 60 days. The president also remains the army’s commander-in-chief and chairman of the National Security and Defense Council.

The reform is controversial. It may lead to serious standoffs if the president and the parliamentary majority belong to rival camps. For example, it is not quite clear what might prevent the president from dissolving the Rada as often as he wants to, if there is no stable majority in the Rada and consequently the Rada is unable to appoint the Cabinet within two months of the election. The reform is apparently also out of tune with European standards, as it strengthens the position of the prosecutor-general and limits political freedom, introducing the so-called imperative mandate, under which people’s deputies will not be allowed to leave the parties from whose lists they were elected to the Rada.

These weak points of the reform, not just the reluctance to share authority with the Rada, as President Yushchenko’s opponents claim, have prompted him to call for the reform’s reversal. During a December 20 press conference Yushchenko for the first time announced that he would fight the reform after the New Year. On December 28, Justice Minister Serhiy Holovaty denounced the reform, saying it is not in line with democratic standards. In a televised interview on December 30, Yushchenko said the reform would “worsen relations between the branches of power and make the government irrational.” He suggested reversing the amendments through a referendum.

A referendum is probably the only tool that might change the situation in favor of Yushchenko now. The current Rada overwhelmingly backs the new system. Not only have the opposition United Social Democratic Party and the Communists harshly criticized Yushchenko for his calls to reverse the reform, but Rada Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn (who has told state TV the reform should prevent the president from turning into a “tsar”), and Oleksandr Moroz, whose Socialist Party has supported the Orange Revolution and Yushchenko’s government also agree. And Yanukovych even went as far as suggesting that the government deliberately provoked the natural gas row with Russia in order to disrupt the constitutional reform.

(Channel 5, December 20, 22; UT1, December 27; 2000, December 30; Inter TV, December 28, 30)