President Viktor Yushchenko used the dual anniversary of Ukraine’s unification into an independent state in 1919 and his own inauguration in January 2005 to provide concrete suggestions to escape the political crisis resulting from parliament’s January 10 vote of no confidence in his government (see EDM, January 11). In an address to the country Yushchenko outlined a long list of achievements made in his administration’s first year in office, such as media freedom, reducing the shadow economy, and improving social welfare and pensions (president.gov.ua).
Yushchenko also claimed, “Together we have proved that the Ukrainian nation is capable of building a modern, independent, and democratic state.” He continued, “Today we say: Yes, I am a citizen of Ukraine and I am proud of it. This is the main achievement of the first year of my presidency.”
Yushchenko also stressed Ukraine’s democratic breakthrough under his watch. The New York-based Freedom House upgraded Ukraine from “partly free” to “free” in 2006 (freeedomhouse.org). Yushchenko declared, “The year of 2005 was, first of all, the year when our community revised its values. And this is its historical significance. We have taken a new look at ourselves and our country, its history and its future.”
On the day of his address, Yushchenko also issued a long decree outlining steps to ensure that the March 26 parliamentary elections will be free and fair. He called upon Ukraine’s political forces to sign a memorandum in support of free and fair elections.
Ukraine has not held free and fair elections since 1994, before the reign of former president Leonid Kuchma. The 1998 and 2002 parliamentary elections used a mix of proportional and majoritarian voting, and the contests for the 250 majoritarian seats saw abuse of “state-administrative resources” that helped propel pro-Kuchma officials and businessmen to victory. The 2006 elections will be held using a fully proportional law that reduces the opportunities for such abuse.
Yushchenko’s address heeded the call of many politicians to accept the legitimacy of the constitutional reforms that went into effect on January 1. “But, I do not regard them as ideal.” Yushchenko reiterated that the amendments had been made without the input of Ukraine’s citizens and therefore, “society should give its views regarding constitutional changes” (president.gov.ua).
Earlier Yushchenko had said that the changes “were an anti-constitutional action, hidden from the people” (Financial Times, January 13). Since spring 2005 there have been periodic threats by Yushchenko, his staff, and then-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to hold a referendum about the reforms (Ukrayinska pravda, May 8, 2005).
Over the summer threats to hold a referendum faded, and Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko told Kommersant-Daily (September 26, 2005) that Yushchenko had come around to accepting constitutional reforms.
This apparent shift of presidential opinion failed to reduce fears that Yushchenko would call a referendum. Parliament has deliberately stalled the swearing in of Constitutional Court judges for this very reason. Currently the Court does not have the quorum necessary to function, thus Yushchenko is unable to appeal to the Constitutional Court over the legality of the December 2004 constitutional changes.
Yushchenko’s threats to hold a referendum are unlikely to materialize for at least five reasons.
First, Yushchenko did not agree to the constitutional reforms under duress. The changes were proposed during the December 2004 roundtable negotiations, a time when over a million Orange supporters had filled the streets of Kyiv. During those days, Yushchenko also had the support of the military, the intelligence services, and elements of the Interior Ministry, while both Kuchma and then-prime minister Viktor Yanukovych were increasingly powerless.
Second, unlike the Yulia Tymoshenko bloc, Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc always supported constitutional reforms. Our Ukraine differed from the centrist Kuchma camp and the political left (Communists, Socialists) only on timing. Our Ukraine insisted they should come into effect after the March 2006 elections, while the Kuchma camp and the left supported their introduction after the 2004 elections.
Third, Yushchenko did not avail himself of the president’s extensive powers contained in the constitution that was in effect through until 2005. Why call a referendum to restore powers he had squandered?
Fourth, if Yushchenko had agreed on the constitutional reforms merely a tactical ruse to overcome the December 2004 presidential crisis, he could have scheduled a referendum immediately after coming to power in January 2005. Tymoshenko, then prime minister, would have wholeheartedly supported such a move at a time when the opposition was still in disarray. But since being removed as prime minister in September 2005, Tymoshenko has moved towards support for constitutional reforms.
Fifth, Yushchenko cannot risk alienating the Socialists by calling a referendum, as he will need them in any coalition in the 2006 parliament. The Socialists will abandon Yushchenko if he goes ahead with a constitutional referendum.
These five arguments suggest that a constitutional referendum would only be called if the March elections go badly for Yushchenko. Like Kuchma in 1996, Yushchenko would seek a referendum because he did not like the political configuration of the new parliament.
By threatening to hold a referendum on constitutional reforms, Yushchenko is misplacing his energy. Instead, he needs to focus on winning the 2006 elections, re-uniting the Orange camp (that he himself divided by firing Tymoshenko in September 2005), and creating a pro-reform and pro-presidential parliamentary majority in the newly elected parliament.