Sunday 19th of January 2020, 16:43 CET|
|A constitutional coup in Ukraine|
September 10, 2003
Written by Yuliya Tymoshenko
Posted by HW on January 19, 2020
Grip of power
Kuchma has not suddenly converted to the view that parliamentary democracies are better than presidential ones. No, Kuchma wants to change Ukraine's constitution for no other reason than to maintain his grip on power
Changing constitutions is always a risky business. But it is a downright dangerous one when undertaken to benefit one man alone. Indeed, when a president volunteers to reduce the powers of his own office, you can be certain that he is up to no good.
That is exactly what is going on in Ukraine, where President Leonid Kuchma proposes to junk our presidential system and replace it with a strange type of parliamentary system he has concocted. Kuchma has not suddenly converted to the view that parliamentary democracies are better than presidential ones. No, Kuchma wants to change Ukraine's constitution for no other reason than to maintain his grip on power.
Today, Kuchma rules as an all-powerful president. But his term ends next year and he cannot run again. So, instead of retiring gracefully, as presidents from Bill Clinton to Boris Yeltsin routinely do, Kuchma wants to change the constitution in order to become an all-powerful prime minister who will never face a limit on the length of his term.
Of course, constitutions are not meant to protect the status quo if the status quo is rotten. Constitutions can, and should, accommodate reform when necessary.
A powerful president, however, is not necessarily wrong for Ukraine. In our wrenching postcommunist transition, it is essential that a government can act decisively. To change a system that seems best suited to Ukraine's circumstances, you need a good reason.
The Ukraine president is authorised to appoint and sack the prime minister, dissolve parliament if he wishes, and rule by decree if he judges that the country's institutions are in danger. He maintains day-to-day control over every aspect of government. So puissant a Caesar must be above reproach.
Kuchma is not. On the contrary, what is rotten in Ukraine is not its constitution, but its president, who is mired in charges of corruption and orchestrating the murder of journalists, and who is shunned by other world leaders.
As president, Kuchma is grotesquely unpopular. Even Slobodan Milosevic had more support in Yugoslavia before his fall. So Kuchma knows that he cannot rely on handpicking his successor, as Yeltsin did in Russia.
Unable to assure himself of a tame presidential successor, Kuchma wants what he calls a 'parliamentary republic' with a weak president and powerful prime minister. But the parliament he has in mind is a mutant, one where the authoritarian rule of the criminal clans Kuchma controls will continue, unabated, behind the facade of parliamentary procedure.
People too easily forget Ukraine, this big country on the border of the soon-to-be enlarged European Union. But any attempt to prolong Kuchma's rule will create such a political mess that it is not absurd to fear that Ukraine could follow Belarus and the Balkans of the early 1990s into outright dictatorship and chaos.
Indeed, this scenario could worsen, because Russia is unlikely to sit around idly and watch Ukraine unravel. Intervention of some type seems more likely in such circumstances. Only an imperial Russia, however, would dare reabsorb Ukraine. But an imperial Russia cannot be a democratic Russia. So Kuchma endangers freedom and human rights not only in Ukraine, but ultimately threatens Russia's democracy as well.
Luckily, there has never been a better time for the West - particularly the EU - to nudge Ukraine back from the brink. With EU expansion coming next spring, all Ukrainians fear that a new wall will cut their country off from the Union's easternmost border in Poland.
Although the job of maintaining Ukraine's democracy is primarily one for Ukrainians, the EU can help if it takes practical steps to reassure Ukrainians that they won't be cut off from the rest of Europe. A generous visa regime and the use of regional development funds in Ukraine that will benefit impoverished eastern Poland, are two possible inducements. But these should be made conditional on Kuchma leaving the country's constitution and democracy alone.
The EU should not fret about interfering in Ukraine's domestic affairs. After all, it hesitated little a few years ago to put a current member state, Austria, on notice that it was watching out for the welfare of that country's democracy. The wayward Kuchma is far more deserving of Europe imposing safeguards to ensure his good behaviour.
Similarly, the US should cast a wary eye at Kuchma's decision to send troops to Iraq. It cannot be the case that America's fidelity to democracy in Ukraine can be so cynically purchased.
Within Ukraine, a government capable of truly governing should seek to adopt EU laws and norms in exactly the manner that the countries poised to join the Union have done, thus helping to clean up the murky system in which Kuchma's criminal cronies flourish. The constitution must be reformed, but not to shift power from one unaccountable leader to another. What is needed are clear checks on arbitrary rule, and transparency in decision-making.
No one should doubt that Kuchma intends to stay in power, no matter what. Less certain is whether he will feel secure enough to hold a presidential election (or any other kind of election) if he cannot change the constitution in a way that guarantees his continued misrule. It is, after all, President Kuchma who is discredited, not Ukraine's constitutional arrangements.