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Analysis & Opinion
15.10.10 Is Yanukovich Adopting The Putin Model?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Edward Lozansky, Anthony Salvia, Alexandre Strokanov

On October 1 Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, in a highly controversial ruling, annulled the constitutional amendments passed in 2004 in the heat of the Orange revolution. The amendments of 2004 (the so-called Public Law 2222) transformed Ukraine into a parliamentary-presidential republic with a strong Parliament and a strong prime minister, while limiting the powers of the president. It allowed for the rise of strong political parties and introduced a democratic and transparent mechanism of forming the government through majority political coalitions in Ukraine’s Parliament. So is Yanukovich now adopting the Putin model to run Ukraine?

Now, after the Constitutional Court’s ruling, Ukraine is returning to former president Leonid Kuchma’s Constitution of 1996, which created a strong president, a government subordinate to the president, and a weak and fractured Parliament.

The constitutional changes, pushed through by President Viktor Yanukovich immediately after his victory in the presidential elections of February 2010, restore the presidential powers to appoint and fire the prime minister and cabinet ministers with minimal parliamentary interference. The cabinet is now completely subordinate to the president, as well as the regional governors (who used to be subordinate to the prime minister). The president can overrule any government decision and has the power to fire the prime minister with the stroke of his pen.

The Parliament has lost its power to form a cabinet through majority coalitions (which are no longer needed at all), while the parliamentary political parties have lost the power to retain their deputies within party factions (a procedure known as the imperative mandate). They are now free to form any factions or groups as they choose with little regard for the parties that elected them.

The biggest loser in the constitutional reform is the opposition. Now, the opposition parties, even if they win the parliamentary elections and control the majority of seats in Parliament, are no longer in a position to form their own government. The president can therefore technically ignore an opposition victory and carry on with his own government as he sees fit. And with the elimination of the imperative mandate that forced deputies to stay with their party factions unless they forfeit their seats, the president has the power and the means to form any majority coalitions in order to pass any laws he wants to.

The stated reason for the reform given by president Yanukovich was to strengthen the presidential powers to better coordinate the executive bodies in order to carry out painful economic reforms. He called for eliminating the duality in the executive branch of government with the president and prime minister sharing responsibility for running the country, a situation which under former President Viktor Yushchenko and ex-Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko degenerated into a public brawl and government paralysis.

Perhaps, Yanukovich is giving the real reasons for dismantling the largely dysfunctional system he inherited from Yushchenko. But critics point to signs that he may be seeking to build a political system akin to the one created by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Russia, with a strong and all too powerful presidency, a weak and controlled Parliament and a one and a half party system, where political opposition is relegated to the fringes of national politics.

At the upcoming regional and local elections on October 31, for example, Yanukovich is working to consolidate the dominant position of his Party of Regions in the regional legislatures not only in the Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine, but in Ukrainian-speaking west as well. Critics also point out his use of the security services to muzzle the independent media behind a smokescreen of corporate warfare.

Is Yanukovich seeking to build a largely authoritarian system with only imitational democratic procedures as exists in Russia? Is he planning to turn Ukraine into a one-party state with the Party of Regions controlling all the entry points to national politics? Is he seeking to marginalize Ukraine’s raucous opposition and deprive it of legal avenues to recapture power through free and fair elections? Will Yanukovich turn into Ukraine’s Putin or Ukraine’s Alexander Lukashenko? Or will he turn into Ukraine’s Charles de Gaulle? Is the Putin model going to be replicated throughout the post-Soviet world and maybe beyond? Would that mean it is proving to be viable and attractive for other nations to follow? Is so, what kind of geopolitical implications may this process engender?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

Although Vladimir Putin made some serious changes in Russian politics, the fundamental distribution of power between the Russian president, government and State Duma has been untouched since 1993 and the so-called Boris Yeltsin Constitution. Putin simply brought the Yeltsin model to its logical end, and president Dmitry Medvedev today continues to take the same course. The main point is that the office of the Russian president dictates the rules of the game and the control over this office generally guarantees the control over political life in the country.

Since the only real opposition to this model was Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (KPRF), the Kremlin did everything to marginalize it. It became possible through smear campaigns and by persuading regional leaders previously associated with KPRF to join a new party of power (United Russia), thus dissolving what was known in the 1990s as the Red Belt (regions where the communists were getting a very high percentage of votes, often dominating local political life). Other factors played an important role in weakening the KPRF, including: the party’s own ideological inflexibility, the stagnation of its leadership, the association of the party with the Soviet system, and finally generational change in the country.

Pro-Western liberals and market-Bolsheviks who were quite well represented in the corridors of Russian power in Yeltsin’s time lost their positions primarily due to the horrifying consequences of their rule, which regular people associated with chaos and degradation in all spheres of life in the country and Russia’s freefall on the international stage. Generally speaking, this type of opposition, if it ever really existed outside of the Boulevard Ring of Moscow, never represented any serious challenge to the Yeltsin-Putin-Medvedev regime. Many of its members (Anatoly Chubais, Sergey Kirienko, Nikita Belykh) were successfully incorporated into this regime, others (Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov) were simply thrown away, marginalized and ignored.

That is why Russian political life today is so uncompetitive and boring, and it will remain so in the foreseeable future. It will change only in the case of some state catastrophe (much worse than the firestorms of the past summer), or if the Kremlin fails terribly to handle the birth of a new and incredibly attractive ideology, or in the case of the arrival onto the political scene of a new leader who is not incorporated into the regime. However, the likelihood of any of these three scenarios is not very high.

The situation in Ukraine, although it has some similar aspects, is still quite different. Yushchenko’s regime, in particular at its end, was really unpopular, associated with governmental chaos, economic crisis, worsening of relations with Russia and the lack of progress in European integration, conflicts among former allies (Yushchenko vs. Timoshenko), etc. And in this regard the power in the hands of Yanukovich today really looks like the first years of Vladimir Putin as Russian president; they both look good just because their predecessors were so bad and unpopular. However, the similarities may actually end there.

Ukraine has never had and still does not have a strong Communist Party that may be considered a real opposition to the regime, but the country does have two parts: western on the one hand and eastern and southern on the other. Culturally and politically, the differences between them are quite serious compared with anything known to us in Russia. Consequently, to eliminate an opposition entrenched because of regional factors will be much more difficult in Ukraine than it was in Russia, when the Kremlin was dealing with its Red Belt.

Ukraine also still has very attractive politicians with their own presidential ambitions, beyond Yulia Timoshenko and the other leaders of the Orange Revolution, whose glorious moments in politics are most likely already in the past. Here I mean young politicians such as Arseny Yatsenyuk from the west and Sergei Tigipko from the east. It is unlikely that they will agree to abandon their own ambitions and accept secondary roles in the new regime. Yes, Ukraine is going back to the political system known at the time of president Kuchma, but we should not forget that this system provided the opportunity for an incredibly competitive election in 2004, and there is no reason to believe that the next election will be any less competitive.

Consequently, will Yanukovich turn into Ukraine’s Putin or Ukraine’s Lukashenko? I am quite certain that neither of these two scenarios has any serious chance of happening in Ukraine. Is the Putin model going to be replicated throughout the post-Soviet world and maybe beyond? My answer is also no – it is not going to happen. The Kremlin (Yeltsin-Putin-Medvedev) model is a product of Russia’s 1990s reforms and is deeply rooted in the Russian political and economic reality that cannot be easily replicated. By way of example – just look at the decision of at least some in the Kyrgyz political elite to follow a parliamentarian model, rather than a presidential one (after two revolutions, which overthrew each previously elected president). And it may actually still work in Kyrgyzstan, but, of course, only time will tell.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow and World Russia Forum in Washington, DC:

Yanukovich’s decision to take Ukraine back to the presidential-parliamentary political system is not necessarily a setback for democracy. There are many countries in the world – one (France) that comes to mind immediately – where a strong presidency does not come into conflict with democratic values.

It is true that in 2010 Yanukovich faces roughly the same situation as Putin did in 1999, only in Yanukovich’s case the threat of disintegration is much worse.

At the turn of the century some allegedly serious thinkers were playing games with the global chessboard, drawing up plans for Russia’s disintegration and division. There was talk of the Ural Republic, the Far Eastern Republic, etc. And real centrifugal tendencies did then exist in Russia, with real political and economic power in the hands of regional feudal lords.

The difference between Russia and Ukraine was, and still is, that in Russia the chances of disintegration, despite the local elites’ aspirations, had no basis at the most fundamental level. After all, Russia is practically a mono-ethnic state, where 80 percent of the population are Russians and the rest are tied to them by economic, social, cultural, linguistic, family and plain historical bonds. That was the reason why the concerted efforts of Putin and his team to crush those centrifugal tendencies were an eventual success. These efforts might not be very democratic by the Western book, but his political line was absolutely democratic in this clear-cut sense: they were in accord with the unquestionable desire of the people of Russia to continue to exist as a united entity. This is why Putin enjoyed as president and continues to enjoy now an overwhelming approval rating despite the country’s many economic and democratic shortcomings.

As we said earlier, Yanukovich’s position is much tougher, and the reason should be clear to anyone with even basic background knowledge of what present-day Ukraine actually is. Like most ex-Soviet republics, it is a product of Leninist-Stalinist nationalities policy. Within that framework, several quite heterogeneous entities were lumped together and dubbed the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It comprised Little Russia (Malorossiya) proper, huge swathes of Novorossiya, or New Russia, colonized in the 18th century and after mostly by Russians from the inner governorships; to these were added in 1939 western Ukraine and, in 1954, the entirely Russian-populated Crimea (Nikita Khrushchev’s sop to Ukrainian Communist Party bosses for their support in the political infighting then going on at the top after Stalin’s death).

Thus there are enormous fundamental differences between Ukraine’s various regions. Ethnic, religious, linguistic, and arguably most importantly, the historical makeup: while some Western Ukrainians fought on the Nazi side in World War II, the rest of the Soviet Ukrainians were with the Red Army. To these should be added sharp economic differences: nationalistic western Ukraine is largely backward and agricultural, while the bulk of present-day Ukraine’s economic potential is centered in the Russian-speaking east and south.

All this warrants at least two conclusions: Yanukovich’s move to restore the presidential-parliamentary political system was practically inevitable if his agenda includes keeping the country together; and even with the best will on his part, and with continued help from Russia, the success of his mission is by no means assured.

In conclusion, one cannot resist mentioning the most embarrassing miscalculation by the Bill Clinton and George Bush administrations that invested significant political, moral, and, albeit modest, financial capital in the futile attempts to hammer a wedge between Russia and Ukraine. Yanukovich, portrayed in the West as a villain, eventually won a resounding victory, while the heroes of the Orange Revolution once presented as beacons of freedom and democracy were totally rejected by the Ukrainians. This Western policy not only failed to bring any social or other improvements in the lives of Ukrainians, but actually derailed the process of Russia’s integration with the West, which was in fact in an active phase after September 11, 2001.

It seems that the Barack Obama administration has drawn the right conclusions from those past mistakes. As a result we are witnessing clear signs of the resurrection of U.S.-Russian and definitely Russian-European rapprochement. No longer threatened by rivalry with Ukraine and conscious of the need for U.S. and European investments and know-how, Russia is making one encouraging step after another toward the West.

Anthony T. Salvia, Executive Director, American Institute in Ukraine, Kiev:

President Yanukovich’s plan to repeal the constitutional reform of 2004 would give Ukrainian heads of state more power and greater control of the cabinet. This has prompted critics to accuse him of seeking to introduce Putin-style managed democracy in Ukraine. These assertions are intended to bring moral discredit on both the president and his proposed reform.

Although it is up to Ukrainians to make their own constitutional arrangements, for a country of Ukraine’s size, complexity, economic potential, geo-strategic importance, and need for reconstruction after 70 years of Marxist-Leninist misrule, a presidential system would seem to be a good fit. There is a lot to be said for a strong executive with the authority to act as long as there remain constitutional checks on his power.

Consider France in 1958, when Charles de Gaulle replaced the parliamentary Constitution of the Fourth Republic with the presidential Constitution that remains in force to this day. He believed that only a head of state invested with executive authority could rise above France’s plethora of small, unaccountable parties representing narrow, sectarian interests, and embody the general will.

The crisis of Orange governance stemmed from the deal Viktor Yushchenko struck with Leonid Kuchma following the disputed second round of the 2004 presidential election: the Orange leader would get another shot at the presidency if he would agree to constitutional reforms that would increase the powers of the legislative branch at the expense of the executive.

Thus, when Yushchenko finally assumed the presidency, far from embodying the general will, he found himself with reduced influence over the Verkhovna Rada and the cabinet, and at permanent loggerheads with a prime minister for whom he had no use. He presided over a state – no longer presidential, but still not fully parliamentary – which was as dysfunctional as the French Fourth Republic. Yanukovich seeks, in effect, the restoration of the Constitution to something resembling the status quo ante Yushchenko. It is not a question of Putinism, but Yanukovichism.

If Putinism is in vogue anywhere it is in Mikheil Saakashvili’s Georgia. Saakashvili recently rammed through the state constitutional commission amendments transferring from the president to the prime minister the power to make such key appointments as the ministers of defense and the interior. Thus, the prime minister, who will be elected by the largest parliamentary party, will be the most powerful figure in the land.

This is most convenient for Saakashvili, the neo-conservatives’ erstwhile poster boy for democracy in post-Soviet space. The new Constitution goes into effect in January 2013, just as the president’s second term comes to an end. As the Georgian president is term-limited, Saakashvili is well positioned to do what critics say Putin did when he faced the imminent loss of power: remain in power anyway.

Managed democracy is not limited to Tbilisi. It is the norm the world over, not least in the United States. The founders rejected direct democracy, which they felt would lead to the tyranny of the majority, and wisely devised a series of checks and balances. That represented a proper concession to the temptation to manage democracy.
But now our system, less republican than imperial, tends more and more to shield the ruling elite from the will of the people. This occurs through our impregnable two-party monopoly (duopoly?) of power that controls all branches of government, the electoral system and the airwaves, judicial activism that overrules the will of the people when it does not simply obviate it, and a culture of political correctness so strict as to severely limit the scope of public debate.

Constitutional forms, like nuclear weapons, are inanimate, and thus morally neutral. The moral value of any constitutional set up is determined by the uses to which it is put. Yes, constitutional forms must be democratic. But it is just as important that those who lead the nation, any nation, be guided by the classical human virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and, above all, magnanimity and humility. Good governance stems from these ancient and admirable virtues. No constitutional arrangement and no amount of social engineering can bring about good governance if the hearts of the leaders – and the led – are not disposed to grow in virtue.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

The designation of the Putin model is highly questionable. Those who use this designation have to explain how Russia’s current government (where Putin is the prime minister, not the president) fits the purported model.

In fact, what is defined by the above misnomer (a strong chief executive, a legislature that does not include marginal parties, a cabinet that is appointed by the president instead of the legislature) is more aligned with the American or the French model of democratic government.

Many foreigners are not aware that in the United States there are active political parties, which are not part of the Democrat-Republican tandem: the Peace and Freedom Party, the Green Party, the Communist Party USA and others. These marginal American parties participate in elections and propose candidates for public office, including the legislature and the presidency. Because of tiny electorates, the parties rarely gain representation in Congress.
Thus, Putin’s model must be designated more accurately as an American model.

Because of the continuing present economic crisis and its impact on the world’s middle classes, some observers forecast the rise of extremist parties, in particular of the extreme right-wing orientation (a phenomenon echoing the events in Weimar Germany during the Great Depression, which led to the rise of Hitlerism). In that light, a shift by Ukraine away from a parliamentary system is more protective of political stability. In the Reichstag of 1932 the Nazis formed a temporary alliance with the smaller delegation of Communist deputies, in order to overthrow von Papen’s cabinet and thus get Hitler the chancellorship. The Communists later of course regretted their fleeting alliance with the National-Socialists.

The installation of a parliamentary system in Ukraine in 2004 was quite blatantly linked with the political dynamics of the Orange Revolution, which ultimately failed to create a stable and functional government in large part because of Public Law 2222. It is a fallacy to claim that a parliamentary government built around shaky coalitions with marginal parties is somehow more democratic. Given that democracy is a system of majority rule, a parliamentary coalition mechanism based on tiny parties does not meet the majority criterion of democracy. Such a coalition mechanism favors small parties, which have small electorates, but become essential to coalition building, and therefore achieve a role in Parliament, which far exceeds their electoral share. One only has to pray that such tiny kingmaker parties are not extremist.

In 2004 Ukraine the reality was that much of the support for the Orange Revolution were the 100,000 demonstrators in Kiev’s Independence Square, in a country of many millions of voters. There is an opinion that Public Law 2222 was designed to ensure control of government even by a small political party leveraging a fragmented parliament.

In any event, the parliamentary system installed in Kiev by Public Law 2222 was worse than a failure: it became a farce, with fistfights for the speaker’s podium and sabotaged deputies’ voting buttons. Ukraine is too important a country to be governed like a tropical island state, rich in sand and coconuts. Furthermore, Public Law 2222 is now recognized as unconstitutional, and this decision has not been seriously challenged.

Because of all the above considerations, Ukraine’s abrogation of Public Law 2222 is appropriate. Naturally, in such a change Ukraine returns to its earlier constitutional system a presidential government similar to American and European practices. There is really no direct and incontrovertible evidence to impute to president Yanukovich mysterious motives. Ukraine will remain democratic, i.e. ruled by majority votes. As American experience shows, the presidential model is more efficient, productive and survivable.
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