The below is a guest post by Erin Baumann, who is an occasional lecturer in politics at University College Dublin, and is currently working on two academic articles on the politics of Ukraine.
After speculation began early this morning with an announcement from the Ukrainian presidential press service, Opposition leaders and the Foreign Ministers of Poland, France, and Germany have finally confirmed the outline of a temporary agreement on the resolution of Ukraine’s current political crisis. Under the new agreement work is set to begin sometime in the supposed near future on the formation of a “government of national trust” and on the reinstatement of the country’s 2004 Constitution – which strips the president of a number of powers and, for all intents and purposes, reforms the state into a parliamentary republic. In addition, the agreement stipulates the calling of early presidential elections.
In effect these reforms meet the demands of those protestors who have now spent months occupying Maidan Square and days fighting in the streets of Kyiv, Lviv, and other Ukrainian cities. Yet, there is still significant ground to cover between the current situation and the kind of resolution this agreement appears to forge. The extent to which protestors and other elements of the public will be satisfied with the reforms called for in this agreement is questionable. Already Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk has offered a qualified apology to his supporters, suggesting that he “could not do more”. In his public statement the Batkivshchyna leader further alluded to the dissatisfaction of Oleh Tyahnybok and his populist right-wing Svoboda party. This leaves the question of how effective the resolutions offered in this agreement can truly be. If elites aren’t satisfied how likely is the mistrustful public to be? If Svoboda isn’t satisfied how likely are the more radical elements of Ukrainian civil society, such as the militant Right Sector, going to be with these outcomes. Finally, the glaring question at the end of it all must remain ‘what happens to Viktor Yanukuvych?’
Yanukovych’s Party of Regions continues to be widely popular, particularly in the more industrialised regions of Southern and Eastern Ukraine. Though they have been more reticent to take to the streets in support of their government than Opposition supporters, populations in these regions seemingly have yet to lose faith in the President. As Yatsenyuk noted this morning, the continued power of Yanukovych and the Party of Regions in parts of Ukraine “can not be ignored”. It is unlikely that a Party of Regions candidate will win a presidential election in Ukraine anytime in the near future. It is also unlikely, however, that the next President of Ukraine – whoever it may be – will have the full support of Yanukovych’s former base. Such divisions rarely make for stable politics in any state.
Further complicating matters are the norms and structures of politics in Ukraine. The 2004 Constitution, which it now appears the country will revert to, has been championed by the Opposition because of the limits it places on executive power, and more specifically the power of the president. In effect, however, this Constitution has proven before to be less than helpful in managing the basic functioning of Ukrainian politics. The awkward balance of powers and responsibilities it creates between the President, the Prime Minister and the Government leaves significant room for personal and political conflict to trump productivity in a system where the norm of confrontational politics is already deeply entrenched. It is symptomatic of the myopia of the political elite in Ukraine that a country which has known little other than chaotic politics for the last 20 years would look to its past to solve its current problems.
Whether Ukraine’s exit from the current crisis is led by Yanukovych, Yatsenyuk, Klitchko, Tyahnybok, or some other figure, it is unlikely that the country’s problems will be resolved without significant structural reform. As improbable as it is that supporters of Batkivshchyna, Svoboda, or Vitali Klitschko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) will vote for a Party of Regions candidate in future elections, it is equally improbable that Party of Regions supporters will vote for a ‘Western reformer’. This is not because they are divided by language, ethnicity, or national identity. It is because Ukrainians are divided by their vision of Ukraine’s role in the world. Cleavages stretch across the state’s population – crosscutting regional, linguistic, and religious divides – along the lines of age and economics. While older voters at the extremes of the socio-economic spectrum tend to support a ‘multivectoral’ vision of Ukraine balanced between strong relationships with both Europe and Eurasia. Younger voters and those from the middle class tend to view Ukraine’s future through a European lens. At present there are few political figures in the state and even fewer political structures that have the potential to rectify this divide.
According to traditional logic, presidents are supposed to be a unifying figure in countries where they are head of state. Having a national constituency should, theoretically, give them a degree of universal authority unmatched by locally or regionally elected parliamentary representatives. In post-Soviet Eastern European practice, however, presidents have consistently proven to be divisive characters. A series of presidents in Moldova – elected in a series of different ways – have exacerbated existing divisions within the state’s population and existing dysfunction within its political system. The President in Belarus has used his position as head of state and head of government to entrench his authoritarian hold over the country. In Ukraine presidents have managed to do a little bit of both. The sort of unifying figure that a president should theoretically be, however, is exactly what Ukraine needs.
Structural change is the only mechanism by which long-term stability in Ukraine can be achieved. One possible solution to spanning the seemingly intractable divides within the state may be to move to a fully-fledged parliamentary system overseen in name only by a ceremonial head of state. There needs to be an actor in the political system who unifies the country, bridging the divide between the rural Western steppe and the Eastern industrial cities. Someone who can represent the interests of Ukraine from the Mitteleuropa cafés of Lviv to the steel mills of Donetsk. A popularly elected president cannot achieve this. Other European states have publically popular, politically respected, and functionally critical heads of state appointed through consensus by the parliament. To achieve this in Ukraine an upper house of parliament needs to be created to both assist in the choosing of a consensus head of state and the running of the legislature. There must be a body tasked with the responsibilities of promoting political compromise and ‘cooling down’ the political ‘mosh-pit’ that is the Verkhovna Rada.
Today’s temporary ‘peace’ agreement in Ukraine is a necessary step in the right direction. It is not, however, the last step needed. The fundamental question that must be resolved is not how do we solve the Euromaidan crisis. It is how do we build consensus politics in a country that has never known political consensus. Until this is achieved there will be more Euromaidan-like crises and the tumultuous nature of Ukrainian politics will continue.