Spinning the Color Wheel: Constitutional Reform in the Ukraine

By Jaskiw, Michael | Harvard International Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Spinning the Color Wheel: Constitutional Reform in the Ukraine


Jaskiw, Michael, Harvard International Review


Over the last two years, Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe, has fallen off the radar of international news and events. For most of its post-Soviet history, Ukraine struggled to adapt to world markets while its nascent democracy provided a thin veneer for a self-serving political and economic elite. The tension between the centripetal pull of a resurgent Russia and the promise of new economic and political alliances with the West created a slow and equivocal path of development. The Orange Revolution of 2004 tipped this uneasy balance. Current president Viktor Yushchenko survived an assassination attempt and rode a powerful and unanticipated wave of large-scale protests to successfully challenge a blatantly fraudulent presidential election. Having wrested the presidency from the incumbent regime's anointed successor, Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko appeared poised to realize his pro-Western political platform. It was thus assumed that Ukraine had broken free of pseudo-democracy and Russian neo-colonialism, the two arms of its heavy yoke.

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This lofty expectation was never realized. Not surprisingly, a single act--no matter how symbolically powerful--could not repair a dysfunctional political ethic. What Ukraine needs above all are not new political players, but new rules for the political game itself. Restructuring Ukraine's political culture will take time and considerable effort. In the long term, this change will be contingent upon serious constitutional reform.

The Aftermath

The Orange Revolution carried significance well beyond Ukraine. It was heralded as a dramatic and contemporary affirmation of a core tenet of democratic theory--that an informed and vocal citizenry is in fact more powerful than an illegitimate elite wielding the apparatus of government. The Velvet Revolution in Georgia and its Orange counterpart in Ukraine were thought of as the beginning of a chain reaction. Inspired by these successes, citizens of other countries with long histories of authoritarian or one-party rule could, through popular activism, purge themselves of totalitarian traditions and thus begin a new chapter of transparent, free, and accountable government.

Two and a half years later, the rest of the world is left looking upon a revolution that may have been more aptly dubbed rosy than orange. With the protesters and tent city gone from Kyiv's Independence Square, politics appear to have come full circle. After the 2006 round of parliamentary elections and several months of gridlock, the prime minister of the current government is none other than Viktor Yanukovych--the same Russian-leaning candidate whose fraudulent electoral victory sparked the Orange Revolution. President Yushchenko's party, Our Ukraine, garnered a mere 14 percent of the popular vote. The president approved the nomination of Viktor Yanukovych, whose Party of Regions won 32 percent of the ballots cast, to the position of Prime Minister on the condition that Yanukovych sign a non-binding agreement to continue to promote Ukrainian integration into the European Union and NATO and to respect the president's primacy in foreign policy. Prime Minister Yanukovych made little effort to respect this document, announcing soon after his appointment that Ukraine would be indefinitely delaying its application for NATO membership. More importantly, Yanukovych and his Party of Regions have been systematically stripping the presidency of all its meaningful powers. Most recently, Parliament passed (over a presidential veto) a law removing the authority to appoint the foreign and interior ministers from the president and assigning it to Parliament itself. Though the constitutionality of this bill awaits a ruling from the Supreme Court, its very passage shows that Yushchenko now finds himself in an office with little real political power.

What, if anything, is troubling about this situation? After all, the March 2006 parliamentary elections were arguably the most fair and transparent in Ukraine's history. …

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