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Counterrevolution in Ukraine

Almost six years after it began, the Orange Revolution formally ended on October 1, 2010, when Ukraine’s constitutional court reversed the “political reform” imposed on the presidency as part of the popular democracy movement’s uprising.

In the wake of widely criticized presidential elections in November 2004, several weeks of “people power” that came to be known as the Orange Revolution propelled Viktor Yushchenko ahead of his establishment opponent, Viktor Yanukovich — then the prime minister (not to mention the man for whom the people in the streets believed the elections had been rigged). As part of the regime’s negotiated exit, however, the Yanukovich camp imposed power-sharing reforms on the presidency before Yushchenko took office — reforms that transferred power from the president to the legislature in an effort to weaken the new leader. The move worked, eventually producing an inherently conflict-ridden relationship between Yushchenko and his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. The turmoil helped Yanukovich topple Yushchenko when he ran again last year, this time as a champion of stability. However the October 1 constitutional court ruling now shows what Yanukovich really thinks of “people power” — not to mention “power-sharing.”

After assuming office in late February, Yanukovich amassed a great deal of power. Still, he chafed at the constitutional restrictions on his office — the same restrictions he once favored during Yushchenko’s administration — so now, he has angled to reverse them. Well aware that only Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, can change the constitution — and equally aware of how hard it would be to mobilize enough votes there in favor of such a reversal — Yanukovich turned to the pliant constitutional court (which some Ukrainians call the Konstytutka, a play on prostytutka). The new president had leaned on the court at least once before since taking office, pressuring it to approve an anti-constitutional change in the rules governing the formation of parliamentary coalitions. And prior to this recent reversal he had packed the court with friendly jurists. It’s no surprise, then, that this ruling weaseled its way through the back door of a technicality — that the 2004 political reform was a law, and not a constitutional change — to declare the reform unconstitutional.

Now, as a result, Ukraine has officially entered an era of counterrevolution — with Yanukovich as the undisputed master of the nation, able to appoint and dismiss prime ministers at will. In other words, the court’s recent decision turned back the clock to the constitution of 1996, effectively propelling Ukraine into a state of constitutional ambiguity.

Did the constitutional court act legally and, if not, who’s to challenge it, and where? In a court? In the Rada? Or in the streets? If the 1996 constitution were in effect again, would all the laws passed since 2004 be unconstitutional? Were the elections that brought Yanukovich to power legal? Should parliamentary elections be held in 2012, as the reforms dictate, or in 2011, as the 1996 constitution mandates? Are any of Ukraine’s political institutions legitimate? No one knows.

As Ukraine descends into a constitutional “time of troubles,” Yanukovich will insist that he has no choice but to rule with an iron fist: after all, won’t he be the last hope standing between Ukraine and utter chaos? (And surely only irresponsible democrats and meddlesome Americans want that!) This logic will please his Stalinist base in the Donbas, but his democratic critics in the rest of the country — who may be more than half the electorate by now — will see this tyranny for what it is.

There is, however, some underlying good news here:

First, counterrevolution always makes the ideals of the revolution it superseded attractive: the Orange Revolution stood for democracy, human rights, tolerance, and dignity. Expect those values — tarnished by five years of Orange squabbling and ineffectiveness — to creep back into Ukrainian debates. Second, having become “Sultan of Yanukstan,” Yanukovich will be responsible for everything that transpires on his watch — the good, of which there has been none thus far, as well as the bad, which is increasing on a daily basis. Only his sycophants expect him to morph into a philosopher king and rule brilliantly. Last, the 1996 constitution and the systemic presidential abuses it engendered arguably caused the Orange Revolution. Another popular upheaval is perfectly possible — and will become more likely with every presidential abuse.

Pity poor Yanukovich: he’s set himself up for a major fall.

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