Six experts share their views on the situation in Ukraine

Emotions reached boiling point yesterday in response to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s decree dissolving the parliament and calling an early election. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych described Yushchenko’s actions as “a mistake” and “an assault on the constitutional order.”

Emotions reached boiling point yesterday in response to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s decree dissolving the Supreme Rada (in retaliation for its “anti-constitutional activities”) and calling an early parliamentary election. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych described Yushchenko’s actions as “a mistake” and “an assault on the constitutional order.” He then warned Yushchenko that unless he backs down, there might also be an early presidential election. Radically-minded Rada members are already talking of launching impeachment procedures.

Within a day of Yushchenko’s decree (reminiscent of Boris Yeltsin’s decree No. 1400 in 1993, disbanding the Supreme Soviet), thousands of people rallied outside the Supreme Rada and the government’s offices in support of the status quo. Protesters have already set up over 200 tents in central Kiev. Some opinion polls indicate that 60% of Ukrainians are opposed to the idea of another election.

The business community has been generally calm so far. However, UkrSotsBank analyst Andrei Onistrat says: “Holding an early parliamentary election is sure to lead to an investment freeze for Ukraine. I think there could be up to six months of low investment activity, as investors suspend their plans and wait to see what happens.”

With the aim of averting direct clashes between Orange and White-Blue forces in the streets of Kiev, lawmakers from the Rada’s anti-crisis coalition have sent an enquiry to the Constitutional Court, requesting an authoritative conclusion about whether Yushchenko’s actions are constitutional.

To Yushchenko’s credit, he also wishes to resolve the conflict in a strictly constitutional way. Yushchenko met with security and law enforcement chiefs yesterday, making the following statement: “I appeal to you as leaders with tens of thousands of militarized people behind you: the conflict we have on our hands is of a political nature. Politicians should resolve conflicts by political means.”

From the start of the government crisis in 2004, the clashes between opinions and party ideologies in Ukraine have never led to bloodshed. “Wall against wall” tactics have not been required; all arguments have remained within the limits of the law. Reason has triumphed. Ukrainian political analysts maintain that there won’t be any violence this time either; the opposing sides will reach agreement peacefully.

But apprehensions persist: who knows what may happen? Could there really be bloodshed in Ukraine? We asked some experts.

Boris Nemtsov, former adviser to President Yushchenko:

During the Orange Revolution, when there were many more people gathered on Independence Square than there are now, not a drop of blood was spilled – there wasn’t even a single brawl. In that sense, the Ukrainians are very different from us: they are a more kindly, tolerant, European people. If a similar confrontation happened in Russia, I can’t imagine the days passing without someone getting into a fist-fight, if only because they were drunk. I don’t think that the Ukrainian authorities will use force to suppress protests. If they did anything of the kind, they would be swept from power – the people wouldn’t vote for them again. Ukraine has democracy, after all. Bloodshed usually happens in dictatorships, where the authorities aren’t held accountable for it. Actually, I wouldn’t overestimate what is happening in Ukraine – the scale of these events clearly doesn’t mean another revolution. Neither does it pose a threat to Ukraine’s economic health. GDP growth continued even during Ukraine’s government crisis. This country, which recently became a parliamentary republic, is now engaged in establishing democracy. Some friction is inevitable, but it’s not a disaster. In Italy, for example, dozens of parliaments have been dissolved – and it’s still all right. By the way, I don’t think that any Ukrainian politicians will benefit from the current situation: whatever the outcome, the configuration of forces in the political arena is likely to remain as it was.

Michel Lesage, Sorbonne professor, Council of Europe expert on constitutional law:

Let’s not panic: President Yushchenko’s decision – dissolving the Rada in Kiev and calling a new parliamentary election – remains within the framework of democratic processes. When government bodies are incapable of finding a solution to a crisis, the only way out is an appeal to the voters. It’s up to them to decide in which direction Ukraine should move, and how. Similar situations have arisen repeatedly in Europe over recent decades, for various reasons. Here in France, for example, General de Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly in 1962 in order to change the electoral system, and scheduled a new election. In Britain, this is common practice when serious problems arise between the executive and legislative branches. They see it as a way of determining whether the government has a mandate – that is, whether the parliamentary majority supports it. In Ukraine’s present situation, of course, it’s important to prevent political passions from spilling over into spontaneous violence. That should be the primary concern of all responsible people in Ukraine, and the guarantor of its Constitution – the president.

Andrew Wilson, political scientist, leading expert on Ukraine at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House):

Everything now depends on the Constitutional Court’s decision, and I don’t imagine that it will be in the president’s favor. Still, matters won’t reach the point of open fighting. The Armed Forces are likely to remain neutral. True, the Internal Troops are controlled by Yanukovych – but I don’t think the president’s opponents will have any need to shed blood. By the way, all these events certainly don’t benefit Yushchenko. His own party is very weak – though I do think it’s possible that the decision to disband the parliament might bring him some sort of dividends in the sense of popularity. But the person who definitely stands to benefit from a new election is Yulia Tymoshenko. Her party will hold a clear second place in the new parliament.

Viktor Tymoshenko, political analyst, Russian-Ukrainian Information Review agency:

The situation in Ukraine is extremely tense, and there is a real danger of conflicts using the resources controlled by each side, with the first bloodshed happening after all. It’s disturbing to note that the leaders of Ukraine’s security and law enforcement agencies belong to opposite political camps. The Interior Ministry is headed by a Socialist Party member who supports the Yanukovych Cabinet, while the Defense Ministry and the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) are headed by President Yushchenko’s people. When the Cabinet met last night, Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko warned his colleagues that he would only take orders from Yushchenko. Unfortunately, legitimacy is a problem for all branches of government at present – and in Ukraine, legitimacy is a psychological concept as well as a legal concept. The political group that gains the support of the majority of the Ukrainian people will determine the direction of Ukraine’s development.

Oles Donii, head of the Political Values Research Center:

The situation here is more serious than it may appear, and it has to do with the way that government bodies have ignored each other’s directives. The greatest danger is a confrontation between security and law enforcement agencies loyal to different political forces. Is bloodshed possible? Unfortunately, Ukraine’s special services have never been cleansed: after 1991, the KGB simply became the SBU. And it has many agents throughout Ukraine, and nobody knows who controls them. Consequently, acts of provocation could happen. The task for politicians is to prevent them.

Konstantin Bondarenko, director of the Gorshenin Government Studies Institute in Kiev:

Tension is observed among Kiev’s senior politial leaders and in government institutions, while the people are watching events skeptically. They have already been burned by excessive expectations, when they protested sincerely on Independence Square in 2004. Everyone understands that ordinary people can get hurt in the course of power-struggles among the elite. And those who are now preparing to rally in the streets in exchange for certain sums of money are more like silent extras in a movie. Of course, whenever a large crowd gathers, there is always room for acts of provocation – which could exacerbate the overall situation. In that sense, the role of the law enforcement agencies becomes more important: they must not permit escalation of tension or riots in the streets.