The Ukrainian government has fallen apart, the president has fled, and the parliament has taken on the responsibility of governing. What gives them that right?
Parliament voted on Friday to oust President Viktor Yanukovych, who then appeared on TV and branded the events a coup and refused to step down. The president had agreed to a series of concessions which included reverting to an earlier constitution and stripping him of some powers, but he never signed the decree. Parliament then voted on Friday to return to the 10-year-old constitution anyway, one which granted the parliament greater powers than the one under which Yanukovych ruled as president.
Is Parliament’s power legitimate? To justify it, Ihor Koliushko, head of the Center for Political and Legal Reform, said that given the president’s absence from Kiev and the exceptional situation, “I think it would be right to say that we don’t have a head of the state, but the president’s duties are being carried out … by the head of the Verkhovna Rada,” or parliament. Seconding that was the fact that the army decided to stand aside. A statement from the Defense Ministry said, “Please be assured that the Armed Forces of Ukraine cannot and will not be involved in any political conflict.”
I just finished reading Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, delineating how government comes into being, which makes these events in the Ukraine so interesting. He maintains there are three components to modern political order, a strong state, a rule of law to which the state is subordinate, and accountability of the government to its citizens. An effective state has a strong ruler who is nonetheless held in check by other forces, for instance, a strong king but who cannot act unilaterally because of checks on him by the nobility.
What do we have in the Ukraine? A leader whose administration was not seen as accountable to its citizenry, as evidenced by the massive protests held against it over several weeks. A leader who has been accused of corruption, rather proven by the opulence demonstrators found at his compound after he fled. A leader whose administration was no longer strong, as evidenced by the fact that he had to agree to a decree limiting his powers as a compromise to stay in power at all.
In the absence of a clear line of succession, parliament took on the authority to provide governance. It formally ousted the president, and then later appointed parliament Speaker Oleksandr Turchynov as interim president, dismissed several cabinet ministers, issued arrest warrants for two former ministers, and set the stage for new elections in May.
The Ukraine is deeply divided between Russian-speaking eastern provinces who generally favor closer alliance with Russia, and the western provinces historically under Polish and Austrian influence and seeing itself as more European. In fact it was a decision by the president to spurn an agreement with the EU which stoked the protests which brought down the government. In the east, provincial leaders are already taking more independent control of their provinces.
One interesting facet of this string of events is the power of the main city and the capital and its inhabitants to play a disproportionately large role in influencing the governance of the nation. It was students, European-leaning, protesting the refusal to agree to closer ties with the EU which led to the current state of events, even though the country as a whole is more evenly divided between those partial to Russia and those partial to Europe.
As these events play out, it will be interesting to see how legitimacy is returned to government. Will the people and the powers that be rally around the parliament as the legitimate source of government during the transition? Or will the east-west differences engender movements which will create alternate power centers and perhaps even split the nation into two?
It is as if the three thousand year history of government-making which I just finished reading about in The Origin of Political Order will play out over the next several months in the Ukraine.