Is Yanukovich a Ukrainian Putin?

September 27, 2010
by Anthony T. Salvia

President Yanukovich’s plan to repeal the constitutional reform of 2004 would give Ukrainian heads of state more power and greater control of the cabinet. This has prompted critics to accuse him of seeking to introduce Putin-style “managed democracy” in Ukraine. Such assertions are meant to bring moral discredit on both the president and his proposed reform. It won’t wash.

Although it is up to Ukrainians to make their own constitutional arrangements, I should like to express the view that, for a country of Ukraine’s size, complexity, economic potential, geo-strategic importance, and need for “reconstruction” after 70 years of Marxist-Leninist misrule, a presidential system would seem to be a good fit.

There is a lot to be said for a strong executive with the authority to act—as long as there remain constitutional checks on his power.

Consider France in 1958, when Charles de Gaulle replaced the parliamentary constitution of the 4th Republic with the presidential constitution that remains in force to this day. He believed only a head of state invested with executive authority could rise above France’s plethora of small, unaccountable parties representing narrow, sectarian interests and embody the “general will.”

The crisis of Orange governance stemmed from the deal Viktor Yushchenko struck with Leonid Kuchma following the disputed second round of the 2004 presidential election: the Orange leader would get another shot at the presidency if he would agree to constitutional reforms that would increase the powers of the legislative branch at the expense of the executive.

Thus, when Yushchenko finally assumed the presidency, far from embodying the general will, he found himself with reduced influence over the Verkhovna Rada and the cabinet, and at permanent loggerheads with a prime minister for whom he had no use. He presided over a state—no longer presidential, but still not fully parliamentary—as dysfunctional as the French 4th Republic.

Yanukovich seeks, in effect, the restoration of the constitution to something resembling the status quo ante Yushchenko. It is not a question of Putinism, but Yanukovichism.

If Putinism is in vogue anywhere it is in Saakashvili’s Georgia. Saakashvili recently rammed through the state constitutional commission amendments transferring from the president to the prime minister the power to make such key appointments as the ministers of defense and the interior. Thus, the PM, who will be elected by the largest parliamentary party, will be the most powerful figure in the land.

This is most convenient for Saakashvili—the neo-conservatives’ erstwhile poster boy for democracy in post-Soviet space. The new constitution goes into effect in January 2013, just as the president’s second term comes to an end. As the Georgian president is term-limited, Saakashvili is well positioned to do what critics say Putin did when he faced the imminent loss of power—remain in power anyway.

So if it is supposed Muscovite models of governance one seeks, Tbilisi is the place to look.

Managed democracy is not limited to Tbilisi. It is the norm the world over, not least in the United States. The Founders rejected direct democracy, which they felt would lead to the tyranny of the majority, and wisely devised a series of checks and balances. That represented a proper concession to the temptation to manage democracy.

But now our system, less republican than imperial, tends more and more to shield the ruling elite from the will of the people. This occurs through our impregnable two-party monopoly (duopoly?) of power that controls all branches of government, the electoral system and the airwaves, judicial activism that overrules the will of the people when it does not simply obviate it, and a culture of political correctness so strict as to severely limit the scope of public debate. Europe is hardly better. German voters overwhelmingly wanted to keep the D-Mark. The government paid no heed, showing that a parliamentary system is no less prone to manage democracy than a presidential one. Danish, Dutch and Irish voters all rejected EU treaties in referenda, which, according to the rules, should have meant their demise. But voters were forced to keep on voting until they voted correctly. (And once you vote for “Europe,” you never get a chance to vote against it.)

Constitutional forms, like nuclear weapons, are inanimate, and thus morally neutral. The moral value of any constitutional set up is determined by the uses to which it is put.

Yes, constitutional forms must be democratic. But it is just as important that those who lead the nation, any nation, be guided by the classical human virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and, above all, magnanimity and humility. Good governance stems from these ancient and admirable virtues. No constitutional arrangement and no amount of social engineering can bring about good governance if the hearts of leaders—and the led—are not disposed to grow in virtue.

Anthony T. Salvia is executive director of the Kyiv-based American Institute in Ukraine. Previously he served as an appointee of President Ronald Reagan to the US Department of State and at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich and Moscow.