The Ukrainian Crisis in Perspective

Andrew E. Busch

June 1, 2007

When the “Orange Revolution” propelled Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency of Ukraine in 2004, many Americans assumed the result was a simple victory for democracy and pro-Western forces. In Ukraine, however, nothing is ever simple. After paying the country scant attention since, the American media suddenly had to report a new Ukrainian crisis this spring, stemming from Yushchenko’s April 2 decree dissolving parliament and ordering new elections.

In fact, Ukraine has been gripped in political crisis for much of the past two and a half years. By late 2005, Yushchenko had a disastrous falling-out with his erstwhile ally Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko; the March 2006 parliamentary elections gave the opposition Party of Regions, the so-called “Blue” forces, a plurality, and it took another six months to form a government headed by Viktor Yanukovich, Yushchenko’s 2004 presidential rival; then, throughout late 2006 and early 2007, Yanukovich’s parliamentary majority continually chipped away at Yushchenko’s power. Finally, the President concluded that he had to act or face complete irrelevance. This ongoing crisis has been rooted in a confluence of three factors—a population that is closely divided politically, a political culture that encourages winner-take-all brinksmanship, and an institutional structure that is not yet fully formed.

Orange and Blue

The Western media like to portray the popular division in Ukraine as pro-Western versus pro-Russian—correlating with western versus eastern Ukraine—and there is substantial truth in this analysis. However, the division is more complicated and more deeply rooted historically than this brief account implies. For one thing, there are really perhaps four distinct political regions in Ukraine. Western Ukraine is the most Orange; eastern Ukraine joins southern Ukraine (on the Black Sea) as the most Blue, while central Ukraine—like Missouri and Ohio—is the pivot. Nor is this pattern incidental.

After Kyivan Rus was broken apart by the Golden Horde in the 13th century, its pieces fell under the control of competing states. The western portions enjoyed centuries of rule by Lithuania, Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and even twentieth-century Romania. Some of the major cities of the west, like Lviv and Chernivtsi, were not incorporated into Soviet Ukraine until World War II. In contrast, the east of Ukraine came under Russian control by the 1600s, and during the Soviet era millions of Russians were moved to eastern Ukrainian industrial centers to work in mines and factories.

In the south, the Turks were expelled by the Russian Empire, and not until the 1700s; there was much less indigenous Ukrainian culture intermingled with the Russian. Odessa, a key city on the Black Sea, was founded only a bit more than 200 years ago by Catherine the Great. The Crimea was simply turned into a province of Russia. Only in 1954 did the Soviet regime transfer administrative jurisdiction over Crimea to the Ukrainian S.S.R. Of course, in 1954 this transfer was little more than a symbolic gesture. When Ukraine became independent, control of Crimea—and the Russian naval base at Sevastopol—became one of the most difficult issues between Moscow and Kyiv. Ultimately, Crimea remained in Ukraine (though with an autonomous status), the Russian Navy remained in Sevastopol, and pro-Russian sentiment remained high in Crimea. The Tatars, who were expelled en masse by Stalin and only allowed to return in the 1990s, are the exception, and generally vote Orange.

Central Ukraine is the fuzzy border between the Orange and the Blue. In the agreement of Pereyaslavl, signed in 1654, Russia took the east side of the Dnieper River flowing through the heart of Ukraine and Poland retained the west side (except for Kyiv, which Russia refused to evacuate as promised). Like Ohio, Missouri, or Kentucky, the central section of Ukraine can swing either way. In a closely divided country, it is the key.

This history has contributed to a number of reinforcing divisions, including linguistic (Russian versus Ukrainian) and religious (Russian Orthodox, looking to the Patriarch of Moscow, versus Ukrainian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and so called “Greek Catholic,” believers in the west who retained Orthodox practices but accepted the authority of the Pope).

While American history has been filled with regional patterns of partisanship—indeed, the 2000 and 2004 electoral maps were barely different—only the predilections of the South from the end of Reconstruction through 1944 can be considered as similarly tied to deep historical forces. Mitigating this picture is the subterranean world of ever-shifting (and often corrupt) alliances between the parties and business leaders. The Party of Regions, for example, is split between a “party of war” and a “party of peace,” the latter of which is led by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. Nevertheless, it seems likely that no dramatic electoral shifts can be expected in the near future.


In Ukraine’s not-so-distant totalitarian past, compromise and tolerance of political difference were hardly hallmarks of political culture. In contemporary Ukraine, political leaders have always found a way to avert total disaster by making a deal. However, they have been driven to the edge of disaster because of their own tendency, remarked upon by many Ukrainian commentators, to seek total victory. Massive voter fraud by Yanukovich and the Party of Regions, seeking to hold on to perpetual power, was the cause of the Orange Revolution in 2004.The current crisis was the result of Yanukovich pushing too hard to concentrate full power in the Prime Minister’s office, and Yushchenko may have passed up opportunities to end it earlier because of pressure exerted by Tymoshenko, who is now his ally again.

In some sense, the still-nascent party system is reminiscent of America in the 1790s, when neither side fully accepted the legitimacy of the other. Federalists viewed themselves not as a party but as the government, and saw Jeffersonians as rebels and anarchists. The Jeffersonian Republicans, for their part, saw the Federalists as monarchists, stooges of Britain, and traitors to the revolution. In Ukraine, the Blue forces possess a strong sense of entitlement to power and see the Orange as divisive, while the Orange see the Blue as proto-authoritarian and stooges of Russia. Consequently, both sides push for all-out victory and compromise only at the last possible minute.

Institutions in the making

The final ingredient to Ukraine’s troubles is a set of institutional shortcomings that must be remedied if Ukraine is to improve its chances of full acceptance into the European system. The most glaring difficulty is that Ukraine has cobbled together a system neither fully presidential nor parliamentary. Executive authority is not clearly lodged in either institution, an ambiguity which has led directly to the struggle between Yushchenko and Yanukovich. This problem is exacerbated by the lack of an independent judiciary to serve as an arbiter between the competing forces. In the most recent crisis, the Constitutional Court was petitioned by the parliament to overturn Yushchenko’s election decrees. Two months later, when the crisis finally subsided in a deal between the sides, the Court had still not ruled. It was clearly divided between loyalists of the two main protagonists, for whom legal argument was not the decisive question. On top of it, one leading judge was accused of accepting what amounted to a $12 million bribe from Yanukovich, the chief justice resigned, and the President ended up dismissing three judges, none of whom accepted their dismissal. At the other end of the judicial system, the office of prosecutor general became a political football. Yushchenko dismissed him as well, he too refused to leave, and it was the struggle over his position and his office that led to a dramatic escalation of the crisis on May 25 and 26. On May 27, Yushchenko and Yanukovich reached an agreement which was implemented by the Rada the following week.

What now?

The bad news is that the combination of these factors has put Ukraine into a nearly constant state of political instability, and the way out is not going to be easy. While elections might help, if only by putting Yanukovich on notice that Yushchenko cannot be pushed any farther, it seems likely that the results will not be terribly different from the results in 2006, with either a small Blue majority or a small Orange majority. Russia will undoubtedly continue to exploit instability to improve its position in Ukraine.

The good news is that, like Italians for decades before, Ukrainians have proven quite capable of functioning very well despite political instability at the top. The contrast between Ukraine and Russia is also instructive. When political demonstrators rallied against Putin in St. Petersburg, they were bashed in the head. Demonstrations of all parties in Kyiv remained peaceful for weeks, and freedom of the press continues to function. And upcoming generations, which seem to have little use for Russophiliac nostalgia, show great promise. Nobody said democracy was easy.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is currently teaching in Ukraine on a Fulbright grant.