How Legitimate is Ukraine’s New Government?

Over the past several days, the world has been supplied with a seemingly endless stream of reminders that Ukraine is a deeply divided country. The east leans towards Russia, and the west holds a strong affinity toward Europe. These generalizations hold true on a number of issues, but there is one thing that elicits an increasing consensus throughout the country. Not many Ukrainians hold a high opinion of Viktor Yanukovich anymore.

In the west of the country he and his party were never very popular, and opposition became quite vociferous when he stood in the way of closer European ties. In the East, his base of support, many have repudiated him for capitulating to outside pressure and abandoning his office. Despite his deepening unpopularity, he continues to claim he is the legitimate President of Ukraine and Russia apparently agrees, albeit unenthusiastically.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the crisis in Ukraine, it is worth examining Yanukovich’s claim and discussing the legitimacy of those who have assumed power in his absence.

One aspect of this issue which does not attract much disagreement is the legitimacy of Yanukovich’s electoral victory. Upon winning the Presidency by a narrow margin, he was congratulated by numerous countries including the US and other Western powers. Some have gone on to argue that, despite being elected, his corrupt and authoritarian practices undermined his democratic legitimacy. This is one way the ascension of the current President and appointed officials in Kiev can be justified. However, this argument does little to explain where these new authorities derive their legitimacy to govern the country.

Ukraine Parliament Names Acting PresidentAnother interpretation of events does more to substantiate the legitimacy of the current administration in Kiev. Under the terms of a previous constitution, which Yanukovich agreed to re-establish, there was a mechanism for impeachment of the President and a succession procedure. It can be argued that, under these conditions, everything done in Kiev since Yanukovich’s departure has been perfectly legal. A sufficient portion of parliament agreed to unseat him and a pre-designated successor, the chairman of Ukraine’s parliament, has assumed interim power. However, it is unclear whether this previous constitution was legally reinstated.

While the de jure intricacies of this matter are likely to become a source of legal debate for some time, the de facto realities of this situation are what really count politically. Viktor Yanukovich is not the President of Ukraine. It is unclear how he was removed from office and whether or not his removal was strictly speaking legal, but it happened. Any attempts to concoct legal arguments for his legitimacy, no matter how compelling they may be, are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Efforts by the current authorities in Kiev to construct an edifice of technical legality are equally unlikely to triumph over the de facto circumstances within and outside of the country. Even if it is assumed that everything done in Kiev since the removal of Yanukovich has been legal, serious questions of democratic legitimacy will remain.

The current President of the country was not elected to his position as his recently deposed predecessor was. Though elected to parliament, Turchynov’s unelected Presidential status contaminates not just himself, but all of his appointments and the parliament whose laws he must approve, with an air of illegitimacy. However legal their ascension may or may not have been, the fact remains that millions of Ukrainians concentrated in the east and south of the country can look at the people making the most significant political decisions during a vitally important time in their country’s history and correctly conclude they had no direct role in appointing them. The violent context in which this transition of authority took place and the extreme elements that make up a minority of the anti-Yanukovich coalition only compounds this problem.

When millions of people observe their leaders making decisions, knowing they have had no opportunity to exercise their influence over who these leaders are, there is a de facto democratic deficit. This is true regardless of whatever de jure legitimacy the government as a whole may hold.

In some countries, including those who maintain a Westminster parliamentary system, this is not unfamiliar. The right to vote extends to one’s Member of Parliament and no further. But in Ukraine Presidents are elected directly, and those in the south and east of the country who are aggrieved by this situation could hardly be accused of being unreasonable.

There is no easy solution to this problem. A return of Yanukovich is out of the question for a plethora of reasons. Perhaps the best solution would be for western governments to implore the acting authorities in Kiev to exert as much legislative restraint as possible. Given the Ukrainian President’s unwillingness to immediately sign a controversial language law passed by the parliament, there are some encouraging signs of restraint already.

The most important objective should be that all governing authorities receive an electoral mandate as soon as possible. Elections are scheduled for May. For the sake of Ukraine’s territorial unity, they cannot come soon enough.

About Daniel Troup

Daniel Troup is a graduate of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Toronto’s Trudeau Centre. He has experience as a research assistant in the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science and has most recently worked as a research associate for the UN-based Global Policy Forum. His research interests include the political economy of peace and conflict, Latin American and European politics, as well as international relations theory.