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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yushchenko's Big Gamble

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Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's recent decision to dissolve Ukraine's parliament is a step so risky that it could threaten the integrity of his political legacy. Contrary to the nature of heated discussions about the constitutionality of Yushchenko's decree, the main question about his decision is not a legal but political one.

Yushchenko can't win the fight he's gotten himself into. Not only might the Constitutional Court strike down the decree as unconstitutional, which would leave his reputation fundamentally tainted, but the political conditions Yushchenko has created provide his political opponents with an opportunity to choose from a variety of possible counterstrategies. Moreover, he has plunged the country into a process that could spin out of control. Demonstrating a hubris similar to President Boris Yeltsin's in 1993, Yushchenko and his entourage seem to think that they have finally put themselves firmly back in the saddle when, in fact, they have created a situation that could well turn against them.

In this, the decree is only the latest instance in a series of awkward decisions by Yushchenko's team since the Orange Revolution in 2004. These include the disintegration of the first Orange coalition, the embarrassing results for his Our Ukraine bloc in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and the failure to form a functional second Orange coalition in their aftermath.

Oddly, a major protagonist in all three of these major bungles was Petro Poroshenko, a prominent business magnate, godfather to Yushchenko's children, and one of the most unpopular public figures in Ukraine. In 2005, Poroshenko drove Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko out of office with his attempts to transfer governmental prerogatives to the Security Council, which Poroshenko headed at the time. During the parliamentary elections of early 2006, Poroshenko was one of Our Ukraine's highest-profile members making regular -- and often bizarre -- appearances on ICTV's popular political talk show "Svoboda Slova." After Our Ukraine's poor showing in the elections, the bloc still insisted that Poroshenko should be the speaker of the new parliament, in place of popular Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz. Facing the dim prospects of a second Orange coalition with Tymoshenko as prime minister and Poroshenko as speaker, the disillusioned Moroz switched sides, and the second Orange coalition fell apart before even having formed a government.

What Yushchenko and company are unable to accept is that, after these and other lapses, it is natural that they have recently been losing power to their political opponents. Like the market punishes companies when their strategies do not fit current economic conditions, politics is a game where it is not the "bad guys" but the less effective organizers and campaigners who lose out. By trying to counter their previous blunders with one grand stroke -- new elections -- Yushchenko's team is making the Ukrainian state a hostage of its own incapacity and risking the breakup of the country.

What is most important is not how the Constitutional Court assesses Yushchenko's decree, but how the voters will react to the prospect of new elections. What happens if the elections really do take place? Ukraine's exceptionally low 3 percent barrier to gain representation in the parliament creates the possibility of myriad combinations that are difficult to foresee. The result could be an even less favorable situation for the Orange factions in the parliament than with the current balance of forces.

The situation is reminiscent of Russia's State Duma elections in December 1993, which followed President Boris Yeltsin's dissolution of the Congress of People's Deputies three months earlier. It was Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky's triumph in this vote that helped create the political atmosphere in Moscow leading to the decision in December 1994 to intervene in Chechnya. In turn, the Kremlin's unhappy Chechnya adventure, in combination with the new 1993 Constitution, have been the two factors that have done the most to undermine post-Soviet Russia's nascent democracy and prepared the ground for President Vladimir Putin's tightening of control over public life.

While the situation in Ukraine is very different from that in Russia in 1993, the events that have followed Yeltsin's actions demonstrate how miscalculated the gamble the democrats took in 1993 was and the unexpected results that radical political steps in transition societies can often have.

In Ukraine, the political context in which Yushchenko has made this move is, in some regards, even more complicated than that in Russia. What happens if large numbers of voters in eastern and southern Ukraine simply boycott the proposed elections this May? The country's western regions will surely generate high turnout. This makes it possible that Tymoshenko's party could come out ahead of all others in the vote. But what would a parliament in which the majority Russian-speaking regions are heavily underrepresented mean for the stability of the Ukrainian state?

Crimean politicians have been for some time the most vocal critics of Yushchenko's moves, and continuing on this path could push the Crimean legislature toward declaring itself separate from Ukraine, and even joining Russia.

Given these scenarios, there is the possibility that Yushchenko and his team are merely bluffing and not really counting on new elections being held. Even if this is the case, they are still playing with fire. Given their record so far, you have to wonder not only whether they will be able to play the game well, but also whether they really comprehend just how high the stakes are.

Andreas Umland is a visiting lecturer at the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kiev and editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society."