The Best Role for Kiev Provisional Government? Exiting.

May 21, 2014

Successful provisional governments are quickly forgotten. Failed provisional governments, like the one during the 1917 Russian revolution, can be remembered forever.

Ukraine’s current provisional government already has, in many ways, outstayed its welcome. If the May 25 presidential election produces a definitive result, however, it still has a chance of quietly leaving the stage.

Provisional governments have one essential task: restore legitimate rule. In virtually all cases, it is a race against time. Indeed, the designation “provisional” carries a lame-duck status, since it conveys a sense of temporariness that undermines the stability of a regime.

The Ukrainian provisional government is no exception.  It clearly lacks the authority to rewrite the constitution and forge the political consensus necessary to keep the country together.  The presidential election, by itself, will not find this elusive middle ground. But it can at least resolve the question of power — the first step in the process of finding a political solution.

As with other countries in transition, the Ukrainian provisional government emerged out of political and economic collapse. President Viktor Yanukovych had bankrupted the country, trampled the constitution and ultimately chose to fire on demonstrators before fleeing the country with a substantial part of the treasury in his suitcase. But while an overwhelming majority of Ukraine’s legislature, the Supreme Rada, voted for Yanukovych’s removal, the constitutionally designated impeachment process was not formally observed.

So while the Ukrainian provisional government assumed office with more legitimacy than most temporary governments, it lacked the legal standing that only a proper constitutional succession process can provide. The composition of the provisional government was also criticized. Both President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk came from former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, while representation from eastern Ukraine was largely absent.

On assuming office, the provisional government called for presidential elections within three months — a timeframe that initially seemed reasonable but in retrospect appears to have been at least one month too long. The Ukrainian provisional government faces the same dilemma that has sunk so many of its predecessors: How to preserve national unity when the government does not maintain a monopoly of force.

Recent referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk reinforce the perception that the provisional government has lost control. No country (other than Russia) recognized the voting as legitimate. But the referendums again showed that the provisional government in Kiev could not rely on the army, security services or police to restore order.

One can argue that the violence in Ukraine could have been far worse, especially after the unrest in Odessa that left dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators dead. But provisional governments do not get credit for what does not occur. Restraint is invariably interpreted as weakness by opponents.

The inability to maintain law and order is always the death knell of any provisional government. Yet it must be recognized that the Ukrainian provisional government has made substantial progress on several fronts.

It secured money, for example, from the International Monetary Fund and other Western institutions to address the country’s financial mess.  It also began talks about the future structure of the Ukrainian state, proposing significant devolution of powers to regions and local government.

Somewhere between the federal principles espoused by the provisional government and the demand for regional sovereignty displayed in the Donetsk and Luhansk referendums lies a middle ground that may resolve this crisis.  Compromise must also be found between the provisional government’s push toward Europe and the genuine economic concerns of eastern Ukraine, which has a deeper and more established trade relationship with Russia.

A national dialogue on these issues is in progress, and the provisional government, to its credit, has been reluctant to take actions that might preempt it.  Most notably, Kiev signed the political — but not the economic — part of the European Union association agreement, which contained the European Union-Ukraine trade agreement that sparked the crisis in the first place.  The provisional government opted to defer such a momentous decision to a properly elected government.

None of Ukraine’s problems can be fully resolved without the presidential election, which will go to a second round if no candidate receives a majority of votes on May 25.  Some commentators have suggested postponing the election because of the continuing unrest in eastern Ukraine. Such a delay, however, would invariably create an even bigger political vacuum that the current provisional government cannot fill.

Indeed, if the most recent political polls are accurate, Tymoshenko is headed toward a decisive defeat. Should a second round of voting prove necessary, such a loss would further diminish the standing of the provisional government because both the acting president and prime minister hail from her party.

Many assume that the voting will be disrupted to some degree in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Russia also appears unlikely to recognize the result — no matter what happens.

But as Ukraine prepares to vote — and Western monitors arrive in the country to observe — the crucial fact remains that there is no Plan B. The spirit of Maidan may live on, but the provisional government is a spent political force that has come to the end of its appointed time in office.

Much attention will naturally be directed to the new Ukrainian president and how he or she intends to address the country’s seemingly intractable problems.  Among all the hoopla and speculation, however, it must be remembered that the legacy of the provisional government hangs in the balance with these elections.

A failed election would reveal the political impotence of the current provisional government and likely accelerate Ukraine’s downward spiral. Alternatively, a peaceful transfer of power means that the provisional government would have fulfilled its primary responsibility and possibly even earned a positive — if brief — mention in the history books.

This article first appeared in Reuter's Great Debate. 

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