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Feb 22, 2014 | 18:28 GMT

Ukraine Steps Beyond Its Constitution

Ukraine Steps Beyond Its Constitution
(BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Ukraine's emboldened parliament is stepping out of constitutional bounds by trying to form a government without Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. Following Yanukovich's refusal to resign, the Verkhovna Rada proceeded with a plan to forcibly unseat him. However, the parliament has bypassed the lengthier impeachment process and opted instead for a swift vote to dismiss him by declaring that Yanukovich is constitutionally unable to carry out his duties. This brings Ukraine into much murkier political waters. 

According to the 2004 constitutional amendments that were reinstated Feb. 21 by a parliamentary majority, the president can only be removed by resignation, the inability to exercise his or her powers for reasons of health, the procedure of impeachment or death. The impeachment process entails first passing a simple two-thirds majority vote in parliament to start the process of charging the president for state treason or another crime. An investigatory commission is then set up, which includes a special prosecutor and investigators to handle the case.

The conclusions and proposals of the commission are then sent to parliament, where they must be approved by a three-fourths majority. Finally, the overall decision must be approved by Ukraine's Constitutional Court. The current composition of the court is split relatively evenly between judges who come from regions in the Russia-aligned east and some from the European-inclined west. Ukraine's current parliament remembers well the 2010 court decision that enabled Yanukovich to enhance his presidential powers. The impeachment process itself could take several weeks or months for a final decision to be made.

Though parliament had reasons for bypassing the impeachment process, it is technically not able to declare the president incapable of fulfilling his duties. The constitution specifies that such a measure can only be taken due to health reasons, and that the country's Supreme Court must first file a written petition along with a medical opinion for the parliament to be able to vote on implementation through a simple majority. These steps have clearly not taken place. The political crisis is likely giving Yanukovich plenty of heartburn, but there is nothing to suggest he is incapable of fulfilling his duties as president due to health reasons.

The Ukrainian parliament has adjourned for the day and will reconvene Feb. 23, when parliamentary members are expected to hold a vote to appoint recently released opposition leader Yulia Timoshenko as prime minister, a position she held previously. This vote may not go as smoothly as the votes did on Feb. 22, with members of Yanukovich's Party of Regions faction already saying they will not support her candidacy. As the realization sets in that the parliament is stepping out of legal bounds and the anti-Yanukovich momentum is replaced with new important decisions on the government's future path, politicians will have to recalculate as obstacles emerge.

It therefore remains imperative to watch how the European countries that initiated this transition — Germany, Poland and France, in particular — respond to the political evolution in Ukraine. These European democracies cannot afford to endorse extralegal measures. When the Ukrainian parliament's machinations come into question publicly, Russia reserves the option of charging the Europeans with supporting an illegal coup.

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