I can’t claim to know a lot about Eastern European history or politics. But I do like to think I possess enough common sense to understand basic parliamentary protocol.
Considering how much of the current standoff between Russia and Ukraine centers around competing claims of political “legitimacy,” it’s probably worth reviewing a few procedural facts.
On February 22, after weeks of violent street protests, the parliament of Ukraine voted 328 to 0, with six abstentions and 122 absences, to declare President Viktor Yanukovych, who had previously fled the capital, unable to discharge his duties on account of being at an “unknown location.” This easily cleared the two-thirds majority the Ukrainian constitution requires for presidential impeachment, and though Yanukovych himself would later denounce the vote as “unlawful” and claim his legislative allies were shut out and beaten, in reality the 328 in favor included many turncoats from the President’s own “Party of Regions,” which comprise the legislature’s largest faction.
With Yanukovych out, speaker of the house Oleksandr Turchynov assumed the limited powers of “acting president,” per the country’s constitutional order of succession, with parliament scheduling May 26 as the date voters will pick a permanent replacement. A few days later, parliament then voted 371 to 1 to install Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former multi-term cabinet minister, key opposition leader, and protest darling as prime minister. For now, he holds most of the country’s executive authority.
There are legitimate questions to be asked about some of the finer legal details of this succession, particularly whether Yanukovych was actually impeached (which experts say is an “extremely complex” and possibly even “practically impossible” procedure under Ukrainian law), or was simply determined by parliament to have abandoned office, which is a simpler, though also somewhat ambiguous, legislative manoeuvre. At the very least, however, the fall of President Yanukovych appears by any reasonable standard to have been carried out according to generally understood norms of democratic parliamentary procedure — a far cry from the revolutionary “coup d’etat” his bitter supporters claim.
The same can’t be said for what happened to the government of Crimea.
Crimea is usually described as a “semi-autonomous” province of Ukraine, though this is one of those empty terms western journalists use to provide a thin veneer of clarity to an impenetrably exotic situation. At the very least, it has its own parliament, which, since 2010, has been controlled by the Yanukovych party by a large majority. With over half its population Russian-speaking, including many Russian immigrants, Crimea was long a strong, pro-Russian base for the pro-Russian president. Yet in the frantic aftermath of his overthrow, some began to worry its pro-Russian government wasn’t nearly pro-Russian enough.
On February 27, five days after the fall of Yanukovych, gunmen stormed the Crimean legislature, barricading the doors and raising the Russian flag. A faction of what CNN describes as “only pro-Russian lawmakers” then voted in a closed-door session to remove Crimean prime minister Anatoliy Mohylio and install Sergey Aksyonov, the thuggish leader of the hardline Russian Unity Party (which holds all of three seats in the 100-seat chamber) in his place. This morning, it was announced that that same legislature had voted “unanimously” (and according to at least one source, without quorum) to join Russia (or, in the even less subtle words of one lawmaker “be part of the Russian Federation as Russia’s subject”), adding that citizens would be asked to ratify the decision in a hastily-organized referendum to be held in 10 days.
It’s not currently known how many of these “gunmen,” who have been occupying quite a lot of space on Crimea beyond the parliament, are actual Russian troops. Though we were all expecting a formal invasion of the place after President Putin started squawking about the need to protect Russian-speakers from Ukraine’s dangerous new neo-Nazi coup government, it seems the estimated 16,000 Russian soldiers currently in the territory slipped in quietly when everyone was distracted. (For his part, Putin still denies they even exist.) Crimea’s blunt army annexation may actually wind up occurring by considerably subtler means — perhaps subjection into a puppet state on par with the Completely Independent and Sovereign Countries of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which we may recall Russia heroically “liberated” from Georgian rule back in 2008.
A curious phenomenon of modern politics is that every sort of politician, even the harshest despots, generally tries to couch their deeds in the cloak of democratic legalism. Technically speaking, no government ever acts arbitrarily, dictatorially, or for reasons of brazen self-interest; there are always polite justifications about obeying the constitution and upholding the rule of law.
As it stands, Moscow does not recognize the post-Yanukovych Ukrainian government as legal, and Kiev does not consider the gang running Crimea to be constitutional. Both profess indignity that their opponents would have the gall to pretend otherwise, and both are currently in the process of trying to rally world opinion to their analysis.
Not that most foreign states are having a hard time picking sides.
Ukraine has a perfectly ordinary, constitutional civilian government. Despite having assumed office amid unprecedented circumstances, its leaders ascended to power through a parliamentary process that was open, procedural, and ultimately accountable to lawmakers, voters, and the legal system.
The Crimeans, in contrast, have a cryptic, cloistered, and unaccountable government that has, quite literally, been imposed at gun point — and probably foreign guns at that.
Even if your feelings on this distant standoff range from ambivalent to Chamberlainian, its hard to deny that in the battle of competing legitimacies, this is hardly a fair fight.
But then again, with Putin backing the Crimean junta while the pro-Ukraine west sits on its hands, a fair fight was probably never in the cards.