As Ukraine’s newly appointed government confronts a deepening separatist challenge in Crimea, Viktor Yanukovych continues to describe his removal from office as a “coup d’etat” (here). According to a recent poll by a reputable firm, roughly one-quarter of Russians agree. A month earlier, 84 percent of respondents in a similar poll saw the protests against Yanukovich as a coup attempt.
But that’s all spin and propaganda, right? Yanukovych is a friend of Moscow’s, which presumably views his ouster as part of a broader Western plot against it, and state-guided Russian media have been peddling this line from the start of the EuroMaidan protests a few months ago.
Well, pedantically, Yanukovych is correct. Academic definitions of coups d’etat generally include four criteria: 1) they replace the chief executive; 2) they do not follow constitutional procedure; 3) they are led or facilitated by political insiders; and 4) they involve the use or threat of force. Sometimes we attach modifiers to signify which political insiders strike the blow—military, palace, parliamentary, or judicial—and the criterion regarding the use or threat of force is often interpreted broadly to include arrest or even credibly menacing statements. When political outsiders topple a ruler, we call it a successful rebellion, not a coup. When political insiders remove a sitting leader by constitutional means, we call it politics.
Ukraine unambiguously satisfies at least a few of these criteria. The sitting chief executive was removed from office in a vote by parliamentarians, who qualify as political insiders. Those parliamentarians were encouraged by a popular uprising that represents a form of coercion. Even if we assume, as I do, that most participants in that uprising would not have physically harmed Yanukovich had they captured him, their forceful attempts to seize and occupy government buildings and their clashes with state security forces are clearly coercive acts.
And, crucially, the vote to remove Yanukovych doesn’t seem to have followed constitutional procedures. Under Articles 108-112 of Ukraine’s constitution (here), there are four ways a sitting president may leave office between elections: resignation, incapacitation, death, and impeachment. None of the first three happened—early rumors to the contrary, Yanukovych has vehemently denied that he resigned—so that leaves the fourth, impeachment. According to Article 111, impeachment must follow a specific set of procedures: Parliament must vote to impeach and then convene a committee to investigate. That committee must investigate and report back to parliament, which must then vote to bring charges. A final vote to convict may only come after receipt of a judgment from the Constitutional Court that “the acts, of which the President of Ukraine is accused, contain elements of treason or other crime.” Best I can tell, though, those procedures were not followed in this case. Instead, parliament simply voted—380 to 0, in a body with 450 seats—to dismiss Yanukovych and then to hand executive authority on an interim basis to its own speaker (here).
The apparent extra-constitutionality of this process gives us the last of the four criteria listed above. So, technically speaking, Yanukovych’s removal checks all of the boxes for what we would conventionally call a coup. We can quibble about how relevant the threat of force was to this outcome, and thus whether or not the label “parliamentary coup” might fit better than plain old coup, but the basic issue doesn’t seem especially ambiguous.
All of this should sound very familiar to Egyptians. Twice in the past three years, they’ve seen sitting presidents toppled by political insiders while protesters massed nearby. In both instances, the applicability of the “coup” label became a point of intense political debate. People cared, in part, because perceptions affect political outcomes, and what we call an event shapes how people perceive it. We shout over each other until one voice finally drowns out the rest, and what that voice says becomes the history we remember. In a world where “the will of the people” is seen by many as the only legitimate source of state authority, a whiff of illegitimacy hangs about “coup” that doesn’t adhere to “revolution.” In a peculiar twist of logic and semantics, many Egyptians insisted that President Morsi’s removal in July 2013 could not have been a coup because millions of people supported it. The end was right, so the means must have been, too. Coup doesn’t sound right, so it couldn’t have been one of those.
It’s easy to deride that thinking from a distance. It’s even easier with the benefit of a hindsight that can take in all the terrible things Egypt’s ruling junta has done since it seized power last July.
Before we sneer too hard at those gullible Egyptian liberals, though, we might pause to consider how we’re now describing events in Ukraine, and why. Most of the people I know personally or follow on social media believe that Yanukovych was a rotten menace whose removal from office was justified by his corruption and, more recently, his responsibility for the use of disproportionate force against activists massed on the Maidan. I agree, and I’m sure the documents his accomplices dumped in the Dnipro River on the way out of town will only clarify and strengthen that impression. Yanukovych’s election win in 2010 and his continuing popularity among a large (but dwindling) segment of the population weighed in his favor before 19-20 February, but the shooting to death of scores of unarmed or crudely armed protesters undoubtedly qualifies as the sort of crime that should trigger an impeachment and might even win a conviction. That is, those shootings qualify as an impeachable offense, but impeachment is not what happened.
As moral beings, we can recognize all of those things, and we can and should weigh them in our judgments about the justice of what’s transpired in Ukraine in the past week. Moral and analytical thinking aren’t the same thing, however, and they don’t always point in the same direction, or even occur on the same plane. I’d like to believe that, as analytical thinkers, we’re capable of acknowledging the parallels between Yanukovich’s removal from power and the things we usually call coups without presuming that this acknowledgement negates our moral judgment about the righteousness of that turn of events. Those two streams of thought can and should and inevitably will inform each other, but they don’t have to move deterministically together. Let there be such a thing as a just coup, and let this be an instance of it.
PS. For an excellent discussion of the philosophical issues I gloss over in that final declaration, see Zack Beauchamp’s “The Political Theory Behind Egypt’s Coup” (here).