Ukraine’s Just Coup

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).

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Why Yanukovych Has the Advantage

This is a guest post by Lucan Way, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Lucan originally posted this on Facebook, and I am reproducing it here with his permission.

I am in Kyiv right now. It is truly an inspiring scene. The level of spontaneous self organization is truly unprecedented. No one who is here can avoid rooting for those on the street fighting for their ideals. The protesters have been far less violent than other protests in the world – including the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010. Simultaneously, Yanukovych is weak. His support has plummeted such that just about any opposition candidate wins against him in polls inthe 2nd round. His oligarchic support is also soft – as evidenced by the relatively balanced coverage on oligarchic TV channels. In 2004, only channel 5 was presenting protests in a positive light. Now it is many channels. This suggests that oligarchs are reluctant to put all their chits behind Yanukovych.

Nevertheless, in my view a sober analysis of the situation suggests that Yanukovych has the clear advantage—despite reports that momentum is on the opposition’s side. He has the advantage (at least until 2015) for the following reasons:

1. The opposition lacks a plausible politician who can clearly claim leadership of the movement.

Most opposition is fairly close in the polls to Yanukovych. But first round polls are still fairly close to Yanukovych – who in many polls has a plurality of support. The important thing is that there is no clear consensus on who is dominant – the way that Yushchenko was sufficiently dominant in 2002/2003 to convince Tymoshenko to back him. This creates a situation in which too many cooks spoil the broth. Many complain that the opposition lacks a clear strategy. But this is not the opposition’s fault – there is simply no way any one of them can dictate such a unified strategy.

2. Civil society as great traffic cop but not a powerful mobilizer of crowds:

The opposition has limited control over the crowds. The opposition/civil society has done a miraculous job of organizing food etc. for the protests. But a survey of protesters by Democratic Initiatives suggests that a full 90% of protesters came to Kiev on their own – not as part of an initiative by civil society groups or parties. In other words, civil society is clearly good at organizing those who make it to Kiev. But it is less obvious that civil society is able to actually bring them here.

Partly as a result, the “leaders” of the protests seem to have limited central control over the crowds. Thus, an initiative by leaders to protest the Central Election Commission tonight (over 5 obviously fraudulent by-elections by the regime) resulted in a miserly 150-200 protesters maximum (I just came back from there).

3. Rats will only jump a sinking ship if there is another boat to go to.

In a nutshell, there is no viable force for the Party of Regions to defect TO. Right now, the oligarchs are obviously not enthusiastic about Yanukovych. Most people here think that oligarchs would jump ship. But the opposition is not a clear bet the way Yushchenko was in 2002/2003. History shows that autocrats can survive for a long time in this situation – when the regime has weak support within but the opposition is even more fragmented.

4. Yanukovych was democratically elected.

It is sometimes forgotten that Yanukovych was elected in a relatively fair election – and was in the opposition in 2010 – which meant that he had far less access to administrative resources as in 2004. This puts the opposition in a far less advantageous position than in 2004. Of course, Yanukovych has engaged in all sorts of serious abuse. But (as many admit), the opposition does not have a clear legal rationale for holding early elections This puts Western actors in a somewhat difficult position regarding the opposition and Yanukovych.

5. There is no obvious clear majority for Europe in Ukraine.

Polls vary but the most optimistic ones show just above 50% for the EU. Most recent respected polls (by Razumkov and the Kyiv Institute for International Sociology show about 40% for the EU and 30% for the Customs Union – an advantage for the EU but hardly a clear majority.

6. Protests can’t go on forever.

Protesters have been brought to the streets mainly by Yanukovych’s stupidity – violently clearing protesters on Nov 30 etc. However, in principle there is nothing stopping Yanukovych from sitting on his hands, not giving anything serious and letting the protests peter out. Right now, it seems impossible to imagine this happening – but comparative cases suggest that protests are likely to peter out if they aren’t either provoked or obtain clear victories. (think Serbia 1996/1997; Iran 2009)

In sum, I sincerely hope I am wrong. And this thing is clearly not over. But I think there are unfortunately a lot of reasons to be pessimistic.

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