DISCLAIMER: Proceed with caution! Minimally-informed and premature commentary to follow. Comments, especially those offering a different interpretation of the facts of the Ukraine case, are welcomed.
Claude Welch once said that “a coup d’état is a sharp, clear event, easy to date and (if successful) possible to document.” While this is perhaps true of what we might think of as “traditional” military coups, recent scholars have been keen to point out that coups are not limited to the armed forces. A table from my 2011 Journal of Peace Research piece with Clayton Thyne illustrates a number of ways in which "perpetrators" have been defined over the years, and what we see is that 1) the involvement of the military is not a necessary condition across definitions (though it is a common one), and 2) recent efforts (us and Marshall & Marshall) make it clear that perpetrators simply have to be a member of the state apparatus in one way or another.
Clay and I ultimately define a coup d'état as "illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive." There are, inevitably, qualifiers necessary for virtually every aspect of the definition. A stand-alone assassin coming from the state apparatus could qualify as illegal, overt, involving a member of the state, and having successfully removed an executive. A qualifier we discussed in the paper, then, is that there must be a wider conspiracy.
Frustratingly for us, though coups have become more rare over time it seems the ones that do occur are becoming stranger and more difficult to define. The recent ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych provides a variety of challenges. As Jay Ulfelder has aptly noted, Yanukovych's removal seems to meet the criteria for a coup. A few qualifiers, however, are unavoidable.
First, was his removal illegal? Ulfelder remarks that the processes laid out in the Ukrainian constitution do not appear to have been followed by the letter of the law if we treat Yanukovych's removal as coming at the hands of the parliament. I would tend to agree.
Second, the event was clearly overt.
Third, an illegal act of a parliament would clearly meet the state apparatus qualifier. However, many will make the argument that Yanukovych had already been forced out of office by protesters. While such a scenario would be illegal, this would remove the "state apparatus" qualifier. (We would not consider the standing down of the security services to fill this criteria). I'll return to this point later.
A final criteria would involve removing the "sitting executive." This particular criteria is potentially problematic. Many coups, for example, are undertaken by elements in the government to fill a power vacuum, such as in the aftermath of a death of a previous executive. Such was the case, for example, after the deaths of long-serving West African heads of state in Togo (Eyadema) and Guinea (Conte). The military in these cases used illegal means to install their preferred candidate in the former, while they directly seized power in the latter. Clay and I consider these events to be coups because constitutions will invariably include language that defines succession, and in each of these cases there were criteria for who was now the legal head of state, acting or otherwise.
This is an important distinction because it moves away from an explicit treatment of who is the sitting head of state and toward who should be the head of state in the event of a vacancy. For example, upon Hosni Mubarak's "resignation" in February 2011, he announced he would be succeeded by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Clay and I make no claims regarding a gift of prognostication, remote viewing, or any other supernatural form of scholarly insight, and cannot definitively tell you that Mubarak was forced out by the military (our guess is that he was). The true reasons behind his resignation were not "overt" and all we can assume is that he resigned under pressure, as many executives have done during transitions that were not considered to be coups by us or anyone else. Fortunately, Clay and I focus more on seizing power as opposed to leaving it, and can leave such ambiguous cases of exit to folks way smarter than us (like these guys).
What we can tell you is that nowhere in the Egyptian constitution would you find language allowing SCAF to serve as a successor to a resigning president. In other words, though we cannot tell you with full certainty that Mubarak was ousted in a coup, we are confident in saying that the seizure of power by SCAF was in fact a coup. The qualifier, of course, is that it might be more accurate to describe it as having targeted the man who should have succeeded Mubarak in line with the constitution.
We potentially see a similar definitional issue with Ukraine. One could make the case that Yanukovych's flight from Kiev acted as an abdication of sorts. It certainly would not be the first time a leader, met with popular resentment, fled from the capital and steadfastly refused to resign. A question, then, arises: at what point does a leader's abandoning of a capital due to fears of their personal safety qualify as having left office?
We can provide no clear answer on this. A very, very brief reading of the case and select articles of Ukraine's constitution tells us that Yanukovych, who had not resigned, should have still been considered the head of state. And though we are very, very far from scholars of Ukrainian constitutional law (or that of any other place), we believe that the process of impeachment was not followed to the letter of the law (we will, of course, look for other interpretations in the coming weeks and months). It might be worth considering that the prevailing sentiment of the government, including in both the armed forces and the parliament itself, was that Yanukovych had already been effectively removed due to the actions of popular protests. In this case the unanimous parliamentary vote could be seen as a symbolic gesture that would allow the country to move on rather than a direct removal of a sitting executive. This is mere speculation, so I will return to the previous point: who should have succeeded him?
Article 112. In the event of an early termination of the authority of the President of Ukraine in accordance with Articles 108, 109, 110 and 111 of this Constitution, the discharge of the duties of the President
This language suggests that regardless of whether we see Yanukovych's flight as an abdication, or his impeachment as legal, power should have been transferred to then-Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov. Power instead went to the speaker of the parliament, Oleksandr Turchynov. At this point I cannot say whether Arbuzov recused himself (I would greatly appreciate feedback on this point), but given my current reading I cannot see a scenario in which both Yanukovych's removal and his replacement can both be seen as constitutional.
Clay and I are ("very tentatively") considering this event to be a coup, albeit what Ulfelder has referred to as a "parliamentary coup." We will continue to investigate the case and could very well change our classification as we become more educated on the facts.