The position of the Verkhovna Rada’s Speaker on the language law, regardless of his motivation, will determine his political future and his place in Ukrainian history
The confrontation surrounding the language issue, sparked by the party in power for election purposes (which they no longer keep secret), has taken an unexpected turn. After parliament passed the law, sponsored by Party of Regions MPs Kolesnichenko and Kivalov in blatant violation of the procedure, whereby recommended amendments were ignored and voting was conducted in the absence of Speaker Lytvyn at the session (he had previously sworn in public that he would not allow the vote), Mr. Lytvyn filed a letter of resignation and warned parliament that he would not sign the language law. The Rada did not accept his resignation (Party of Regions MPs referred to Mr. Lytvyn’s emotional state and said that he may change his mind once the stress is over). As a result, the “parliamentary crisis” as Mr. Lytvyn himself described the situation was left in the air.
TRIED AND TESTED MATERIAL
Volodymyr Lytvyn first came to parliament 10 years ago as the person who would ensure agreement and balance out the interests of different groups and political forces within the pro-government ZaYedu (the full name of the party was “For a Single Ukraine” while the abbreviation sounded like “for food” in Russian) conglomerate and other parties and MPs loyal to the then President Leonid Kuchma. Later, Mr. Lytvyn attempted to do the same during the Orange Revolution and in the last 18 months of the VR’s work in 2005-2006. For quite a while, he managed to find a balance between the representatives of the old and new governments and preserve both his seat, and his political weight. In 2006, his party failed to cross the parliamentary threshold, but he eventually got into parliament in 2007 after the early election, held as a result of the existing political crisis. The parliamentary crisis in autumn 2008 (caused by the mounting conflict between Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymoshenko) allowed Mr. Lytvyn to come back as Speaker and remain so after Viktor Yanukovych was elected President, in exchange for joining the pro-presidential majority. Inspired by this success, Mr. Lytvyn often began to claim that there was no other person capable of replacing him as the VR Speaker in the political reality of Ukraine, and that he would always be the Speaker. However, it has become apparent that the logic of the Presidential Administration’s concept had determined a specific term and use conditions for the “eternal” Speaker Lytvyn. Once they were over, his balancing position became a burden.
The events of July 3rd signaled that the government had decided that it could live without Mr. Lytvyn. All sources of The Ukrainian Week agree that he was probably unaware of preparations for voting on the law (or that it had been coordinated beforehand in a very narrow circle). The main version is that the Speaker has paid a price for losing control of his political faction in parliament. Mr. Lytvyn himself interpreted what happened in parliament as treason by everyone, from the Party of Regions and his party fellows to his close friends, including Adam Martyniuk, who put the language law to the vote in the Speaker’s absence. His party’s MPs offered two excuses for voting for the law at a party meeting on July 4th: they did not realize what they were voting for/against, or that they were informed that “Mr. Lytvyn had approved everything.” The first group includes MPs oriented at FPTP constituencies in Ukrainian-speaking oblasts (MPs Vashchuk, Shershun, Cherniy, Tereshchuk and Shpak). Therefore, after the vote whether sincerely or not, they said, as did Mr. Lytvyn, that they did not actually support the law. The second group is made up of MPs who are happy for their votes to be counted and have no intention to request their invalidation. They are represented by the head of the fraction, Ihor Sharov, a former Party of Regions MP who still has common business with some current PR MPs. According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, the group also includes MPs controlled by the billionaire Party of Regions MP, Vasyl Khmelnytsky (MPs Pavlenko, Belousova, Shmid, Hryvkovsky and Remez) or MPs who are going to run in FPTP constituencies in Southern Ukraine (Hrynevetsky, Baranov and others). They no longer need Mr. Lytvyn. Instead, consent from the Presidential Administration for their being elected to parliament is crucial, and their support of the Russian language in parliament is definitely a plus.
VICTIM OR LIAR?
Commenting on his resignation and criticism of those who betrayed him, Speaker Lytvyn said that “emotions are always present in politics, but a great deal of thought has gone into making this decision and the decision was a rational one”. What could have forced him to take such a radical move?
Firstly, it could have been the need for a move to save his political face and the prospect of being a stand-alone player rather than PR’s servant. Emotion could indeed have reinforced this move as the ego of the “irreplaceable and eternal speaker” was hurt by the Party of Regions after he publicly put his name to the promise that parliament would not consider the law until autumn and ensured everyone that “There will definitely be no surprises.” In this situation, the lack of proper reaction from Mr. Lytvyn would show him to be a person who knows nothing about what is going on in parliament and limit his role in the VR to a purely nominal one, similar to Leonid Chernovetsky’s role as Kyiv Mayor until recently.
Secondly, Mr. Lytvyn may have wanted to resign before parliament dismisses him, which the Party of Regions was preparing to do well in advance, once it felt that the Speaker was no longer as accommodating as before. After the first fight in the VR over the language law in late May, Mr. Lytvyn suggested the dissolution of parliament. In response, the Party of Regions began to buzz with talk about re-electing the Speaker. Why hasn’t this happened yet? Because the procedure requires a quorum of 300 MPs, who have to take the bulletins to vote for the dismissal of the Speaker of the VR. To prevent losing his seat, Mr. Lytvyn should have discouraged the opposition from supporting the initiative. However, the passing of the language law in the first reading on June 5th was accompanied by a storm of mutual criticism between the parliamentary opposition and the Speaker. Thus there were valid reasons to fear that the opposition would vote for his dismisal to punish him, provoke a split in the coalition and cast doubt on the existence of a pro-government majority.
On July 4th, the day after the law was approved, the VR changed the procedure for voting for the resignation and election of the speaker, canceling the 300 MPs quorum and cutting it to just 226. Mr. Lytvyn may have heard of the majority’s firm intent to support the new procedure shortly beforehand, on the day the language law was voted on, therefore had good reason to be nervous and start looking for an honourable way out. Perhaps, this was why he focused as much on the PR-sponsored amendments to VR procedure in his speech about the “treason of his brothers in arms” as he did on the language law being passed in violation of the procedure. This makes one wonder which of the two documents enraged Mr. Lytvyn more and became the reason, not the excuse, for his demarche.
The Speaker has taken a break to weigh up risks and options. He has already said that his resignation would be “a direct result of the situation surrounding the language issue.” In fact, though, he does not have much choice. He can either block any version of the language law entirely or subtly play along with the Party of Regions, having found a nice way out for himself. In the first scenario, he would have to enter into a real conflict with Viktor Yanukovych. But, in spite of the losses and risks, this move could actually give Mr. Lytvyn an opportunity for a political future as a responsible leader, who is capable of putting the prospects of Ukrainian statehood above his own personal interests. In the second scenario, he could go the way of Oleksandr Moroz, who betrayed the foundations of Ukrainian identity which, in fact, were innate to him personally and important to most of his voters. If he does that, Mr. Lytvyn could turn into a totally controlled tiny cog (as a result of the existence of compromising information himself having cast away his political prospects) in the president’s machine which it can betray at any time.
Oleksandr Yefremov, Chair of the Party of Regions’ faction in parliament, does not rule out an extraordinary session, which can be summoned on July 31st. In response to Mr. Lytvyn’s letter of resignation and his refusal to sign the laws passed in his absence, primarily those concerning language and the procedure for the election and dismissal of the speaker, 51 PR MPs applied to the Constitutional Court on July 5th to have its decision on how constitutional the requirement of a 300-large quorum to re-elect the speaker is. With unprecedented speed, the Constitutional court sent a letter requesting the VR’s position on the issue on the very next day, July 6th. According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, the Constitutional Court is ready to fulfill the task set by the party in power in the shortest term possible to elect a new speaker at the extraordinary session on July 31st and sign all laws required by the authorities. However, Mr. Lytvyn has already sent a letter to the Constitutional Court saying that “the procedure for electing the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada is an internal issue of the operation of parliament. It cannot be subject to constitutional control”. Yet, given the chronicle of decisions by the Constitutional Court over the past two years, it is unlikely to rule against the party in power.
Under such conditions, the only chance for Mr. Lytvyn to save face and his political prospects is to refuse to sign the law sponsored by Kolesnichenko and Kivalov (even if it is passed in accordance with the procedure and including the amendments which even Viktor Yanukovych does not oppose for tactical reasons). Regardless of Mr. Lytvyn’s motivation now and his role in the past, it is his decision to actually block the law or play into the hands of the government now, that will determine his place in history. The right move could give him the possibility to reinvent himself as a politician and gain new political opportunities.
For Ukrainians incarcerated in the occupied territories and in the Russian Federation itself, things could get much worse in 2018. Only serious international pressure is likely to make Moscow release these political prisoners