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22 July, 2019  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

Price too high

How Zelenskiy’s efforts to keep the parliament under control may pave the way to the loss of Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity

New president’s circles have been actively looking for a way to influence Ukrainian MPs, especially after a fierce and bitter confrontation between the President and, as it looks already dissolved, Ukrainian parliament that took place after Zelenskiy’s election. President cannot trust the new parliament’s loyalty either. Zelenskiy’s 73% of support gave him the feeling of his unique election and he has been rather annoyed that the current parliament absolutely does not seem to be interested in acting as an assistant to Zelenskiy’s party parliamentary ambitions. Zelenskiy’s representative in Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, and at the same time one of his key ideologists, Ruslan Stefanchuk, has recently announced, not able to hide his annoyance: “Since the moment of inauguration, from May 20 until June 7, parliament has not supported a single initiative, suggested by the president. They are all declined and dismissed.”

After a bold attack on the parliament, initiated by Zelenskiy who attempted to assault MPs and bring their public humiliation, long awaited by Zelenskiy’s voters, MPs have quietly switched to an opposition against the new head of the state - and he has no way to prevent that. At the moment a single party majority in the parliament, won by Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People) is not as certain as it seems yet, and even Zelenskiy’s circle understands this. For instance, it is not unlikely that recent calls to reform the parliament, based on long forgotten Kuchma’s reform, dating back 20 years ago, are a living proof of Zelenskiy’s inability to secure a clear and effective control over the parliament in the current circumstances. 

 

 

…20 years later

 

In one of his recent interviews the afore-mentioned Ruslan Stefanchuk openly claimed that “We are not ready to ignore the opinion of Ukrainian citizens voiced in 2000. At that time we had presented the people with four questions, referring to the creation of the two houses of parliament and decreasing the number of MPs […] we are not in the position to ignore the public opinion (82.9% – Ed.).

Hereby it is worth explaining the reason, why then-president and today a close aide of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Leonid Kuchma, initiated a referendum for the Ukrainian public to decide on the parliamentary laws in 2000. Current Ukrainian Constitution was passed in 1996 in the middle of a fierce confrontation and antagonism between then-president Kuchma and mostly oppositional parliament, which was headed back then by Kuchma’s irreconcilable opponent, Oleksandr Moroz. In its initial draft, 1996 Constitution fixed a dualism of power in Ukraine. On one hand, executive power institutions such as President, government and local administrations, could function autonomously and exercise their basic functions regardless of the situation in the parliament. On the other hand, fundamental questions, such as the state budget, as well as appointment of the Prime-minister, Prosecutor general, as well as Heads of other central executive institutions were to be decided solely by the parliament.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: The well-known path

 

Prior to 2000 Verkhovna Rada was headed by a populist leftist majority and the executive powers headed by the president for a while co-existed with each other. For instance, from time to time the parliament would pass various laws of dubious importance without consulting with the president or the government. Common fundamental decisions were made after a long period of talks and compromises. After his re-election in 1999 Leonid Kuchma began an open campaign against the parliament and tried to revise some of the functions granted to the MPs in 1996. In the early 2000 the parliament managed to stage a “Velvet revolution”, as it was called back then by the journalists – this was possible owing to a temporary alliance with centre-right parties in the parliament and the creation of Viktor Yushchenko government in December 1999.

In one of the sessions, that the MPs were made to hold outside of the actual assembly building, communists and socialists were isolated from heading the parliament and the pro-government majority was created. In order to secure the victory, Kuchma’s government called for a nationwide referendum on 16 April 1999, which then supported presidential initiatives. First decision allowed the president to dissolve the parliament should it fail to secure a functional majority within one month or fails to approve the state budget within three months. Secondly, the article of the Constitution of Ukraine which prohibited arrest, investigation of MPs without parliament’s approval, was removed. Third initiative called to decrease the number of MPs from 450 to 300 and create a bicameral parliament, where one house would represent the interests of regions in Ukraine.

However, at that time president’s attack on the parliament was neutralised after the conflict in the pro-government centre-right majority, public civic protests calling for “Ukraine without Kuchma”, Yushchenko government resignation and two epoch-making election campaigns – the Parliamentary campaign of 2002 and the presidential campaign of 2004. Results of the referendum were put aside, because according to the decision of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, those results were to be first approved by the constitutional majority in the parliament – which, despite ruthless efforts of the presidential administration turned out to be impossible. At the same time, changes to the constitution, which limited presidential powers and empowered the parliament were passed during the Orange revolution in 2004. These changes were prepared by the Putin’s protégé in Ukraine and also at that time head of the Kuchma’s presidential administration, Viktor Medvedchuk. Those changes were aimed at limiting the powers of the newly elected Viktor Yushchenko, openly anti-Kremlin candidate, as well as to implant a time bomb into Ukrainian politics and create grounds for constant tensions between the parliament and the president. 

After another series of tensions in the triangle president-parliament-government on 16 April 2008 Ukraine’s Constitutional Court announced that “the decision of the nation-wide Ukrainian referendum concerning the drafting and passing the laws is final and does not need to be ratified by the parliament or any other state institutions in Ukraine”. Therefore this has opened up a way to implement the results of the 2000 referendum in the best interests of then-president Viktor Yushchenko. His administration, however, has failed to use this advantage up until presidential elections in 2010. 

Nevertheless, the 2000 referendum and the Constitutional Court’s decision in April 2008 left the window of opportunity to pressurise the parliament open, as well as provided the possibility to change the constitution and increase the presidential powers at any moment – should there be a political will to do so. This is exactly what Volodymyr Zelenskiy is trying to do now, it seems. 

 

 

Against the reason and the sanity

 

 

If we take a look at the changes, approved by the referendum 19 years ago, it turns out that currently the president does actually have the right to dissolve the parliament provided it fails to form a legal majority. Additionally, talks are being held to remove MPs immunity. Therefore, there are only two promises that have not been fulfilled yet – to decrease amount of MPs from 300 to 450, and to create a bicameral parliament. If the former one is easier to achieve and is a rather populist slogan, the latter may indeed have fateful political consequences for the whole country. 

During his presidency, Kuchma’s logic behind the creation of the two houses of parliament was simple – he wanted to create a second house, to ‘represent the regions’, which was also thought to influence and counterbalance the second one, elected via proportional representation, where opposition had higher chances to win the more seats. Additionally, in any case two houses of parliament always leave more room for president’s manoeuvres. 

At first glance, Zelenskiy’s case is in every way different. His chances to grasp the control over the parliament are in fact higher now, should his party, Sluha Narodu, be elected via proportional representation system. Right now he is likely if not to achieve an absolute majority, then at least keep strong positions in the parliament. However, in the long run such system seems unfavourable for Zelenskiy. After he gets all the power and, predictably fails to fulfil most of his promises to his desperate electorate and as a result, suffers an unavoidable blow to his popularity, it is only the plurality voting system that will save Zelenskiy and keep him in power. 

Meanwhile, Zelenskiy’s team members are actively exercising their persuasiveness and power of speech, trying to convince the public that the country needs bicameral parliament. For instance, Ruslan Stefanchuk stated that “If we get together MPs elected via plurality system and the ones who were elected in proportional representation, there will hardly be any constructive communication. We will lose both political structure and regional representation. Mixed system turned our parliament into the huge political market”. However, in reality such statement is just an unwillingness to accept the fact that outdated plurality system should have been liquidated long time ago. In fact, this system was successfully brought to an end in 2000 and was only resumed by Viktor Yanukovych in 2012, who realised he has had no other chances to stay in the parliament otherwise. 

In Ukrainian postcolonial realities and environment of underdeveloped national identity, second house of parliament will turn into escalation of interregional contradictions, renewed calls for federalisation, and, the last but not least, creation of favourable environment for Kremlin to destabilise Ukraine. 

Two houses of parliament are common for countries that are either federations or confederations established as a result of two countries uniting into one state. Another example is for countries where historically and traditionally there have always been two houses of parliament – one for aristocracy and one for commons. In Ukrainian realities upper house of the parliament will not be able to represent municipalities, especially when there are talks of decreasing the numbers of MPs. For instance in France the reason behind existence of the Senate, the second house of the parliament, is argued to be the need to represent regional communities. However, French Senate on its own has 348 members. 

Therefore, potential decrease or even keep the current amount of MPs in Ukraine as well as creation of the bicameral parliament are two self-contradictory matters. According to the Kuchma’s logic in 2000 and his followers within Zelenskiy’s circle the idea is to provide wide representation for big regions – oblasts. This, on the other hand, will create a dangerous threat of fragmentation and creation of regional centre alternative to the capital, as well local elites who would be distributing the resources. Additionally, according to Zelenskiy’s and his team suggestions, interests of the local communities and regions will likely be closely tied to local regional lobbyists – not unlikely with a dangerous addition of the openly “Russian world” aftertaste.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Andriy Parubiy: “The current division into “old” and “new” politicians is the new Bolshevism”

 

An adequate model of decentralisation based on the interests of local communities does not need any sort of territorial representation or the second houses of parliament. Because in this case unrepresented minority among the communities will suffer from the loss of financial resources or its uneven distribution – the scenario will follow the previous scheme of isolating disloyal MPs elected via plurality system. Let alone other possible confrontations between the municipal and village communities, eastern and western regions, steel and oil and gas regions etc.

Zelenskiy’s representative in the parliament has admitted that there are only two ways to solve the parliament issue. “We can either create provinces headed by the chairmen – this way we will creat another plurality system. Otherwise, we will structure the society and thus we will create proportionate system.” However, this may lead to a dangerous creation of local “feudal owners”, which can potentially endanger Ukrainian independence and its territorial integrity. If we combine these statements with Zelenskiy’s populist calls to create bicameral parliament, as well as utterly absurd idea to decide on majorly impotent state matters via national referendum, it seems that Ukrainian political scene will turn into an unmanned chaos.

One does not need much imagination, to understand that intentional creation of regional conflicts and creation of an illusion of the “direct power of Ukrainian people” will benefit anyone, but not Ukraine in its effort to consolidate its unity, independence and power. 

 

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