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11 February, 2020  ▪  Andriy Holub

Brake time?

The new administration failed, after all, to make good on a single serious reform. The seemingly minor postponement could suggest a systemic crisis of decision-making

What happened on September 12, 2019? Few will recall the news of that day, even though nearly all the domestic press reported it. That Thursday was the day the “turbo gear” the new government’s engine was charging along in officially broke. The unwavering submission of the Rada’s monolithic majority to the president and Government had lasted all of 10 days. Since that day, the new administration has found it increasingly difficult to get the policies it wanted passed. 

The first historic rejection was Bill #1075 “On the succession of Ukraine,” which proposed abolishing soviet regulations that were still valid in Ukraine, such as the Housing and Labor Codes. When the VR display tally showed 214 votes instead of the minimum of 226 needed, it laid bare a conflict that runs deeper than merely the political interests of different groups. It now looked like the style of work of the new team was bound to fail to produce results, because it wasn’t so much whether the propositions being rafted in government offices were good or bad, but that the team simply did not know how to get the desired results.

Two days earlier, the VR Committee for Legal Policy had discussed bill #1075. MPs from different factions and newly-appointed Justice Minister Denys Maliuska joined the debate, sitting down next to MP Roksolana Pidlasa (SN), the co-author of the bill. Both Maliuska and Pidlasa belong to the Sluha Naroducohort whom supporters tend to refer to as “young technocrats,” pointing to their bent towards practical work rather than demagoguery. Before joining the Government, Maliuska worked at BRDO, an NGO that drafted bills for the Economy Ministry in the Groisman Cabinet and has provided much of the human resource foundation for the current one. Pidlasa also comes from the NGO community and was the spokesperson for the previous Economy Ministry.

Across the table from them sat the committee’s first deputy chair, Vasyl Nimchenko, a familiar old face in politics at 69. Now in the newly-minted Opposition Platform–Za Zhytttia faction and a one-time justice on both the Supreme and Constitutional Court benches, Nimchenko took the floor and began to speak at length about how damaging the bill under consideration would be. Shortly, he launched into reminiscing about 1991 and the circumstances under which the laws of the Soviet Union and newly-independent Ukraine were harmonized. Maliuska and Pidlasa turned away, barely suppressing laughter and looking almost smugly confident in their rightness. They seemed to consider their presence at the meeting a necessary formality rather than a means of attracting supporters. After all, they had a majority of nearly 250 MPs behind them. Two days later, this monolith failed spectacularly to pass the young reformers’ bill.

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Over the course of the fall, this inability to negotiate and make deals, to persuade the public or their opponents – skills that are, after all, the essence of politics, yet are treated by many of the SN MPs as a kind of perverse virtue – was to trip them up several more times. The last such episode was in the run-up to the Christmas holidays, when, once again, just 213 MPs supported a bill to legalize the gambling industry. While highly unpopular, this initiative was one of Zelenskiy’s key promises and one of only a few that even made it into his official platform during his election campaign. After failing to pass the law to regulate gambling, all the Government did was use the police to shut down gambling and slot machine casinos. Ukraine has lived through such attempts before and the gambling business has always bounced back in fighting form.

The land market was another tale of an important reform that failed to pass. The Rada has already voted first reading of the bill and plans were to pass it in second reading during the same plenary week that the gambling bill flopped. This time political games at an all-night marathon of the VR agriculture committee and a clash between protesters and police in front of the Rada on December 17 got in the way. The problem is not just that the bill has been rescheduled to the new year. Since plans were to launch the market in the second half of 2020, this delay, in and of itself, might not have been significant – if not for the signal the party in power was sending to opponents of political reforms: that melees in the legislature and murky clashes outside it are an effective way to block progress. Sluha Naroducan now look forward to demonstrations against privatization, legalizing gambling, and anything that’s more “radical” than UAH 100 rise in pensions. And all those parties and politicians that claim to “speak for ordinary Ukrainians” will be happy to put in the time and effort necessary.

Nor is the neverending tale of the Financial Investigation Bureau (FIB) resolved yet. The Poroshenko administration spent years promising to launch it. Apparently, Zelenskiy and his team have now taken up the baton, delaying the launch of the new institution and seriously curbing the appetite of the SBU, the Security Bureau led by Ivan Bakanov, Zelenskiy’s friend, in investigating white-collar crime. So far, the FIB bill has only passed the first reading, with debates over the quality of its content ongoing.

Another series of reforms has failed as well, having been passed by MP but not launched. The four big ones are judiciary reform, restaffing the State Investigation Bureau (SIB), election reform, and the regulation of amber mining.

The Rada formally completed the reform of the highly lucrative and largely illegal and destructive business of amber mining in late 2019 when it finally passed the bill in full on December 19. However, the bill had not been signed into law by the president or published in the official bulletin by December 24. The same happened with the Election Code, although in this case the delay can be seen as positive in terms of the work of the new Rada: the authors took into account the opinions of different political parties and NGOs when preparing the final draft. As a result, the bill was passed with 330 votes and generally positive feedback from professional organizations. It’s not perfect as it introduces the much-vaunted open lists only partly. 

A delay of five days in signing bills does not seem extraordinary, although no reasonable explanation was provided in some cases. A key reason for one of them was the need to dismiss SIB Director Roman Truba who had featured in a number of scandals. Although the bill was finally signed on December 24, Truba remained in his position until December 27. Meanwhile, the investigation of the Maidan killings in 2014 remains under threat. The Rada passed a bill that allows the current investigators to move to the SIB and continue their work, bypassing the normally mandatory competition procedure. For now, however, all the investigations are still blocked and the investigators could still be dismissed from the Prosecutor General’s Office before the law comes into effect. If that happens, the rules provided by the law will be useless.

Judiciary reform, the first major change of the Zelenskiy presidency, has not delivered results yet in either of its two major innovations: the reduction of the number of Supreme Court judges from 200 to 100 and the reorganization of the High Qualification Commission of Judges, a key component in the judiciary system. The former is impossible without the latter, and competition for seats in the High Qualification Commission of Judges is at risk dragging on indefinitely because the procedure is still unclear.

Then there are the reforms that are supposed to take place “ASAP.” This particular phrase and its various synonyms are also typical of the new administration. It would take most of a page to list the times when the new government has used it, both before and since the two elections. Still, some of these lucky ASAP reforms are worth mentioning. First, there’s the widely advertised approach of relying on “people power” and referenda – got which the president has still not come up with a definite concept. In March, his team promised to present the necessary bills “as soon as possible” for consideration. In October, Speaker Dmytro Razumkov redefined “as soon as possible” to “before New Year’s,” but in December the team admitted that it would not complete a draft of the bill in 2019.

ASAP is also the timeframe given to the bills needed to finalize decentralization. In late December, the government proposed amendments to the Constitution in this regard, but without related laws being passed, the implementation procedure remains in limbo. In short, another reform that might not be finished.

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Economy Minister Tymofiy Mylovanov uses similar rhetoric when talking about the new draft Labor Code. “The new labor bill is still in process,” he said on December 23. “It will be published on the Ministry’s website in the next few days.” Back in September, the promise was that it would be put up for a vote by January 1, 2020 – by Justice Minister Maliuska during the committee discussion of ill-fated Bill #1075.

The new administration ended 2019 with some token victories, such as the much-hyped meeting of the Normandy Four and the removal of immunity for MPs and the president. But the jury is still out on their actual substance. For now, these have allowed Zelenskiy and his party to hang on to a high level of trust. But the effect of symbolic solutions fades quickly. Soon enough, it could turn out to that Ukraine’s new political team has little more to offer than promises to do things “ASAP.”


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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