Ukraine and Ukrainians have a history of parliamentarism that goes back more than a millennium: the tradition of viche or town meetings that started in early Kyivan Rus, the kozak councils, the substantial representation of Ukrainians, first in the Sejm of the Rzeczpospolita Polska or Polish Republic and then in the Austro-Hungarian legislature, and later the Central Council or Rada during the national liberation movement period at the time of WWI and later the Ukrainian Main Liberation Council during WWII.
Parliamentarism has been key in the conflict between society and monarchs as a stabilizing factor for cooperating and as a counterbalance that prevents the concentration of power in one pair of hands. A parliament is that place where compromise and consensus are constantly being sought. On one hand, it cannot be the epitome of a heavy hand or dictator, and on the other, the source of anarchy and arbitrariness. It must properly reflect the interests of an entire society.
As one philosopher put it, when the parliament does its job, there’s no need for revolutions. In other words, since they are represented, different social groups can find their way to compromise over disputatious issues through the platform of the parliament.
In Ukraine, where there are those who favor a strong hand and those who tend towards an anarchic freestyle approach, the position of Ukrainian society as a whole favors compromise and the harmonious development of the country. Sociological surveys have consistently shown this, time and again. The greater part of society, the so-called moral majority, wants reforms, a better life, and a European choice. And the Verkhovna Rada, by its very nature, should reflect its interests, rather than resorting to extremes. It should search for what can bring all Ukrainians together rather than sowing discord and divisiveness. When parliament is silent, the street will speak. When parliament works, society can keep moving forward. This means that those who are looking for a “firm hand” simply have no proper understanding of what they are thinking of and the purpose of a parliament: to ensure stability and to seek consensus, compromise and ways out of potential political crises.
How well is Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, executing this role today. It’s worth remembering just three key stages in is history:
1. The declaration of an independent Ukraine. This key decision in modern Ukraine was approved by the parliament, which became the body that took on responsibility during a soviet-wide crisis and announced the formation of an independent Ukrainian state. What more important decision can a state make than declaring its own existence?
2. The crisis of 2004 and the Orange Revolution. During the presidential election, the transfer of power provided for in law did not take place because Ukrainians themselves found the ways and means in which the election was taking place unacceptable. Who took the country safely through this crisis? The Verkhovna Rada by making the decision to hold a repeat run-off election and allow Ukrainians to elect a legitimate president, and allowing Ukraine to survive this very difficult period.
3. The trials of the Euromaidan. The only entity that was able to hold the Ukrainian state together and take the country through a profound domestic and external crisis was, once again, the Verkhovna Rada. Moreover, this was at a time when the Russian Federation was doing everything in its power to destabilize the situation, when enemy troops were already on Ukrainian soil, beginning to occupy Ukrainian territory. Within its competence, the VR was able to overcome the crisis, sometimes by making extraordinary decisions. What’s more, in the final tragic days of February 2014, it was able to stop the violence. The decision to order all police and military units to go back to their bases was decisive.
So when people accuse Ukraine’s parliament of not working or acting very effectively, my response is that, despite everything, this is the key governing body in Ukraine, and when the country was in its most critical moment, when it was being challenged the most severely, it was the only entity that helped Ukrainians go through these challenges and difficulties.
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As to the effectiveness of its work, let me simply count the number of reforms that the Rada has legislated just in the last three months, starting on September 6, 2017. Education: nearly 2,000 amendments; judiciary: over 5,000 amendments; pension: nearly 2,000 amendments; and healthcare: nearly 1,000 amendments. What’s more, every one of these pieces of legislation went through the entire procedure—wherein lie the power and protection offered by parliamentarism. At the time, I was told that this was “impossible.”
Still, I believe that the parliament is not there to approve “someone’s” bill, because every deputy is a participant and takes responsibility for passing every decision made by the deputy and by the entire Rada. Incidentally, some of the key provisions of these reforms were formulated right there in the Rada, such as Art. 7, the language article, in the Law “On education.”
Many would like to see the parliament as a convenient and submissive machine that simply rubber-stamps decisions. But the complete, open lawmaking procedure and the fact that we follow it properly provide the basis for confirming the Rada’s key role in making national policy. In addition to these four reforms, a law on cybersecurity was passed and changes were made to the budget and tax code that enabled the critically important revival of Ukrainian cinematography.
Every parliament, not just Ukraine’s, faces the same problem, that little love is lost on it—our European colleagues have often joked about this with us. Not only that, other branches of government love to point fingers at this collective body for anything that is going wrong. However, I can confirm that the Ukrainian parliament is not only working, but is bringing results. Results that are the best measure of its performance. All the anti-corruption agencies were set up by it, as well as the anti-corruption infrastructure, and all the transformations in every single sphere are also its doing. The fact is that no reform could be taking place in Ukraine without the Verkhovna Rada’s approval.
Of course, there are well-deserved criticisms of deputy discipline. This is definitely one of the problems facing the Ukrainian parliament. But it’s important to understand just why this is. When people in a riding vote for UAH 200, their elected deputies feel that the debt has been paid off, that the seat is theirs, that they have immunity, and that’s the end of that. Responsibility has to be mutual, both on the part of the voter and on the part of the person being elected. Immunity must be withdrawn from MPs so that this is no longer the reason why people decide to run, but rather the desire to engage in making laws and organizing reforms. And yes, the electoral system must be changed. The Code on open lists that the Rada has already approved was drafted by me because I believe it could go a long way to establishing effective social lifts and improving the quality of work of Ukraine’s elected representatives.
Going ahead, Ukraine faces a difficult period, with 2018 a pre-election year. At a briefing in early fall 2017, I mentioned that we have a lot to get done during this session, that this autumn had to be the autumn of reforms, because this will all be much more difficult to accomplish in summer of 2018, when emotions are on the rise and no one wants to take on responsibility for an unpopular policy.
I expect debate over the Electoral Code to be long and hard. I understand how much the presidential race will affect the parliament as well. There will be several MPs running for that office and each one of them will be trying to take advantage of being in the legislature as a spotlight for presenting their campaign platforms and ideas.
Still, the most responsible and key period for this parliament will nevertheless be in 2019, in the time between the presidential and parliamentary elections. This means that 2018 and 2019 will see the greatest political emphasis being placed on the work of the Rada. Personally, I’m absolutely convinced that even under these circumstances, the issues of security, European integration and integration with NATO will remain the only serious ones and the ones that will bring members of all political stripes together in the Rada. This parliament has gained considerable institutional experience, which is very important. It has learned how to act in different situations, and has managed to do so without unnecessary shoving and fisticuffs. This new experience offers us an opportunity, even in the hardest moments, to find a way out, a compromise and consensus and to keep working productively.
I think the Verkhovna Rada is adequately prepared to respond the biggest challenges that might face both it and Ukraine. The key is policy-making. And this is why so much effort is going into destabliizing and discrediting it. Russia understands that to destabilize Ukraine, it has to destabilize the legislature. A functional parliament means a stable country. Nevertheless, I believe the level of responsibility among national deputies is sufficiently high today to survive any amount of testing that might come our way.
Andriy Parubiy is Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj