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Spare a bit of reform shaming for Ukraine’s parliament, will you?

A fistfight in the Verkhovna Rada. We don’t count them anymore.
Spare a bit of reform shaming for Ukraine’s parliament, will you?
Article by: Lucy Sohryu

Ukraine, it seems, just can’t do anything to please its ostensible Western well-wishers, no matter how much I or other people try. If it’s not a ‘neo-Nazi coup’, it’s ‘failed state’; if it’s not ‘controversial decommunization’, it’s ‘deep East-West divide’. Trying to stem this particular tide is like trying to stop a tsunami by throwing handfuls of sand at it, and it just doesn’t stop.

Let’s try one particular handful, then. If there is one thing Western observers and Ukrainian ZRADAphiles agree upon, it’s President Poroshenko. Now, Reddit actually made me ashamed of being so unfairly biased towards Poroshenko, but this is quite besides the point here. Porokh gets a lot of shit. Actually, it is more like a Mount Everest of shit, and it gets progressively larger every month. Sometimes the hate switches onto PM Yatsenyuk, but the point stands: Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk get all the hate, even if they actually do some decent things once in a while, and you know who gets away scot free?

You got that. The Rada. Actually, when you say ‘The Rada’, it sounds just like ‘Zrada’, so you can say it’s in the name. For a handy guide to ZRADA as a complex social phenomenon, look no further. But I digress.

The Rada, as most Western observers should know, is the Ukrainian parliament, i.e. the 450 (422 sans occupied Crimea and parts of Donbas) people actually in charge of making the laws in this country. Now, parliaments rarely get the time of day in the press. One rarely sees someone criticizing the Congress or the Bundestag, yet people always rag on Obama or Merkel for things like foreign policy, domestic policy, whatever. Thing is, though, that Obama and Merkel actually ARE responsible for stuff like policy: they are their respective nations’ heads of government, because America is a presidential republic and Germany is a parliamentary republic. On the ex-Soviet front, we also have Putin and his All Over 50 Dictator Club – Lukashenko, Nazarbayev, you name ’em: i.e. people who actually ARE in control of most things that are done in their countries. It should be logical to apply the same pattern to Ukraine, right?

Actually, no. The problem is that Ukraine, in addition to NOT being an ex-USSR authoritarian country for a change, is what is called a semi-presidential republic; a form of government where the president, as head of state, enjoys larger than ceremonial powers, but does not actually control the executive branch outright. Now, Russia is technically semi-presidential, too, but seeing as Medvedev is asleep most of the time and all the ministers are United Russia or CPRF/LDNR/Just Russia men, we’ll ignore that little inconvenient detail. Russia’s Constitution affords greater powers to its President. Ukraine, however, is a different matter.

As of 2015, Ukraine is running under a 2004 Constitutional amendment, which, back in the day, was how President Kuchma intended to remain in power: by transferring most executive powers from the President to the Prime Minister, who is elected by the Rada. With a Rada completely in his pocket and Yanukovych intended to be a placeholder President, there was nothing that could possibly go wrong with this plan: only it did, because the first Maidan started. Back then, Yuschenko and Kuchma made a deal: Kuchma allows a third round of presidential elections to be held, while in return Yuschenko’s people in the Rada vote for the Constitutional amendment. Yuschenko agreed, and thus signed his fate.

What followed was half a decade of political arm-wrestling between the President and his Prime Ministers, including, at different times, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yanukovych his own self. Since the only way you could become Prime Minister was to have a sizable faction in the Rada, this political arm-wrestling inevitably involved the parliament. Reelections were held every other year. This all ended in 2010, when Yanukovych came, undid the Constitutional amendment and tried to turn Ukraine into Little Russia, complete with repressions, rampant cronyism and state control of the media. That didn’t work out, too, and now Ukraine is back to square one and the Constitution of 2004. It isn’t much of an improvement, but it is an improvement.

Since we’re having a little detour into ancient history, it is noteworthy to mention that President vs Prime Minister standoffs didn’t start with Yuschenko and Tymoshenko. Back in the early 1990s, when old Kravchuk was President, his PM was no one other than… Leonid Kuchma, and the two vied for power so much that Kuchma ran against Kravchuk in the presidential election… and won. Kuchma then famously locked the MPs inside the Rada’s session hall until they voted the newly-minted Constitution into law, and proceeded to appoint and dismiss PMs as he pleased.

But that’s that. What you really need to know is that, right now, the President of Ukraine is NOT actually the head of the government’s executive branch. Or, for that matter, any other branch. That part falls to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is appointed by the Rada. Other ministers in the Cabinet are also appointed by the Rada, with the exceptions of the Minister of Defence and Minister of Foreign Affairs, who are appointed by the Rada on recommendation of the President. The Rada also similarly appoints the Prosecutor General and the head of the Security Service; the President can’t actually appoint these two willy-nilly. There is also the judicial branch, where a Supreme Council of Justice is appointed by the Ministry of Justice, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and… the Rada, again: the Supreme Council of Justice, in turn, appoints judges and Constitutional Court justices, both of whom are dismissed by the Rada, if even. A judge or justice can be dismissed due to old age, but most of the time, if you’re a judge in Ukraine, you’re one for life. You can see how that spoils people.

The President is responsible for things like national security (hence the Minister of Defence nomination) and foreign policy (hence the Minister of Foreign Affairs nomination), and gets to choose who heads up the prosecution (which is a tricky thing, because Ukraine’s Prosecutor Office, like the Soviet one, is in charge of general supervision and criminal investigation). He is also the guarantor of the Constitution (a vague title) and represents Ukraine abroad. He also usually exercises some control over his faction in the Rada, but (at the moment) it is nowhere near to the control Putin exercises over, say, United Russia. And that’s it.

The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has the final say over domestic policy: economy, energy, policing, emergency response, you name it. Both the PM and the President may put forward bills to be considered by the Rada. Only after Rada votes them into law they become such. Both President and the Cabinet of Ministers also issue decrees, but decrees must have basis in extant law. The President also appoints regional governors, while the Prime Minister appoints the heads of state services, usually subordinate to one ministry or other. And that is, again, it.

The rest, again, falls to the Rada. As you can see if you re-read the above article, the Rada actually DOES everything in the country; more correctly, it can’t be done till the Rada says it’s the law.

Cabinet appointments? Voted by Rada. President nominates Prosecutor General? Has to be confirmed by Rada. Constitutional amendments? Voted by Rada, and you better make sure you’ve got those 300 votes ready. Reform legislation? Voted by Rada. Military procurement? Voted by Rada. Anti-corruption legislation? Voted by Rada! A more recent novelty is the anti-corruption prosecutor, to be chosen by a commission that includes both Prosecutor’s Office representatives… and representatives of the Rada.

And since lawmaking is, of course, a very important job, a prospective law first has to be debated in committee before being sent to the floor. And if the floor disagrees, the prospective law may well have to go back to the committee. You see what I’m driving at?

There is a reason the system is usually (and incorrectly) called a parliamentary-presidential system in Ukraine: because the parliament is in charge of nearly everything being done. Of course, the President still has to sign laws for them to take effect, but the President is not the one who makes them. Rada MPs, however, are.

Keeping track of every individual Rada MP, of course, is hard, even for Ukrainians. Most Ukrainians failed to take the hint that the system’s a bit different, so they will usually blame the President for everything and anything that happens with them, or with their heating bills, or with the country, or whatever. Whose fault it is that your cow died and your outhouse smells? The President’s, of course!

To put things in perspective, half of Ukraine’s MPs are elected under a first-past-the-post system, ostensibly to make sure they really represent the voters that elect them. However, most Ukrainians do not actually know who their MP is, why is he running and how he earned his living (the fancy suit, the expensive car, the million-dollar election campaign complete with free foodstuffs and painted benches). Usually they vote because they’ve seen him most on the television or on the billboards in the street, or because they were told they have to vote for him. Or else.

Most Ukrainians, in fact, do not actually believe their representatives (which the word deputypeople’s deputy in Ukraine – actually implies) represent them at all. The connection that would be natural to someone from the US, or the UK, or from Germany is completely nonexistent in Ukraine. Where an American would write their Congressman, a Ukrainian would shrug, do nothing and complain about how ‘they’ do not care about the common people.

Who is supposed to care about the common people, then? Most Ukrainians would say ‘the President’. Some would say ‘the Prime Minister’. And since the Prime Minister is appointed by those no-goods in the Rada, who’s left?

This is one reason why presidential election enjoy the highest voting turnout in Ukraine: because people (mistakenly) believe the President is the absolute highest power in the land. Back in the days of Kuchma or Yanukovych this, of course, was so. Now? Not so much.

Kuchma and Yanukovych could exercise unlimited power because the Constitution gave them wide powers to appoint and dismiss the government, the Rada was in their pocket, and the prosecution and the judiciary could make any charge, no matter how flimsy, stick. Poroshenko, on the other hand, can only get things done through extensive backroom dealing, horsetrading and political arm-wrestling, with a highly factional Rada that relies of a barely functional coalition and a government he has to cooperate with, not appoint or dismiss on his whim. Of course, he has a say in who’s who in that government, but the other coalition parties enjoy the same privilege.

Yet it is Poroshenko who gets all the blame. The problem is not the blame per se; rather, it is the way how it is disproportionately heaped up on Poroshenko (and Yatsenyuk gets a shovelful when people actually remember he’s around), while the Rada gets off scot free. Western observers are the most guilty of that: they’ve heard something about ‘pro-European political parties’ without bothering to go into detail, and thus the Rada MPs are cute little pro-European reform-minded bunnies abused by Poroshenko, the bloody tyrant who won’t stop selling his candy.

Ukraine is slow in reforming itself, that’s right. But blame has to be spread around at least a bit more evenly, because half of the time there is no reform it is because there’s no legislation, and guess who is in charge of legislation? You got that right, it’s the Rada. The big visa-free package could have been voted into law two weeks ago if it weren’t for some MPs’ big ambitions and personal interests, and that’s just the most visible example. Crucial legislation is stuck in committee, and the committee in question often can’t even assemble. Western observers and domestic journalists look, see no reforms and then proceed to label Ukraine a ‘failed state’ and then blame Poroshenko.

The parliament isn’t the legislative branch of the government for nothing: it IS part of the government, no matter how some MPs (the ‘pro-European, reform-minded’ cute little bunny ones) harp on TV about the ‘evil and criminal government’, referring to its executive branch. Nothing gets done without a law saying it can (nay, MUST) be done so and so. Who is in charge of actually approving those laws? The President? The Prime Minister? Or better, who is preventing MPs from voting these laws?

2015 is coming to an end. At the moment, the current convocation of the Rada has been around for a year. A year was enough for most newly-minted MPs to start totting fancy suits, drive expensive cars and harp about the government’s evils and the President’s tyranny on Facebook. In that same year, however, Ukraine has indeed accomplished little.

It is perfectly sound to criticize. But the Rada has to learn some responsibility of its own. In a country that strives to reform this responsibility is to vote.

Until the Rada does that, it is perfectly sound that it must be criticized, too.

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