Supreme Council of Ukraine

Image - The Supreme Council of Ukraine building.

Supreme Council of Ukraine [Верховна Рада України; Verkhovna Rada Ukrainy]. The national legislative assembly of Ukraine, also known as its parliament. The term ‘rada’ being equivalent to Russian ‘soviet,’ the parliament of Ukraine thus retains its Communist-era designation as the ‘Supreme Soviet’ (see Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR) along with the latter’s fundamental features which make democratic and effective government more difficult.

The 1996 Constitution describes the Supreme Council of Ukraine as consisting of 450 people’s deputies elected by secret ballot for a term of four years. A citizen must be 21 years of age to be a deputy (article 76). Regular elections are set for the last Sunday in March (article 77). The holding of elections on Sunday is a carry-over from the Soviet era, but deputies now are expected to be devoted full-time to their duties (article 78) rather than being amateur parliamentarians as in the past. They enjoy parliamentary privilege and immunity (article 80).

The Supreme Council of Ukraine operates in regular sessions which are set to begin on 1 February and 1 September each year (article 83). If, within 30 days of these dates, the Supreme Council of Ukraine has not begun its work, it may be dissolved by the president and extraordinary elections called (article 90). There are procedures for calling parliament into extraordinary session when it is recessed.

The Constitution (article 85) specifies the following among the powers of the Supreme Council of Ukraine: making constitutional amendments and calling referenda as authorized; adoption of laws; approval of the budget; confirming government programs and policies; removal of the president through the process of impeachment; agreeing to the president’s nomination of a prime minister; appointing and dismissing important governmental officers, including one third of the Constitutional Court; and voting no confidence in the procurator general, resulting in his dismissal. The Supreme Council of Ukraine also may pass a vote of non-confidence in the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, but not more than once per session nor within one year of approving the government’s action program (article 87).

Constitutional changes allowing for the first time semi-competitive elections were made in October 1989, and the first such elections took place in the spring of 1990. The resulting body gradually and continually reorganized itself into a series of political caucus-like clusters (‘fractions’) and of only slightly more disciplined committees (‘commissions’). While the conservative-minded Communist grouping of ‘the 239' nominally commanded a majority, the more disciplined People’s Council (Narodna Rada) cluster of between 115 and 133 deputies came to control not only the key commissions and consequently the Presidium, but also the proceedings through its discipline and better attendance. Hence, the surprising passage of the Declaration on the State Sovereignty of Ukraine on 16 July 1990, by 355 votes to 4, and the Law on Economic Independence on 3 August. By 1991, however, the ‘Group of 239' had been effectively cut in half, and the People’s Council was shattered into four components: the Party for the Democratic Rebirth of Ukraine (PDVU), the Democratic Party of Ukraine, the ‘Independence’ caucus, and the purely independent deputies. From December 1991, the chairman (speaker) of parliament during this convocation was Ivan Pliushch.

In the wake of the failed Moscow coup of August 1991, the Supreme Council of Ukraine voted 346 to 1 to adopt the 1991 Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence, and 331 to 10 to dissolve and ban party formations within the Security Service, Internal Affairs Ministry, and the Procurator General’s Office. Then the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) was banned and its parliamentary fraction officially dissolved.

During this parliament procedural moves were often resorted to by the fractions to register opposition, and procedural wrangling as often replaced debate, which only underlined the absence of meaningful political divisions. There was much argument over the rules. By March 1993, the partisan composition of the Supreme Council of Ukraine had completely changed from 1990: now the largest groupings were the People’s Council with 90 deputies, the Peasant Party of Ukraine with 76, and the Popular Movement of Ukraine (Rukh) with 49, while Nova Ukraina managed 36, and the Party for the Democratic Rebirth of Ukraine 21. At that point there were 12 fractions (caucuses) altogether. Throughout the life of the parliament there were 24 commissions (committees), with 424 deputies serving on them, or 94 percent of the full house. A majority—thirteen—of the commission chairs were the deputies from the restored Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU). There was notable duplication of subject matter among the commissions. The commissions took an active part in the legislative process, understandable in view of the weakness of parties. At this time parties were forming and proliferating among the electorate, but few of them had counterparts in parliament; few parliamentary fractions, which were fluid and amorphous in any case, had corresponding likenesses in the public. Thus, this parliament’s fulfillment of its representative function was questionable. Its legislative activity consisted more of procrastination and of withholding authority from the prime minister and president while taking no responsibility itself.

On 21 September 1993, the parliament passed a no-confidence motion in the government of Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma. Thereafter, it was agreed to hold new elections and to retain the name ‘Verkhovna Rada.’ In November, a double-majority electoral law (requiring a successful electoral candidate to get a clear plurality of a vote in which 50 percent or more of eligible constituents have cast ballots) was passed over the objections of Rukh and the PDVU who saw it as favoring the Socialist Party of Ukraine and the Communist Party of Ukraine.

The elections of 1994, fully competitive for the very first time, showed the new electoral law to be extraordinarily cumbersome. In the first round on 27 March only 49 deputies were in fact elected; a further 289 were chosen in April. The thirteenth (numbering continued without interruption heedless of the Soviet collapse) convocation of parliament opened on 11 May, therefore, with only 338 deputies, enough for a quorum, of whom only 56 survived from the previous parliament. By-elections for the remainder continued for the next two years; in May 1996, there were still 24 constituencies without representation.

Oleksandr Moroz of the Socialist Party of Ukraine was elected speaker. Nine fractions organized themselves. As of 1 July 1994, the largest were the Communists with 84 deputies, 46 more than the second-place ‘Center’ fraction; four, including the Socialists, had just the required minimum of 25. During the life of the parliament, there were further mergers, dissolutions, and coalescence of fractions, such that by 3 March 1998, there were still nine altogether, but five had new names and none had the same nominal number of deputies as four years earlier. The Communists, with 79, were still the largest, but the second biggest now was the ‘Constitutional Center’ with 51; the Socialists had 40 deputies. Each fraction chaired at least one of the 24 commissions; the Communists, six. The Presidium, consisting of the commission chairs plus officers of the assembly, operated until 1996, when it was abolished in accordance with the new Constitution’s provisions.

Public opinion regarded parliament with skepticism and mistrust, as it did political parties. Accordingly, one half of deputies at the start of this convocation were elected as independents. This parliament could hardly be described as representative: in mid-1996, only four of the then twelve fractions bore the names of registered political parties, nor were all of their deputies even members of those parties. The fractions, not parties, ran the parliament.

The parliament of 1994–8 was notable for its strong opposition to the powers and economic reform initiatives of the executive branch and for its equally strong sense of self-preservation. Thus the ‘Law on Power,’ introduced by President Leonid Kuchma on 2 December 1994, was only passed on 18 May 1995, after some 900 amendments. The Constitutional Accord, needed to implement the ‘Law on Power,’ was passed on 7 June 1995, but only after the parliament had vetoed the President’s proposed referendum on it on 1 June. On 21 June the parliament passed a vote of non-confidence in and dismissed the Procurator-General, V. Datsiuk, when his investigation into high-level corruption led to the initiation of criminal proceedings against Oleksandr Tkachenko, first deputy speaker of the assembly. This same parliament also refused to lift the immunity of former Acting Prime Minister Yukhym Zviahilsky.

Yet this was also the parliament which, in the spring of 1995, voted no confidence in the government of Vitalii Masol, a not unwelcome action from President Leonid Kuchma’s pro-reform viewpoint. It then approved, on 28 June 1996, by a vote of 315 to 36, the new Constitution of Ukraine, but only when faced with the threat of another referendum.

The 1998 elections were held under a new electoral law that had come into effect on 24 September 1997. It instituted a mixed system, with 225 deputies elected from party lists by proportional representation (PR) in one countrywide district with a four percent threshold, and 225 in single-member constituencies by simple plurality. The minimum valid turnout was reduced to 25 percent.

The elections took place on 29 March 1998, and of 30 parties in contention eight managed to cross the PR threshold. In the single-member races, 114 independents and another 111 candidates representing 21 parties were elected. The Communist Party of Ukraine, with 123, obtained the largest number of seats, followed by the Popular Movement of Ukraine (46), the alliance of the Socialist Party of Ukraine and the Peasant Party of Ukraine (34), the pro-presidential People’s Democratic party (NDP) (28), the anti-presidential Hromada All-Ukrainian Association (23), the Green Party of Ukraine (19), and the Progressive Socialist party and United Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (16 each). Eleven other parties won the remaining 31 seats. Within the parliament, these divisions were reduced to eight fractions and 24 unaffiliated deputies: Communists, 119; NDP, 84; Rukh, 47; Hromada, 39; Left Center (Socialists and Peasants), 35; Greens, 24; and Progressive Socialists, 17. Oleksandr Tkachenko, leader of the Peasant Party of Ukraine, was elected speaker, the Communist deputy Adam Martyniuk, first vice-speaker, and Viktor Medvedchuk of the United Social Democrats as vice-speaker, indicating the predominantly leftist orientation of this parliament and signaling its opposition to economic reform.

Strengthened by his win in the 1999 presidential election over the Communist candidate, Petro Symonenko, Leonid Kuchma took immediate steps to secure a more compliant parliament and to pursue a more vigorous policy of economic reform. He encouraged the formation of a pro-government majority (which, curiously, is easier to obtain in a parliamentary system than in the presidential one Kuchma has always advocated). With the help from Kuchma’s ‘oligarch’ friends, this began to take shape at the end of December 1999, bringing together some 250 centrist and rightist deputies, excluding Communists, Peasants, and Socialists. A parliamentary crisis then developed as this center-right majority proceeded to remove Oleksandr Tkachenko as speaker, replacing him with Ivan Pliushch, to take over from their left-wing colleagues all the committee chairmanships, and to pass several laws, all over the noisy objections of the leftist deputies. Viktor Medvedchuk was elected first vice-speaker, replacing Martyniuk, and S. Havrysh was chosen as vice-speaker. Both Pliushch and Havrysh were members of the pro-presidential NDP. For a fortnight, Ukraine had two parliaments, each declaring the other illegal. Among the laws passed and signed by President Kuchma was one renumbering the convocations of parliament so that the then current 14th became the third, to coincide with the new era of independence. Eventually the leftist deputies returned to the fold.

Earlier, on 15 January 2000, the President issued a decree scheduling a referendum for 16 April, which would allow him to dissolve parliament and call new elections. These developments resulted in a further rearrangement of parliamentary forces, principally the dissolution of the Progressive Socialist, Hromada, and Peasant fractions, which had fallen in strength to below the minimum of 14 deputies. Whereas eight political parties entered parliament in 1998, three years later there were no fewer than 14 caucuses, a symptom of the country’s chronic political fragmentation. Six of these fourteen groupings had no corresponding party outside the parliament. Nevertheless, the majority-minority configuration persisted well into the year 2001, albeit with some inconsistencies and defections. A pro-reform parliament was needed for Ukraine to reassure its creditors, chiefly the International Monetary Fund, about its serious intention to use loans for real economic reform and avoid a financial meltdown. On 17 February, the center-right majority adopted a zero-deficit budget for 2000, and on 7 December the same for 2001.

The integrity of the parliamentary majority came under severe strain after the Heorhii Gongadze scandal, when orientations towards President Leonid Kuchma, the government of Viktor Yushchenko, and market economic reforms became misaligned. Thus the vote of non-confidence in the Yushchenko government was supported by both the left-wing, and anti-presidential, as well as the ‘oligarchic’ and centrist, but pro-presidential parties. The vote on Anatolii Kinakh as prime minister was supported by the centrists and ‘oligarchs,’ but the Communists and the right-wing national democrats refrained from voting.

The underlying problem generating conflict between the executive and legislative branches in Ukraine is that the principle ‘all power to the soviets,’ which prevailed in the Soviet era under the Communists, still endures in the minds of left-wing parliamentarians; it is profoundly at odds with the semi-presidentialism, separation of powers, and checks and balances that are supposed to characterize its post-1991 political system. This readily invoked principle justifies the parliamentarians’ populist policies, which are contrary to the requirements of economic reform. It obscures the fact that these same leftist deputies benefit from and therefore have an interest in an only half-reformed economy. It also feeds the chronic conflict between the executive and legislative branches of government in Ukraine, especially over such fundamental matters as impeachment, referenda, the Constitution, and the electoral system.

Most of 2001 was consumed in a prolonged battle between President Leonid Kuchma and the parliamentarians over his preference for a bicameral legislature and theirs for a fully proportional representation (PR) electoral system. Both of these demands were eventually dropped, and a mixed electoral (PR and SMD) system was again used in 2002, but only after he had resorted to the veto five times and with the president’s preferred changes having been in the end incorporated. In those elections Viktor Yushchenko’s electoral alliance Our Ukraine won first place with 111 seats. Five other parties or blocs also succeeded in entering or reentering the Supreme Council of Ukraine: the pro-Kuchma For a United Ukraine bloc (101); the CPU (66); Yuliia Tymoshenko’s bloc and the Socialist Party of Ukraine (22 each); and the oligarch-affiliated Social Democrats (24). There were 92 independents. Anatolii Kinakh was named prime minister. Initially, a centrist, pro-presidential fraction of 175 deputies, Yedyna Ukraina (One Ukraine), was formed composed of 8 entities, built around the For a United Ukraine contingent. By summer, this grouping had dissolved and its elements resumed their autonomous existence so that the six elected parties/blocs became 14 fractions with no coherent pattern of differentiation between them. Having failed to create a majority or a coalition out of these fractions, it was agreed to allocate leading positions by political clan membership instead. Thus in place of Kinakh, Viktor Yanukovych of the Party of Regions and the Donetsk clan became prime minister. Presidency of the National Bank of Ukraine went to Serhii Tihipko of the Dnipropetrovsk clan; Viktor Medvedchuk, representing the Kyiv clan, was made head of the Presidential Administration; and Mykola Azarov, Head of the Tax Administration, became the president’s representative in the Supreme Council. In 2003, President Leonid Kuchma continued his campaign for constitutional changes which would ostensibly strengthen parliamentary powers at the expense of presidential ones, as well as his opposition to the PR electoral system preferred by the parliamentarians.

In the event, the compromise reached in connection with the Orange Revolution of 2004 brought into being Leonid Kuchma’s desired constitutional changes, weakening the incoming President Viktor Yushchenko relative to the Supreme Council. As of 1 January 2006, a parliamentary majority could appoint the prime minister, who cannot be removed by the president. In addition, it would appoint and dismiss certain other key ministers and heads of government agencies. The Supreme Council was also allowed to dismiss any minister by simple majority. These amendments, dated 8 December 2004, mandated the formation of a majority coalition within every newly-elected Supreme Council which would steer the work of the assembly and oversee the government of the day (Cabinet of Ministers). The term of the Supreme Council of Ukraine would henceforth be five years.

Due to a quid pro quo arranged within the Supreme Council by Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz two years previously, the 26 March 2006 elections were held under a pure PR system with a 3 percent threshold. Five parties were elected, led by the Party of Regions which gained 32.1 percent of the vote and hence 186 seats. Yuliia Tymoshenko’s bloc (BYuT) obtained 22.3 percent and 129 seats, while the pro-presidential Our Ukraine managed only third place—14 percent and 81. The Socialist Party of Ukraine and the Communist Party of Ukraine, at 5.7 and 3.7 percent, received 33 and 21 seats, respectively. These results did not bode well for presidential-parliamentary coordination, or for coalition formation. After three months of negotiations, a coalition was finally formed with Yuliia Tymoshenko as prime minister. In a surprise move, however, the Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz defected; backed by the Communists and Regions caucuses, he became speaker and this new ‘anti-crisis’ coalition nominated Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister instead. Unable to influence policy either through the assembly or the government, Viktor Yushchenko dissolved parliament and called for early elections in 2007.

In the 30 September 2007 elections, again conducted on pure PR, the Party of Regions once more was leader with 34.4 percent of the vote for 175 seats. The BYuT followed with 30.7 and 156, and the pro-presidential Our Ukraine—People’s Self-Defense trailed with only 14.2 and 72. The Communists and the new Volodymyr Lytvyn Bloc were last with 5.4 and 4.0 percent for 27 and 20 seats, respectively. Ironically, the Socialists were unable to climb the threshold and Oleksandr Moroz’s party was excluded. These winning parties/blocs then made up the five fractions of the 2007–12 convocation, for the first time temporarily aligning parties in parliament with parties in the electorate. The results, however, were a virtual repeat of 2006, so a state of permanent conflict between president and parliament ensued. This time Yuliia Tymoshenko was named prime minister, but the coalition supporting her collapsed at the instigation of President Viktor Yushchenko who renewed his calls for dissolution and constitutional change, neither of which occurred.

Because the 2004 amendments gave authority over fractions to the parties (as opposed to the Supreme Council), and because Ukraine’s parties had under the conditions provided by the PR electoral arrangements been turned into ‘projects’ of political entrepreneurs, this had an adverse effect on the assembly’s ability to fulfill its functions of deliberation, legislation, and representation. It meant that professional politicians became displaced as candidates for public office by celebrities and self-interested business people. Places on electoral lists could be bought. Deputies migrated between fractions according to personal benefits. Fractions drifted in and out of coalitions according to short-term considerations. Blockages replaced rational debate—in 2008, the parliament worked without problems for only five months. Fist fights replaced compromise. Defections by individual deputies brought the viability of entire fractions into question. The imperative mandate, introduced in 2006 and rescinded in 2010, meant that a deputy must remain in the party with which he was elected or lose his seat. Ambiguity regarding the composition of the ruling coalition was resolved in 2010 by the Supreme Council of Ukraine when it changed its internal rules to allow unaffiliated deputies—and defectors from other fractions—in addition to fractions themselves, to join such a coalition.

The 2004 amendments were withdrawn in 2010, following the election of President Viktor Yanukovych, the Constitutional Court ruling them unconstitutional. Having been defeated in her bid for the presidency, Yuliia Tymoshenko was replaced as prime minister by Mykola Azarov. A ruling coalition was formed composed of the Party of Regions, the Communist Party of Ukraine, and the newly-emerged but short-lived Volodymyr Lytvyn Bloc, for 220 votes, six short of the needed majority, even with the addition of defectors from Viktor Yushchenko’s and Yuliia Tymoshenko’s parties/blocs. Styling itself the ‘Coalition for Stability and Reforms,’ it proved more adept at the one rather than the other, except rhetorically. In November 2011, the Supreme Council approved a new electoral law reverting to a mixed PR-SMD system with a 5 percent threshold and a ban on the participation of blocs (electoral alliances). It was supported by 366 deputies; both sides saw it as a victory for themselves. In 2012, consistent with its platform, a bill, sponsored by the Party of Regions fraction, to expand the use of Russian and other minority languages where they were spoken by at least ten percent of the population, was passed by the Supreme Council, triggering considerable protest within parliament and throughout the country.

In the 28 October 2012 elections, the Party of Regions secured only 30.0 percent of the popular vote, for 72 seats, but augmented these with 113 SMD places for a total of 185, ten more than previously. Yuliia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party came second with 25.6 percent for 62 seats in PR, plus an additional 39 SMD mandates, for a total of just 101, or 55 fewer overall. Two new parties, Vitalii Klychko’s UDAR and Svoboda (Freedom) led by Oleh Tiahnybok, gained 40 and 37 seats, respectively. The Communists, with 13.2 percent of the PR vote and no SMD victories, claimed 32 seats or last place overall. Officially, the deputies reorganized themselves into four fractions—with the Communists eliminated when their numbers fell below 30, the new limit—and three groups. In doing so, the previously-noted discrepancy between parliament’s political party complexion and the electorate was reaffirmed. In spite of this apparent increase in fragmentation, however, the Party of Regions was able in practice to count on the support of some 210 deputies; they, with the Communists, made up the majority needed to control the assembly. Thus Mykola Azarov was re-installed as prime minister, while the speakership went to another Party of Regions deputy, Volodymyr Rybak, while his assistants were from Svoboda and the Communist Party of Ukraine. Fatherland, Svoboda, and UDAR were left in opposition. Of the 30 commission chairs, 13 went to the Party of Regions deputies, nine to the Batkivshchyna party, three each to UDAR and the Communists, and one each to Svoboda and Volodymyr Lytvyn personally. With a fairly strong and coherent majority facing a similarly endowed opposition, the stage was set for dramatic confrontation, the principal contenders being the Party of Regions and the Batkivshchyna party.

The year 2013 was in fact marked by more than the customary power struggles with the opposition increasingly resorting to various disruptive actions to bring attention to and to protest against Viktor Yanukovych’s authoritarianism as well as his parliamentarians’ violations of the internal rules and procedures. Thus between January and May, only seven of 32 scheduled plenary meetings of the Supreme Council took place as a result. Major points of contention, which have never been remedied, were the ruling majority’s resort to unconstitutional means to pass legislation and permitting deputies to vote for their absent colleagues instead of following the explicit requirement of voting in person. For a short time, the ruling majority met in separate premises, passed legislation, had it signed by the president, and this procedure was approved by the Higher Administrative Court. Momentarily, Ukraine had two parliaments.

In the winter of 2013–14, opposition deputies gave voice to the demands of the Euromaidan protesters (see Euromaidan Revolution), but failed in an attempt to pass a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s government. The offices of the Batkivshchyna party in Kyiv were ransacked and equipment confiscated. On 16 January 2014, a packet of 11 laws was passed by a show of hands in the Supreme Council criminalizing the Euromaidan protest activities, including facilitating the lifting of deputies’ parliamentary immunity; it was supported by the Party of Regions, the Communist Party of Ukraine, and a number of independents. Foreign observers decried the laws as an assault on civil liberties, but President Viktor Yanukovych signed them next day. On 28 January, faced with the possibility of losing a second confidence vote, Prime Minister Azarov abruptly tendered his resignation before an emergency meeting of the Supreme Council, and was replaced in the interim by his deputy PM Serhii Arbuzov. Azarov then fled to Austria. In a moment of compromise, Party of Regions and opposition deputies collaborated on reducing the severity of punishment within most of the anti-protest legislation. On 21 February speaker Volodymyr Rybak resigned for health reasons, and Oleksandr Turchynov was voted in to replace him. On the same day, by way of implementing the accord reached with the help of foreign governments to end the crisis, the Supreme Council of Ukraine voted the following measures: by 386 votes, to reinstate the 2004 Constitution; to amnesty all protest participants and to compensate its victims; and to release Yuliia Tymoshenko from prison. Concurrently, it was noted that at least 40 Party of Regions deputies had abandoned their fraction, making all these and succeeding votes possible overturning the previous order. The following day, 328 deputies voted to declare Viktor Yanukovych as having unconstitutionally vacated the office of president and set 25 May 2014 as the date for the extraordinary presidential election. Turchynov was elected acting president by 285 deputies. By the end of February, Arsenii Yatseniuk, leader of the Batkivshchyna fraction, had been elected by 371 votes by the Supreme Council as prime minister; and a new cabinet had been elected en bloc by 331 votes, including: Arsen Avakov as interior minister; veteran diplomat Borys Tarasiuk as vice-prime minister in charge of European integration; Andrii Parubii as RNBO secretary (chief of national security); and Serhii Kvit, rector of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, as education minister. A coalition of 250 deputies, headed by the Batkivshchyna party, was formed as required by the Constitution. The Supreme Council dismissed five Constitutional Court judges and rehabilitated everyone banned from politics since 2010, including Yuliia Tymoshenko and Yurii Lutsenko. Meanwhile, the Party of Regions fraction was reduced to 134, nearly 80 having abandoned it during the course of the crisis.

During the ensuing months, the Supreme Council of Ukraine largely supported presidential legislative initiatives, and kept Arsenii Yatseniiuk in office as prime minister. A law on lustration—applicable to officials of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime from the president on down, including Communists and separatists—mustered a bare majority of 231, symptomatic of the deputies’ ambivalence towards the Euromaidan Revolution.

The 26 October 2014 elections to the Supreme Council, also under the mixed electoral system, again contrary to conventional expectations produced more elected parties in SMDs than in PR (11 versus 6). In the PR contest, there was practically a dead heat between the two leading parties: Arsenii Yatseniuk’s Popular Front (22.1 percent for 64 seats) and the Petro Poroshenko Bloc (21.8 and 63). The Batkivshchyna party dropped to last place with 5.7 and 17 seats. The rump of the Party of Regions, now called the Opposition Bloc, managed only 9.4 percent for 27 seats. There were two newcomers: Samopomich, 11.0 percent and 32 seats; and Oleh Liashko’s Radical party, 7.4 percent for 22 seats. These six made up the authorised fractions of the assembly. With the addition of SMD seats the top three contingents overall were: the Poroshenko bloc (127), Yatseniuk’s Popular Front (82), and independents (95). The lesser players, in descending order, were: Samopomich (33), Opposition Bloc (29), Liashko’s Radical party (22), and the Batkivshchyna party (19). Ten other deputies represented the remaining five parties. Due to the occupation of the Crimea and the Russo-Ukrainian war in the Donbas, only 417 out of 450 deputies were elected.

When the newly-elected Supreme Council of Ukraine began sitting in December, its ruling coalition, numbering 302 deputies, consisted of five parties excluding the Opposition Bloc. And the names and membership of its fractions, modifying the election results, became as follows: Petro Poroshenko Bloc (BPP), led by Yurii Lutsenko, 146; Popular Front (PF), led by Oleksandr Turchynov, 83; Opposition Bloc, led by Yurii Boiko, 40; Samopomich, headed by Oleh Bereziuk, 32; the Radical party, led by Oleh Liashko, 22; and the Batkivshchyna party, led by Yuliia Tymoshenko, 19. Two groups of 19 deputies each with the rights of fractions were also allowed to form: Economic Development, led by Vitalii Khomutynnyk; and Volia Narodu (Will of the People), led by Ihor Yeremieiev. This left 37 deputies adrift and free to support the coalition or opposition as the spirit moved them. The former deputy PM, Volodymyr Groisman from the BPP, was chosen as speaker, and Arsenii Yatseniuk as prime minister, obtaining 341 votes. The cabinet of ministers was voted en bloc with 288 votes cast in favor. Andrii Parubii of the Popular Front was elected first vice-speaker by 313 votes. Twenty-seven committees (a deliberate change of terminology from the Soviet-era ‘commissions’) were formed, with chairs allocated in proportion to a fraction’s strength in the assembly, but the Opposition Bloc declined its share of three. The Supreme Council of Ukraine approved by 269 votes the action program for 2015 of the government (cabinet of ministers) headed by Yatseniuk.

The year 2015 was notable chiefly for several events, some novel but others typical of the behavior of the Supreme Council. It declared, in an appeal in January addressed to the international community passed by 271 votes, Russia to be an aggressor nation and the Donbas ‘republics’ (the so-called ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’) terrorist organizations. In April, it passed legislation banning all propaganda and symbols of communism and Nazism, including monuments and place-names, to which leveling Moscow reacted with fury. In September, Oleh Liashko withdrew his fraction from the coalition, going over into opposition and taking his vice-premier out of cabinet. Ostensibly, this was over constitutional changes which under decentralization would give excessive powers to the breakaway Donbas territories and were seen by him as a concession to the Opposition Bloc. In fact, it was symptomatic of the chronic problem of maintaining cohesion in both coalition and fractions, as illustrated by a wave of defections from the latter also in the same month. The atmosphere of incipient instability was heightened when Prime Minister Arsenii Yatseniuk warned that his Petro Poroshenko Bloc (BPP) coalition allies might vote no confidence in him, which would entail his fraction’s exit from the coalition. Unity of the BPP fraction, meanwhile, was shaken by internal charges of corruption and by the creation of a 15-member group calling itself The Anti-Corruption Platform, coordinated temporarily by Mustafa Naiiem. In the course of the year BPP added ‘Solidarity’ to its name, merged with the UDAR fraction, and installed Vitalii Klychko as leader.

Arsenii Yatseniiuk survived a non-confidence vote in February 2016, thanks to abstention by the Opposition Bloc. The Samopomich fraction, now under the leadership of Oksana Syroid, left the coalition in disagreement with the Minsk II accords. Collapse of the government loomed. In March, the Supreme Council reaffirmed the ‘imperative mandate’ giving parties in the assembly authority over their members, including their replacement even if this contravened the wishes of the electorate. Following a unanimous committee recommendation, the assembly voted to remove Viktor Shokin as Prosecutor-General; he was eventually replaced by Yurii Lutsenko, whose role as BPP fraction leader was given to Ihor Hryniv. In April, a major rearrangement of government and parliament took place with Arsenii Yatseniuk’s resignation after months of pressure. By then the ruling coalition, with barely 227 votes, consisted only of the BPP and the Popular Front (PF). The change was said to have been instigated by President Petro Poroshenko. With 257 votes in favor, Volodymyr Groisman became the new PM; his place as speaker was taken by Andrii Parubii from Yatseniuk’s PF party, and Iryna Gerashchenko of BPP became deputy speaker. A new government was approved by 239 votes.

The eighth convocation of the Supreme Council of Ukraine was notable like its predecessors for lack of productivity. Important legislation failed to be passed and appointments to be made; promises to deal with the problem of deputies’ parliamentary immunity (as a shelter against, for example, prosecution for corruption) went unfulfilled. At the same time, deputies were submitting thousands of legislative initiatives every year, most of them unnecessary. Migrations—mainly out of pro-regime fractions and parties—continued. Deputies suspected of corruption by the Prosecutor-General had to be voted and re-voted individually to have their immunity lifted and face prosecution due to the absence of a law on the limitation of immunity. Reforms were delayed or unaddressed because of procrastination and absenteeism. In September 2017, at the start of a new session, the BPP spoke about speeding up the legislative process, yet the historical record showed comprehensive reform to have doubtful prospects even with European encouragement and assistance.

In January 2018, the Supreme Council passed a president-sponsored bill aimed at the reintegration of territories occupied in the Donets Basin, effectively nullifying the so-called Minsk peace process, and reiterating Kyiv’s view of Russia as an aggressor state. During the year, a law on electoral reform with open-list PR was much discussed, but the BPP was ambivalent. Adding to the heterogeneity of parliament, two deputies expelled from the Opposition Bloc at the end of the year immediately announced their creation of yet another group. Following which, the Opposition Bloc itself split into two shards of 23 and 20 deputies each, adding to the Supreme Council’s already notoriously incoherent fragmentation.

After the 31 March 2019 presidential elections, the European Ukraine ruling coalition ceased to exist in mid-May, when the mercurial Popular Front pulled out of the coalition sensing a change in the political atmosphere. Its anticipation of entering in 30 days’ time a new coalition, however, became moot when the newly-elected President Volodymyr Zelensky dissolved parliament by decree and called elections for 21 July. Results in the PR ballot favored five parties which passed the 5 percent barrier: the pro-presidential Servant of the People (SoP) obtained 43.2 percent for 124 seats; the Opposition Platform—For Life (OPFL), a remnant of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, 13.1 and 37; the Batkivshchyna party, 8.2 and 24; European Solidarity (ES), the former BPP led by Petro Poroshenko, 8.1 and 23; and Holos (Voice), a newcomer, 5.8 and 17. With the addition of SMD seats, the winning parties, in descending order, were: SoP, 254, a clear single-party majority; independents, 46; OPFL, 43; the Batkivshchyna party, 26; ES, 25; Voice, 20; and Opposition Bloc, 6. Four others, including Samopomich, won one seat each. An unprecedented outcome, it eliminated the need for bargaining to form a majority coalition, but whether that was advantageous in making the Supreme Council more effective remained to be seen.

Within the Supreme Council, five fractions were created as follows (number of seats in parentheses): SoP, led by Davyd Arakhamiia (254); OPFL, led by Yurii Boiko (44); ES, led by Petro Poroshenko (27); the Batkivshchyna party, led by Yuliia Tymoshenko (25); and Voice, led by Serhii Rakhmanin (17). One so-called group—For the Future, co-chaired by Viktor Bondar and Taras Batenko—consisting of 23 deputies of various backgrounds was also formed. This left 34 deputies as unaffiliated free-floaters. Immediately, two fractions declared themselves to be in opposition—OPFL and ES—strange bedfellows if only their platforms meant anything. Dmytro Razumkov, head of the SoP Party, was elected speaker, and Oleksii Honcharuk as prime minister. In December, yet another group of 17 deputies, a majority of them under investigation for corruption according to one civil society watchdog, was formed calling itself with unintentional irony Trust.

Among the many laws adopted in its first session were changes to the Constitution and other statutes which removed deputies’ immunity, a long-time issue in Ukrainian politics. While intended to curb corruption, they were not without controversy as a threat to democracy. Concurrently, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s predecessor, now a rank-and-file MP, Petro Poroshenko became the object of criminal investigation for abuse of office, a rather ominous turn in the new regime’s abandonment of the old constitutional principle of absolute immunity.

In March 2020, a change in government on the president’s initiative but presumably under oligarchic pressure ensued when Oleksii Honcharuk, who had already resigned, was replaced as prime minister by Denys Shmyhal, a businessman associated with the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Objecting to voting for the cabinet of ministers en bloc, the Voice fraction left the chamber in protest against the appointment of ministers with ties to Viktor Yanukovych. The OPFL and ES fractions voted against Shmyhal’s appointment; the Batkivshchyna party and Voice abstained. No one voted against Honcharuk’s dismissal. Also on the president’s initiative the Prosecutor-General, Ruslan Riaboshapka, was dismissed by the Supreme Council and replaced by Iryna Venediktova with 269 votes, the Batkivshchyna party and OPFL fractions abstaining. Among other matters of note arising in the spring 2020 session were the following: (1) Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, in March, resigned as head of the Voice party. (2) In April, the Supreme Council deputies renewed their appeal to the rest of the world to condemn Russian aggression; 309 voted for the resolution, all 28 members of OPFL were against. (3) Deputies supported a bill to exclude children not living at home to be considered as dependents for e-declaration purposes, allowing officials’ assets to be assigned to them in order to avoid disclosure. (4) It was revealed that after nine years Ukraine still had not ratified the Istanbul Convention on the rights of women despite being urged by the United Nations to do so. Nor had it ratified the Tromsö Convention on access to information. (5) As a stalling tactic on behalf of oligarchic interests, specifically in this instance Ihor Kolomoisky, over 16,000 amendments were entered to a bill designed to prevent the return of closed banks to their former owners; the law was a condition for the International Monetary Fund’s cooperation, essential for Ukraine, and it was eventually passed. (6) The Supreme Council’s failure to endorse the Shmyhal government’s action program in June 2020 signalled to the president that despite being a majority the SoP fraction was an unreliable support for the executive and could already be in the process of disintegration. These illustrated well the unstable, fluid, compromised character of Ukraine’s national assembly and hinted at its broader failings in fulfilling both representative as well as legislative functions.

Among the people who really matter—the Ukrainian electorate—the reputation of the Supreme Council of Ukraine is very low. Public opinion surveys consistently show it to be the least trusted of institutions. Investigative reporting in the mass media together with civil society monitoring contribute to and reinforce the public’s negative impression. They depict absenteeism, voting with the use of other deputies’ cards, procrastination, displays of self-interest, violations of their own rules of procedure, disruptive behavior, migration between fractions, lack of ideological orientation, and an incoherent party system where the parliamentary parties differ from those in the electoral arena as well as from one election to the next. Deputies are perceived as pursuing their own interests ahead of the citizens’. It is a picture of instability and absence of accountability. The problem of reforming the Supreme Council of Ukraine to bring it into line with voters’ expectations—the ultimate test—is that it requires these same delinquent deputies to enact it, which so far has never happened.

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Bohdan Harasymiw

[This article was written in 2020.]

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