Verkhovna Rada, Ukrainian parliament.


Serhiy Hrabovsky is a well-known Ukrainian journalist and political scientist,
observer of the Svoboda Radio Station and of Ukrainian periodicals, MA.

In the western press, Ukraine is often described as "a state of totally corrupted bureaucracy and officialdom, and of mafia." No less often it is mentioned as a "country of new democracy." One can come across statements of serious political analysts as to a pro-western course of the Ukrainian leadership and its adherence to the radical market reforms, but at the same time there is a good chance of reading articles which claim that there is "a danger of 'communist revanche'" and that the Ukrainians may possibly support the reestablishment of the Soviet Union. All of the above opinions and musings are not groundless. Nevertheless, they do not give a full picture of the contradictory Ukrainian political and economic situation. This situation is in a constant and dynamic change, and the Ukraine of the early 2000 bears little resemblance to a Soviet republic she was ten years ago, and even to the independent state she was in 1994 when Leonid Kuchma, the current head of state, was elected president for the first time. In fact, it was in the past few months that the most radical changes took place. On October 31 and November 14, 1999, two rounds of presidential elections were held, third since Ukraine's independence. If one looks back and remembers that some western analytical centres predicted that Ukraine would disintegrate soon after the declaration of independence, and the remaining parts would be either nationalistic or communistic dictatorships within several Oblasts of the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, then the very fact that 15 candidates from the leftists to the incumbent president himself ran at the latest presidential elections should be looked upon as a sign of considerable progress of democracy. Particularly in view of the fact that very few post-Soviet countries can boast of anything similar. In some of the post-Soviet states, presidents are "elected" with no alternative candidates running against the incumbent, with 99 percent of the voters saying "yes" to those who are actually in power (the way it happened in the times of Bolshevism); in others the post of head of the state is secured for "the father of the nation" for his lifetime. The results of the first round of the presidential elections in Ukraine showed that more than one third of voters supported Leonid Kuchma, another third supported his opponents from the noncommunist camp. Others supported the "red" candidates. According to socialists' estimates though, a considerable part of the voters who voted for "the red" were not supporters of communism, and their choice was motivated by their disagreement with the policies of the government.
Leonid Kuchma and Petro Symonenko, communist party leader, got into the second round. Most of the noncommunist candidates then decided to support the incumbent president. Yevhen Marchuk, an ex-premier and one of the main Kuchma's opponents in the first round, was given an important post in the structure of the executive power; in his turn, Leonid Kuchma said he would be "a new president" who had considered carefully his mistakes. Two thirds of the voters voted for Kuchma in the second round, rejecting the communist projects. A considerable number of voters voted against both candidates; in Kyiv their number reached 10 percent (about one quarter of them young people). According to sociologists, the last major group of the electorate is made up of supporters of most radical economic reforms who think that Kuchma is too slow in introducing such reforms. Taking into consideration, on the one hand, active political commitments of young voters, their desire to see Ukraine integrated into Europe and their rejection of communism and, on the other hand, the fact that "the red" are supported mostly by people who are over 60, one can say with a reasonable degree of accuracy that there is no threat of restoration of communism in Ukraine. It does not exclude though a possibility of the situation getting aggravated under the pressure of economic hardships.
During the election campaign.
On the other hand, it is hardly possible to consider the November presidential elections to be a doubtless triumph of democracy. Leonid Kuchma's team was supported by a number of political parties which contributed a lot to his campaign, as well as by structures of the executive power and mass media. Oleksandr Tkachenko, head of Verkhovna Rada and one of the presidential candidates, could, in running his election campaign, also use the state resources, though to a lesser extent. Independent observers spoke of considerable pressure exercised by the presidential administration upon the independent mass-media. The fact that there were no TV debates between the presidential candidates can be regarded as a dangerous symptom; Leonid Kuchma refused to take part in any of such debates, the state-run TV stations sharply attacked all the most dangerous opponents of Kuchma, and the commercial TV station, One Plus One, refused to broadcast such a debate because of "a sudden illness of the anchor man." Anyway, the results of the presidential elections did become an important factor of Ukraine's political life. Leonid Kuchma, in his inaugural address, promised to step up a struggle against corruption, to conduct reforms along the lines of raising the living standards of Ukraine's population, to work hard at getting Ukraine integrated into the European structures. Kuchma tried to explain the catastrophic reduction of the volume of the gross domestic product (almost two times) that took place during his first presidency by the negative effects of the legacy of the communist regime and mistakes of prime-ministers who were replaced almost every year. At the end of 1999, a major change in the situation occurred. After Verkhovna Rada had rejected Valeriy Pustovoytenko as the next prime-minister, President Kuchma suggested Viktor Yushchenko, head of the National Bank, be approved as prime-minister.
Yushchenko, 45, is one of the most popular figures in the Ukrainian political scene; he has a reputation of an able financier and independent person. According to the estimates of international financial circles, Yushchenko ranks among the best bankers of the world. The new premier whose candidacy was supported even by a certain number of the leftist deputies in Verkhovna Rada, formed a new cabinet on practically a coalition basis; he did it through the support of 11 factions and groups of parliament, who signed an agreement to form a parliamentary majority. It's worth mentioning here that such a majority was formed in Verkhovna Rada for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union (earlier, there was a heterogeneous majority in Verkhovna Rada made up of orthodox communists and pro-sovereignty communists led by Leonid Kravchuk). The current parliamentary majority is not homogeneous either. It includes nationalists, national democrats, conservatives, liberals, social democrats and those deputies who actually (party affiliations aside) represent interests of the leaders of the most powerful financial and industrial clans (usually referred to as "oligarchs") in Verkhovna Rada. Why would oligarchs unite with democrats?
Leonid Kravchuk and Viktor Medvedchuk, experienced politicians, now leaders of
the parliamentary majority.
Political analysts point out several reasons for such a contradictory unity. Firstly, continuing crisis in Ukraine's economy is as disadvantageous and unprofitable to the majority in parliament, as it is to the holders of big capitals, because the resources of further enrichment at the expense of appropriating the Soviet economic legacy have been exhausted. Only the leftists still hope that the prolongation of the crisis will increase the electoral potential. Secondly, both the democrats and the oligarchs are eager to use the results of the presidential elections and oust communist and neo-communist parties from the political arena, and to show Ukraine to the west as a democratic state. Thirdly, the distribution of leading posts in Verkhovna Rada does not correspond to the actual balance of powers in it. Fourthly, low efficiency of Verkhovna Rada's work in 1999 made the majority of voters doubt whether the very existence of the institution of parliament in Ukraine is necessary; those deputies who supported the government and created the parliamentary majority, are now trying to improve their political reputation. Lastly, the fact that Ukraine is a parliamentary republic also plays a certain role; Verkhovna Rada is forced to adapt itself to the newly elected president who has received the support of a weighty majority of the electorate. The changes in the situation were accelerated by the inadequate self estimate of Oleksandr Tkachenko, the then Verkhovna Rada's speaker and leader of the pro-communist Selyanska ("Peasants'") Party, who considered himself to be "not the first but neither the second most important figure in Ukraine," and said that he "has never stopped being a communist." Tkachenko immediately refused to accept the legality of a parliamentary majority being formed, and when the majority tried to initiate his removal from the post of speaker, he announced the results of voting to be invalid.

Oh, you grown-ups got me with your politics!
Several scuffles occurred at the rostrum and the parliamentary session came to a standstill. Then, the majority of the deputies left the building of Verkhovna Rada and organised a sitting of parliament at another place.
Leonid Kravchuk, ex-president and now deputy from the Social Democratic (United) Party, acted as a co-ordinator for the parliamentary majority.
The political situation became uncertain when President Leonid Kuchma signed a decree to hold an all-Ukrainian referendum on April 16 at which the Ukrainians should express their attitude to several issues: to the vote of no confidence to Verkhovna Rada; to giving the president the right to dissolve parliament in case this parliament cannot come to agreement with the president; to the abolishment of deputies' parliamentary immunity; to the creation of two chamber parliament; to the approval of constitution at an all-Ukrainian referendum. In fact, one could speak of a considerable change in running the Ukrainian state, of consolidation of sovereign power of the presidential administration and of reduction of the prerogatives of parliament. Under the pressure of the forthcoming referendum whose results are not difficult to predict (the one who controls information resources, wins) the parliamentary majority took decisive steps.

At a sitting held separately from the leftist minority, a majority of deputies (260 out of 445) adopted a decision to elect a new leadership of Verkhovna Rada, to appoint new heads of parliamentary committees, and passed a resolution to do away with certain symbols of the Soviet times (one of them abolition of the holiday of October Revolution, that used to be celebrated on November 7 and 8). Oleksandr Plyushch, Verkhovna Rada's speaker in 1992 1994 who was supported by Oleksandr Volkov, was elected to be speaker again; Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of the united Social Democrats, became the first vice-speaker. In response to this, the radicals among the leftist deputies, Natalya Vitrenko of the Progressive Socialist Party in particular (she took part in the presidential elections as a candidate who got the fourth place in the first round with 13 percent of votes cast for her), who used to speak disparagingly of democracy as being "a bourgeois invention" and of Constitution of Ukraine as being "a product of a plot against the people", proclaimed themselves to be the defenders of the constitutional system and democratic transformations. Such a step taken by the leftist radicals has not come as a surprise individual politicians and whole parties, adjusting themselves to the changing situation, proclaim themselves either "supporters of socialist sovereignty of people" or "the only defenders of democracy corrupted by those in power." And sometimes they would combine these two slogans together. At the 1998 parliamentary elections, quite a few of quasi-parties and political blocks which were created at the last moment by representatives of various banks, industrial groups and regional bureaucrats, declared their support for and protection of "the interests of the working people who are being oppressed by the new bourgeoisie." In some cases it brought certain results riding on the wave of such demagogy made its way into Verkhovna Rada the Hromada Party, led by Pavlo Lazarenko who is now officially accused of finical abuses (and who is trying to receive political asylum in the United States as "a victim of political persecution"). Thus it seems Ukrainian political reality is not something terrible that puts Ukraine among the "third world" dictatorships or those of noncomunist post-Soviet countries. This reality is very contradictory but it is characteristic that most of "oligarchic" leaders at least try to appear "European politicians," "leading democrats," "intellectuals," "patrons of art," plus a lot more. Will the Ukrainian political leaders be able to meet such standards in the nearest future? The optimists say "yes," the pessimists say "no," and the realists ask their own question: how soon will "the nearest future" come?

14 February 2000