Finding grace under pressure? Ukraine’s parliament at war

13 May 2022
Speech by President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the Verkhovna Rada, 3 May 2022. (ⒸPresident Of Ukraine (CC0 1.0))

After over 70 days of total war, the first 43 under the very direct threat of bombing, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), has undergone a significant transformation in terms of procedures, political orientation and constituency work.

Dr Sarah Whitmore, Reader in Politics, Oxford Brookes University
Reader in Politics, Oxford Brookes University

Dr Sarah Whitmore

Dr Sarah Whitmore
Reader in Politics, Oxford Brookes University

Sarah Whitmore is a Reader in Politics at Oxford Brookes University. She completed her PhD on the first decade of institutional development of Ukraine’s parliament at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham, where she also held an ESRC post-doctoral fellowship. She has published peer-reviewed research on Ukrainian and Russian parliamentary and party politics, including State-Building in Ukraine: The Ukrainian Parliament, 1990-2003 (Routledge, 2004). Her current research (together with Bettina Renz, University of Nottingham) on military reform in Ukraine is funded by the British Academy.

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The Verkhovna Rada is a unicameral parliament of 450 People’s Deputies, half elected in single-mandate constituencies and half via proportional representation on national party lists in internationally recognised democratic elections. (After 2014, the actual number of deputies fell to 424, as territories no longer controlled by the Ukrainian government – Crimea and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – no longer elected single-mandate deputies.)

Historically, despite having a significant constitutional role under Ukraine’s semi-presidential system, due to party weakness and fragmentation parliament has tended to be reactive to presidential initiative. At the same time, political diversity has meant that presidential encroachments were generally thwarted, or at least robustly opposed, as under President Yanukovych (2010-14). Parliament has also generally been an important source of legislation, with around 66% of laws originating from backbenchers.

Parliamentarians’ almost blanket immunity and significant discretion in law-making meant that financial-industrial groups invested heavily in getting ‘their’ people elected, and the Rada was consistently one of the least-trusted state institutions, regarded by voters as a place of self-serving, rapacious lobbyists who behaved with impunity. Nevertheless, the Rada remained a highly transparent state organ that engaged with stakeholders and civil society actors.

The current – ninth – convocation of the Rada was elected in July 2019. For the first time in independent Ukraine, a single party won an overall majority: Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party obtained 240 seats. The Zelensky team pushed some reforms to improve parliament’s image with voters. Immunity was curtailed and attendance improved, but plenary sessions were also criticised for being in ‘turbo-mode’ due to the speed at which laws were adopted. The record of the Rada in adopting reforms was rather mixed. Despite Zelensky’s majority, key judicial, security and anti-corruption reforms languished in committee for months – delayed by the committee being flooded with thousands of amendments – and were often then passed by ad hoc coalitions with their reformist intent watered down.

On February 23 2022, with 299 votes in favour, the Rada introduced martial law to commence at midnight. Russia’s full-scale invasion began at 5:30am the following day. The next time the Rada met, Kyiv had been bombed and the Russian military were barely 20km away. Yet, at this time of visceral existential threat, when it was rumoured that former President Yanukovych was in Minsk waiting to be re-installed, it was immensely important that crucial decisions were taken by the legitimate organs of state power. Russian President Vladimir Putin had publicly claimed that Ukraine was a failed state, chaotically governed by corrupt Neo-Nazis. Although it was incredibly risky for parliament to convene a plenary session, it was a highly symbolic act of resistance that would ensure the continuity of democratically-elected institutions, and that the legality of the decisions taken was unquestionable. Moreover, it would demonstrate to all Ukrainians, military and civilian, that parliamentary deputies did not run away and did not hide, but were there with the people, doing their job.

The first extraordinary session held in the Verkhovna Rada chamber on 3 March was visibly tense – 17 minutes of rapid-fire voting without debate on decisions previously agreed in online faction and committee meetings. The Speaker, Ruslan Stefanchuk, resembled a horse-racing commentator.

The next session was a more-relaxed 24 minutes, and new wartime rituals and norms were evident. Sessions now begin with deputies singing the national anthem, followed by a moment’s silence for fallen soldiers and civilian victims of the war. The Speaker and Deputy Speaker (both from Zelensky’s party) wear a khaki t-shirt and fleece like the President and the rest of the wartime informal bunker cabinet. Deputies who are in the armed forces, territorial defence or volunteer groups wear military gear; others are much more casual than previously, and female deputies can be without make-up. The chamber is crowded and decorated with small flags. The message is clear: democracy is central to our fight, our patriotism and resistance.

Parliament’s diplomatic role also became prominent in wartime, including highly symbolic personal visits to the chamber by the Speakers of the European Parliament and the parliaments of the three Baltic States. Delegations of Ukrainian parliamentarians remained active overseas. Standing committees were active in this area, holding joint committee meetings with their counterparts from Belgium, Germany and Czechia, and issuing statements in their policy area.

During this period of most intense direct threat to Kyiv, the ad hoc procedure for examining legislation was used, where deputies were asked to agree to vote without discussion and then vote on urgent bills. In many cases, due to the exigencies of war, these were initiated only 1-3 days previously.

After Russian forces withdrew from the north of Ukraine, and the level of direct threat to Kyiv reduced, some debate returned to the chamber, with the shortened (rather than ad hoc) procedure for discussion being used – two speakers in favour, and two against. By 3 May, the session extended to four hours, and comfortingly familiar rituals of birthday greetings and faction statements returned, together with a full second reading for the law on local government during martial law, with presentation of over 60 amendments. President Zelensky also appeared in parliament to hear UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech and to make his own, to standing ovations. Parliamentary ceremony and public communication were back. Overall, in the first two months of the war, 103 legislative acts were passed, 90% of which were drafted and initiated by parliamentarians, many with cross-party support.

The war presaged a wide-reaching consolidation of the political forces represented in parliament, that some analysts called the ‘coalition of defence’. Opposition parties – most notably former President Poroshenko’s European Solidarity – announced a cessation of hostilities for the war effort. Attendance has been high (averaging 88%), and decisions that require a simple majority consistently passed with a constitutional two-thirds majority of over 300 votes. It was an incredible demonstration of unity.

Even the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform – For Life (parliament’s largest opposition faction, with 44 deputies in January) backpedalled on its rhetoric and expelled the deputy who justified the invasion. Some of its deputies fled abroad, and others were wanted for treason, while up to nine left the faction in an attempt to demonstrate a pro-Ukraine position. The party’s activities were suspended then later banned by Presidential decree, following a decision of the National Security and Defence Council on the grounds of its pro-Kremlin position. This was controversial not necessarily because of the decision itself, but because of the lack of a clear legal procedure and the exclusion of the courts and the Rada from the process. The remaining 23 deputies of Opposition Platform – for Life re-formed as a deputy group, and sought to be perceived as working constructively for the interests of citizens in occupied areas of the East and South.

While some deputies fled abroad or were suspected of treason or collaboration, roll-call votes and media reports suggest that their number does not exceed 20, mostly from Opposition Platform – For Life; and the behaviour of Ukrainian parliamentarians overwhelmingly belies the negative assessments that prevailed about them before 24 February. Many deputies have transformed their constituency work into providing humanitarian assistance, and others serve in the armed forces (as permitted by a new law), territorial defence or volunteer groups. Nevertheless, as the immediate threat to Kyiv diminished, divergent political interests, and some legislative initiatives with dubious intent, began to resurface.

Parliamentary oversight seems to have been largely shelved during wartime (most clearly, the public activities such as government question time and hearings). However, it seems that some still takes place in committees. A reprioritisation is understandable, but it is important that such accountability continues as far as possible, particularly as considerable gains had been made in this area in recent years, supported by a critical media and civil society monitoring. Civil society groups and independent media continue to scrutinise decision-making, but the war has permitted the extension of executive control over television in particular, while the context of existential threat has made criticism – especially of the President’s actions – much more difficult.

Elected deputies are persons of interest to Russia and at more risk than other civilians, so new security measures temporarily reduced parliament’s transparency: deputies’ personal information and voting records were removed from the website, and live broadcasts of plenary sessions ended (video recordings are available after the event). By now, some of this information is already publicly available again (such as roll-call votes).

Some deputies had to be given personal security details, as intelligence revealed kidnapping risks. Nevertheless, the Rada did not adopt procedures to hold plenary sessions online or even in the metro in the event that there were to be further military escalation, or destruction of the parliamentary chamber. While the adoption of such procedures would seem wise in the current circumstances, there are constitutional provisions that make this tricky, and ensuring the legality of decisions is paramount. The ability, since Covid, to hold committees and the council of factions and deputy groups’ meetings online, combined with in-person plenary sittings, affords the opportunity to take advice and introduce a suitable legal procedure in case of necessity.

Parliamentary staff have been working in difficult circumstances – those with laptops were able to work from home, but many took leave due to the circumstances. Since 25 April, staff are permitted to return to their offices, or work in hybrid mode.

In the past weeks, the Rada has proved its capacity as a central pillar of state power in Ukraine. In the most extreme circumstances, deputies, factions and committees were able to draft, examine and adopt a large volume of essential legislation to put Ukraine on a war footing in legal terms, and to facilitate the state’s ability to respond to the multiple demands of total war, ranging from security and medical care to tax and crime. Diplomatic activities and symbolic rituals also formed an important part of the war effort, together with deputies’ personal contributions in lieu of constituency work. Like other state institutions in Ukraine, the Rada is working and continuing to adapt to the evolving situation, and it is able to take democratic decisions. At the same time, critical voices in Ukraine are raising legitimate concerns about the importance of developing a clear, legal framework for its activities and ensuring checks and balances remain operational.

Whitmore, S. (2022), Finding grace under pressure? Ukraine’s parliament at war (Hansard Society: London)


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