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Parliamentary or bust

Whatever the intentions, Ukraine’s muddled semi-presidential system is unlikely to deliver reform

The appointment of Volodymyr Groysman as Ukraine’s new prime minister marks the end of a drawn out process which has been on the cards for at least a couple of months, precipitated by the acrimonious departure of Aivaras Abromavičius, the economy minister, in February, and an abortive earlier attempt to remove incumbent Arseniy Yatsenyuk. President Petro Poroshenko has refused to grant foreign investors their pick, respected Ukrainian-American Finance Minster Natalie Jaresko, who is credited with keeping Ukraine’s precarious wartime economy afloat. She will not serve in the new cabinet and is seen as a major loss. The new cabinet is set to be sworn in amidst widespread, but unsurprising, claims abounding that appointments have not been merit-based, and the appointment of a prime minister from the president’s regional base has uncomfortable echoes of the Viktor Yanukovych era. 

Photo: Dmytro Larin / Shutterstock.com

April 14, 2016 - Jonathan Hibberd - Articles and Commentary


Photo: Dmytro Larin / Shutterstock.com

It is worth bearing in mind that the post of prime minister is actually quite a weak position in Ukraine’s problematic semi-presidential system. To illustrate this, the title head of the cabinet of ministers is often used by local media and the role has changed over 13 times since independence. Groysman’s future success will in fact therefore hinge on the cabinet. In terms of a confidence-building exercise there is plenty of speculation as to whether it will pay off, with Poroshenko now arguably more exposed by having his man in the job. However a step change in reform efforts in Ukraine does not seem likely.

Clearly the outgoing Yatsenyuk had become deeply unpopular, seen by some as an opportunist who used the Maidan to enter government, originally proclaiming himself part of a “kamikaze government” that would do whatever was necessary in the post-revolutionary crisis situation and famously flying economy class for foreign visits. His party, the People’s Front, was able to gain a comfortable share in the parliamentary elections in autumn 2014. Consensus however is that he has failed to deliver on the reform agenda.

Although to an international audience Yatsenyuk comes across as bright and well-educated (to hear Ukraine’s leadership for the first time articulating to the outside world in English has been a breath of fresh air), to Ukrainians his television appearances were starting to come across as cold and dismissive. On the issue of corruption, the three billion US dollar bribe-taking investigation against him that has recently come to light looks almost like a parting gift.  

Others however believe the blame for a lack of post-Maidan reforms should not be placed solely at Yatsenyuk’s door. He deserves credit for successfully establishing the reverse flow gas supply from the European Union which, together with mild winters and low energy prices, has been a game changer in the previous Russia-Ukraine energy quagmire. Police reform also begun in earnest on his watch. 

Groysman, relatively inexperienced but ambitious, has haggled hard to get the cabinet he wants, giving the impression that he is, at least to some extent, his own man, for instance his resisting the appointment of the dubious Vitaliy Kovalchuk. Interestingly, the Opposition Bloc (the rebranded retreatist bookends of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions) failed on Tuesday to back Groysman’s appointment, suggesting that he may not be the oligarchs’ nominee of choice. Indeed, with the obvious notable exception of Poroshenko himself, he does not seem to be heavily tied to the oligarchy. If he is the “President’s man”, that at least adds an element of clarity to the direction the government is taking. It is hard not to see as cronyism the appointment of another Vinnitsya name, the city’s deputy mayor Andriy Reva, as minister of social policy.

The chances of the new government staying in power much longer in any case do not look promising. As one source said, “If it took so long for only two parties to agree on the cabinet, how are they going to pass crucial bills in the Rada?” A lack of pro-reform legislators in the Rada and a lack of commitment on crucial votes is likely to fatally undermine reform efforts, whatever Groysman’s intentions.

Early parliamentary elections however would be risky for everybody. They would come too early for the new reformist forces, and a disillusioned electorate could easily fall back on the Rinat Akhmetov-backed Opposition Bloc or the Fatherland party of Yulia Tymoshenko, who is gradually regaining traction with some Ukrainian voters. Former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, a potential big player, or Samopomich perhaps, need more time. To speculate, who would rule out the return of Jaresko in a new capacity? Estonia even has a diaspora member as its president. A similar scenario in Ukraine might not be that far-fetched. The “Mykolayiv miracle”, when a local grassroots pro-democracy candidate defeated an oligarchic one in last November’s local elections, is also a good prototype for what could be achieved at the national level, but it would take massive co-operation and organisation.  

Ukraine’s lively post-Maidan civil society is bound to feel frustrated at the retrenchment of much of the old system. Whilst people will continue to vent their frustration at individuals, perhaps rightly so, it is the system which is truly to blame. Ukrainian politics is still addicted to several ills: personality politics, non-ideologically based (so-called “virtual”) parties, and a lack of constitutionalism. In the week that an MP in the British parliament was expelled from the House of Commons just for referring to the UK Prime Minister as “Dodgy Dave”, it is worth remembering that “piano player” (or ghost) voting for absent colleagues, parliamentary brawls and a fair amount of general skullduggery are still going on in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada. A zero tolerance approach to such behaviour would not be a bad thing. Reform of the party system is tricky but could come about through raising the minimum threshold to enter parliament, forcing consolidation into more ideologically-based camps. There are also now powerful arguments for introducing a fully proportional electoral system.

The issue of personalities however is tied to the biggest impediment to reform in Ukraine, the unruly semi-presidential constitution. Born out of compromise in 2004, it led to massive political instability during the Viktor Yushchenko era, when at turns both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko challenged the authority of the president. A raft of research in the sphere of political science appears to confirm that a fully parliamentary system is consistently the most effective in achieving reform. Ukraine therefore has to adopt a wholly parliamentary system of government of the type found across most of Europe if it wants to see different results. The president should be left only with the power of veto and to call new elections. 

A strong Prime Minister can adopt a “presidential style”, as Margaret Thatcher did, but note Thatcher’s political demise in 1990. When the “iron lady” lost the support of her party the power drained out of her overnight. Parliamentary systems have to by necessity take account of a wider range of stakeholders, and it is this that forces decision-making for the benefit of a wider section of society. The concept of a “strong president” as such is a flawed Eurasianist concept, and has led to authoritarianism and despotism throughout the post-Soviet space.

Finally, as one must not forget, and to be clear, the Minsk process designed to resolve the Kremlin-stoked proxy conflict in eastern Ukraine offers nothing beneficial towards the imperative of constitutional reform, and its federalisation agenda should not be agreed to in its current form. Ukraine for its troubles was peaceful for 23 years and whatever the errors in its response, is ultimately the victim. History may judge Poroshenko less harshly for his achievement of making Ukraine defensible. On the home front, Ukraine needs to put an end to Eurasian exceptionalism and adopt the more standard European model of government.

Jonathan Hibberd, based in Warsaw, is an alumnus of Sussex European Institute in the UK. He has worked with the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Ukraine and lectured in European Studies at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and has also written for the Kyiv Post. He holds the position of Non-Resident Associate Fellow at the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv.


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