Originally published in Kyiv Post on May 11, 2018
It’s no secret that the Verkhovna Rada is near the bottom of Ukraine’s institutions as far as public confidence is concerned. Indeed, along with parts of the justice system, parliament usually ranks dead last in public perception. There is a paradox, though, because along with the presidency, parliament is the only nationally elected institution; in other words, its members are democratically chosen by the very citizens who are so disappointed with its performance.
A simplistic answer to the paradox is that somehow, parliamentarians have en masse betrayed the confidence of their electors. Indeed, the media has reported on more than a handful of scandals involving some MPs behaving unprofessionally and even engaging in overt corruption. These examples certainly warrant attention, and a number of MPs have had their parliamentary immunity lifted and have found themselves facing criminal charges. Populist slogans and unrealistic promises are pretty common in the Verkhovna Rada, but the same could be said for politics all over the world, even in the world’s most powerful democracy!
But, at the same time, it’s important to look not only at the bad apples, but at the overall performance of the institution. Here, the record is nowhere near as negative as most citizens, and indeed most commentators and the international community, tend to assume. This parliament, elected in 2014, has adopted the most wide-ranging set of state reforms since independence; enacting the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, modernizing the healthcare, education, and pension systems, and providing a legislative framework for Ukraine to defend itself against aggression. Of course, many more reforms remain to be voted, but in comparison with most other parliaments, anywhere in the world, Ukraine’s has passed an impressive range of complex and important legislation in a short period of time.
Parliament has also made some important internal reforms, making it more accountable to citizens. These include the world-leading Open Parliament Action Plan adopted in 2016, and the new communications strategy, developed jointly with civil society, and adopted in 2017. Other internal reforms agreed in Pat Cox’s European Parliament-supported Roadmap for Reform, passed by the Rada in 2016, have moved more slowly, often because of distrust between political factions, something hardly unique to Ukraine.
So, given a record that is mixed but by no means negative overall, why does the Verkhovna Rada consistently score so poorly in public opinion? And what can be done to improve the Rada and to raise its public standing?
The first reality is that parliaments, globally, typically score poorly in public opinion surveys. Partly, this is because media focuses on scandal and misdeeds, and with several hundred members, some bad actors are inevitable. More importantly, however, parliaments almost inevitably disappoint citizens precisely because they are elected by citizens and thus held accountable for citizens’ overall well-being. In a country like Ukraine which is undergoing huge transformation and restructuring at the same time as facing foreign aggression, it’s inevitable that many citizens will be dissatisfied with their circumstances in the short term, even though most also probably recognize that state institutions do need to be modernized and restructured to serve Ukrainians better in the long term. After all, the Soviet Union wouldn’t have collapsed if it had been economically and politically successful.
The second issue affecting parliament’s standing is what the long-term Ukraine commentator and finance expert Robert Homans calls ‘the Greek chorus’ of international and national critics, who tend to diminish successes and exaggerate failures in reforms. Why is this? In the case of parliament, the exaggerated complaints, often including important voices from the international community, may reflect a misunderstanding of the role of parliament, and a desire for parliament simply to be a transmission belt for the prescriptions of the international community.
But by its very nature, a democratic parliament reflects diverse and often conflicting points of view. In the Ukrainian parliament as in any other parliament, members represent different ideologies, the interests of different regions and of different economic sectors. Looking from the viewpoint of international expertise, some points of view appear ill-founded and ill-advised. However, the meaning and the reason for democracy is that a) priorities and perspectives are inevitably different when viewed from different peoples’ perspectives, and b) none of us absolutely knows the right decisions to take in a given situation. Democracy is messy, but it allows differences to be talked through, and for tensions to be allayed by dialogue and mutual understanding. Dictatorships can seem efficient, but in the long term, not only do they trample on human rights and freedoms, they also have worse economic outcomes.
So, setting aside the false belief that there is any shortcut or quick fix to make parliaments ‘perfect’ institutions, what can be done from the outside both to help parliament serve people better, and help people understand parliament better?
The first thing is to build on the start that has been made in deepening transparency. When I compare the Ukrainian parliament with other democratic parliaments, one thing I notice is that in Ukraine policies are often not debated thoroughly or openly within parliament. When reforms are proposed that dissatisfy some constituency or another, they tend not to be directly challenged, but rather blocked through different manoeuvres. So, we get the phenomenon of parties’ leaders agreeing to make some particular reform, and then that reform not receiving enough votes from the parties’ MPs to make it on the agenda. There is a need to streamline internal processes so that procedural tricks can’t be used to hide blocking tactics, and MPs wanting to advance or oppose particular causes have to make their arguments in the open.
A second aspect of parliament’s work that can be improved is in the role of oversight of government. Effective parliaments develop cross-party expertise in sectoral committees, and relentlessly, but constructively, track government performance. Although politics plays a role in every parliament’s work, government and opposition members in many parliaments collaborate effectively to make sure that government programs meet the needs of citizens. The Verkhovna Rada is much weaker in carrying out effective government oversight then most other democratic parliaments.
So how can the international community help in supporting a stronger and more accountable Verkhovna Rada?
First of all, it is important for the international community to understand the role of a parliament. The role of a parliament is not to carry out policies that the international community would like to see; it is to reflect the diverse perspectives of the citizenry. It is quite legitimate for representatives of the international community to tell parliamentarians what policies they favor, but if a parliament, following an open and transparent debate, chooses to do something different, that doesn’t make it a bad parliament. Endless international criticism of an elected parliament can come close to criticizing the freedoms of citizens of a sovereign country to make decisions. Such a perspective is reminiscent of the German writer Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem, The Solution, criticizing the East German state’s repression of a popular uprising against the Communist dictatorship in 1953:
“After the uprising of the 17th June,
The Secretary of the Writers Union,
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee,
Stating that the people,
Had forfeited the confidence of the government,
And could win it back only,
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier,
In that case for the government,
To dissolve the people,
And elect another?”
Second, it is important to acknowledge progress when it is made. For example, in the areas of transparency and information technology, the Verkhovna Rada scores quite highly; in IT, the Interparliamentary Union of the world’s parliaments ranks Ukraine just behind Norway, one of the world’s richest countries and strongest democracies. But credit is rarely given for such progress.
Thirdly, the Ukrainian parliament benefits from exposure to international examples. It is easy to criticize seminars, study missions etc., but, on a daily basis, I see the impact that exposure to European good examples provides in inspiring and guiding reforms in the Verkhovna Rada. One of the biggest challenges facing Ukraine is its legacy of seventy years during which the country was cut off from the rest of the world, and immersed in a hyper-bureaucratic authoritarian state structure. The only way in which this embedded culture can be changed is through consistent two-way exposure to democratic alternatives. From our experience, European parliaments are only too willing to share their experiences both at their institutions and in Kyiv, pro bono. What is needed from international donors is support for the networking to make this happen.
Fourth, just as years of Soviet authoritarianism have embedded bureaucratic inertia, so it has also made citizens cynical and disengaged, and easy prey to populist clientelism. In the long-term, all the technical ‘capacity-building’ that projects such as mine provide will have limited impact unless citizens really engage with MPs as their representatives – their servants – in the governance process. This is not an overnight process, and citizen engagement has to be more – much more – than donor-supported civil society organizations. These are important in articulating reform ideas, but ultimately every Ukrainian citizen needs to believe government is supposed to work for them. This will involve integrating civil education in both formal and informal education systems, establishing a tradition of regular townhall meetings between MPs and citizens in their home localities, parliamentary committees regularly holding hearings on the ground, and close collaboration between local councils and MPs.
Ukraine’s democratic future is bright, and the Verkhovna Rada is at the center of that bright future. A lot has been accomplished in the past three years; there is lots more to do. The international community has much to offer in support, but ultimately the people of Ukraine have to make their parliament, their own.
Jonathan Murphy is international team leader of the EU-UNDP Rada for Europe Project.