Since 2014, Ukraine's MPs have registered around 6,000 bills. However, 90 percent of these were never passed into law. “Legislative spam”, populism and corruption have led Ukrainians to have the lowest level of trust in parliament among citizens of any European countries – only 5 percent. What has been done to rectify the situation, and what else needs to be done by lawmakers and the parliamentary administration? Find out in this interview with Jonathan Murphy, Project Manager, EU-UNDP Rada za Evropu.
Since 2015, the Verkhovna Rada, with the support of the EU and UNDP, has been implementing a self-reform strategy. The key tasks are to improve the efficiency of the parliament, getting rid of “legislative spam” and ensuring the transparency and openness of the work of members of parliament, and of the whole institution.
However, trust in parliament remains among the lowest of all the institutions in Ukraine. Is it possible for the Verkhovna Rada to be transformed, and what sort transformations are required?
Hello Jonathan. I'll start with a more general question: What, in your opinion, has been the most important task of the Verkhovna Rada in recent years, and has it managed to achieve it yet?
I'd say that the general idea behind reform is that the parliament should become a more effective institution: One that would be able to represent the aspirations of the citizens who stood on the Maidan. The Rada had a tendency to accumulate thousands of bills from all possible areas, and often many of them were on one and the same topic. At the same time, Ukraine has assumed obligations for European integration – the implementation of reforms that will make it a democratic European state. Reforms should have become a priority for Ukraine. But the key task was to increase the efficiency and transparency of the institution, and in that way accelerate the reform process.
Many have heard the phrase “legislative spam”. How would you explain it, and have you managed to overcome this phenomenon?
Members of the Ukrainian parliament, like members of parliaments all over the world, have the right of legislative initiative. Certainly, they can offer many of their own bills. But members of the Ukrainian parliament are probably the world champions in exercising their right of legislative initiative. In the current convocation, members of the parliament have proposed about 6,000 bills since 2014. That's an incredible number of documents. Many parliaments in the world approve only 10 or 20 laws in a year. Meanwhile, most of these documents, almost 90 percent, never become laws. But the parliament still has to consider these bills, which often overlap each other. It is called “legislative spam” or alegislative “tsunami.”
Among other elements of parliamentary reform, there was the task of making it more open and transparent. Did this succeed, and what did the Verkhovna Rada really need to do to become a more open institution?
In 2016, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a plan of work towards greater openness and transparency. It was developed together with representatives of civil society, and it included many different elements. In particular, the plan foresaw the financial transparency of the members of the parliament and their activities, greater openness of the budget of the institution, and of itscommittees.
In my opinion, e-declarations were the most important element that they managed to implement. Even in comparison with the other European states, it is a very strong control and accountability tool. It allows citizens to monitor whether officials suddenly become considerably richer while in service, given that their salaries in public positions are relatively low. This is a huge step forward, and it will have a positive effect for many years to come –
if this law is, of course, observed, and if the declarations are actually followed up and checked properly.
Regarding about subjects of legislative initiative, who in Ukraine offers the largest number of laws – are members of the parliament, the government, or the president –
and what does this tell us in terms of the balance of power?
Compared to other European states, the balance between the different branches of power in Ukraine is really quite special. In most countries, the government is mainly the legislative initiator, it forms the agenda. So, 80-90 percent of the laws that are proposed and approved are government initiatives. The main task of the parliament is to debate these initiatives, often to work out and improve bills, but in general, it is important for the government to maintain a certain consistency. It means that the government should adhere to its reform strategy, which is implemented through the parliament.
In Ukraine, everyone is engaged in lawmaking, and only 40 to 50 percent of the government’s proposals turn into laws. This is a much lower indicator compared to other countries. At the same time, the president’s proposals are more likely to turn into laws – with a probability of 80-90 percent. But this is normal. Mainly these initiatives are related to national security, defense, where these laws are a priority and where there is usually a general consensus on them.
Another problem in Ukraine is that often important bills are a personal initiative of parliamentarians, and this is again a certain sign of weakness of the government. Probably, it's because it's often difficult to reach agreement in the Cabinet of Ministers, therefore the minister appeals to a member of parliament, who in turn pus forward a bill. This is uncharacteristic of most democratic countries. And it shows that there's no consistency in the management of the state. Ukraine will have to work on it.
The fact that members of parliament are the main legislative initiators is considered part of the Ukrainian political culture, a key element of which is corruption. Many Ukrainians are convinced: to propose any law, it's enough to pay off a member of the parliament – this is often the case. How can such an understanding of political culture and, indeed, the political culture itself, be changed?
Indeed, corruption is a key issue – Ukraine is far from being in the best positions in the world corruption ratings. But many members of parliament propose bills in the belief that this will please their consituents, and will be a sign of how hard they are working. But this is not the best way to think about it. These hundreds of bills actually just block the work of the parliament.
In order to ensure that political processes are managed not by hidden financial interests, it is necessary to call for further transparency, declaration of business interests, the regulation of lobbying – all of these things are very important. But ultimately, it is Ukrainian citizens who must hold government officials to account. I think that a lot of people in Ukraine still don't believe that they can influence the political system.
Is this also one of the reasons why the Verkhovna Rada still has the lowest level of trust among all state institutions?
In fact, in most countries, the parliament is the institution that is least trusted by citizens. So it’s not so unusual. But overall, trust in the parliament in Ukraine is lower than in other countries of the world. I think this is a reflection of the fact that people had high expectations after the Revolution of Dignity, and these changes did not happen as quickly as we wanted them to. But, in my opinion, changes never happen so quickly after a revolution. At the same time, the people also have the right to be disappointed.
The only solution in this case is to involve the citizens themselves in this process, at the same time realizing that there is no simple and fast solution: salaries can't be doubled from tomorrow; gas can't be made free of charge – politicians who promise such things are actually undermining democracy. After all, when you give promises that cannot be kept, people cease to believe in the political system, and this is a threat to democracy.
But we're not only talking about the Revolution of Dignity and its demands. We're still a country at war. Does the parliament perform its role here? Is it communicating about how to resolve this conflict, how we'll live after the war? Does it at least show and readiness to do so?
The Ukrainian parliament, which is truly democratic, demonstrates different political views on this. There will always be people who express stronger or more extreme views on war issues. I believe Ukraine should build a vision of the state after the war, based on benefits that other countries do not have.
For example, in comparison with its great neighbour in the east, Ukraine is a free state, it is integrating into Europe, and it has a very positive future, namely because of its integration into European democratic values. In my opinion, the development of the Ukrainian state should be based on what all Ukrainians share, not on what separates them – either the language they speak or the region they live in.
In Ukraine, the election campaign has actually started. Soon, we will elect the president, and a little later – the parliament. What are the main challenges for Ukrainian democracy and what would you call the main task for the Verkhovna Rada for this period?
In my opinion, populism is a great risk here, as in other countries. (Populists are) people who say loudly that they have simple solutions to complex problems. But, as great politicians have said long before me: there are simple solutions to complex problems, and all of them are wrong. So, in fact, there are no simple solutions. In order to avoid the risk of populism, which the whole world faces today, it is important for the parliament and the government to continue reforms, demonstrate results, get rid of corruption, and work on economic growth.
The main thing is to show that there is some progress. Perhaps not as fast as people want, but there’s some movement forward, and let’s not rely on simple solutions that will not work anyway. They can only worsen the situation and launch another cycle of problems that Ukraine definitely doesn't need today.
By Anhelina Kariakina
The original article was published on Hromadske