Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Parliamentary or bust

Ukraine’s new political system must be a radical departure from anything seen in the post-Soviet space

It’s not new for Ukrainians to want change. Just 9 years ago, it seemed the country was embarking on a change of direction and hopes were high. This time there is caution, and remembrance that the cost this time was far higher. The frosty reception Tymoshenko has received following her release is the clearest indication of a wholehearted desire to ‘clean house’. Ukrainians at least know what they don’t want. But May’s elections will come soon and somebody needs to be steering the ship, however imperfect. Ukraine has before it a fresh sheet of paper, but it cannot aspire to build anyone’s utopia. Inclusivity and compromise are now the keys to the country’s survival and future prosperity.

One massive challenge is to engender a culture of constitutionalism. The current authorities face a legitimacy crisis. The capitulation of the previous authorities and their voting in significant numbers for new laws has created a disconcerting reverse of the ‘tushki’ phenomenon of 2010. The relationship between deputies and their electoral mandates is now tenuous, not forgetting that the parliamentary elections of 2012 were held to poor democratic standards. If Freedom House were to assess the country today, it would not be classed as free. It obviously all depends now on the coming May elections.

The first lesson that has to be learned is that politics can’t be any more about the personalities. The post-Soviet reflex of looking to a ‘strong leader’ has had disastrous results across the region for all to see. It’s time to challenge the Eurasian myth that ‘we are different’. This myth has already cost too many people in Eurasia their lives and freedoms.

Ukraine has to adopt a wholly parliamentary system of government of the type found across most of Europe. 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’, like Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, but note Thatcher’s political demise in 1990. She was the ‘iron lady’, but when she lost the support of her party the power drained out of her overnight. It has been objectively shown that parliamentary systems, which have to by necessity take account of a wider range of stakeholders, have a better record of achieving reforms.

The party system needs reform too. Ukraine must ditch the ‘virtual parties’ which revolve solely around personalities and business interests, and embrace ideology. The high percentage of votes at the last election for the far left (Communists) and far right (Svoboda), although perhaps regrettable, told us that at least a quarter of Ukrainian voters chose to vote along ideological lines. We need to give the more moderate centre left and centre right populations that voice too. We will have to work with those who we may not totally agree with, but a party is a coalition of interests.

To have a parliamentary system also means adherence to parliamentary rules. Post-May 2014 there should be zero tolerance of ‘piano playing’, violence in the chamber, blocking the rostrum, or any such activities. Perhaps the Verkhovna Rada needs to be ‘refereed’, with deputies suspended for some time for breaches of protocol. Otherwise, the temptation to cut corners will be very acute, and we see clearly now the result.

To preserve the unity of Ukraine, we must think about how to bring all into the political process. There is a dilemma here. There is an imperative to establish new ground rules for politics in Ukraine, and that means a new constitution. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is calling for the new constitution to be established only after elections, and for it to be subject to a referendum. That might sound reasonable enough, but there is a problem. If we look at how Yanukovych was able to take a wrecking ball to Ukraine’s constitutional structure in 2010, there is a strong argument for having the new rules in place first, but of course to have legitimacy, the whole country must be involved.

The oligarchs have a role to play here. They can continue to play a strong and influential role, just as wealthy backers of, for example, the Republicans do in America. However, in terms of the country’s assets they have to accept that their cup run is over. The EU could play a pivotal role here. Mikhael Saakashvili spoke recently about how the concrete threat of sanctions was a tipping point for many of Yanukovych’s supporters to pull the plug. If that threat hung over economic and political abuses more generally, this would limit the business elite to a role which was powerful but not excessive. What complicates this is the role of those oligarchs who failed to withdraw backing from the previous regime even as the situation deteriorated. It is more difficult to make a moral case for their continued involvement in the country’s politics, although we may find that it’s unavoidable.

How to accommodate the country’s regional differences needs much thought. At this time Ukraine lacks the political maturity for federalism, which would also leave parts of the country too vulnerable to outside interference. However, in issues such as language rights, it may make sense to allow some discretion at local level. In France, for example, minority languages can appear on street signs at the behest of local municipalities as long as the national language is also displayed (and the local municipality pays for it). This might actually be a good exercise in local democracy. Responsibility for celebrations of historical events, whether it be 9 May or the Ukrainian insurgency, should also be managed at local level, as nationally these issues have proved too divisive. Such emotive issues should not be propagandist fodder or tools for the country’s politicians any longer.

Some of the biggest issues still remain unanswered. Most significant is the threat to jobs in Eastern Ukraine from Putin’s now inevitable trade blockade. How do we explain to these people that this is not a reason to support Ukraine’s accession to the Customs Union, or to oppose democracy? Rather, it is an outrage that Putin is so content to exploit their jobs as a political tool, and they should be more angry about this than anyone. The impending gas price hikes are also a concern, although contingency plans such as reverse flow from Slovakia ought to now face fewer obstacles.

In dealings with Russia trust will be at an all time low, and Ukraine needs to protect itself. For the foreseeable future all high level talks between Ukraine and Russia should be hosted by a third country and adhere to diplomatic norms. We must not allow the degeneration into secret meetings and bullying that Putin-Yanukovych relations became. Plenty of work is needed into how to make Russia-Ukraine relations more transparent. The extent of Russian sabotage in Ukraine’s internal governance over the past several years is plain to see. More discussions need to be on the record and subjected to the greatest scrutiny.

Ukraine also needs to continue much of the patient hard work that in fact many of its institutions have already been doing. In the sphere of defence, it is rarely mentioned that the country, even under Yanukovych, was forming ever greater co-operation with NATO in many areas, and the previously announced transition to a professional army will probably now come to pass. European integration policy will also be salvageable after its 3 month hiatus, and with political will from the top the technical work will be able to proceed all the better.

Despite this, Ukrainians now realise that the future depends on them. The EU would be greatly welcomed as a guarantor to Ukraine’s European future, but it cannot be wholly relied upon. Following the logic of Saakashvili’s comments, had they acted earlier in the crisis, 100 more Ukrainians might still be alive today.


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