Feb. 24, 2022 was a test for Ukraine’s institutions, none less than its Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. Would the enemy army frighten us? Two hours after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, almost 300 out of 423 parliamentarians gathered at a meeting of the Verkhovna Rada to vote for laws that would be necessary to counteract the armed aggression of one of the most powerful militaries in the world. In the year since then, Ukraine has demonstrated how it would preserve its democracy even during Russia’s persistent aggression. The Ukrainian people and the Parliament have done what many around the world believed was impossible.
Ukraine’s Political System
Ukraine is a mixed, parliamentary-presidential republic, in which the unicameral Parliament occupies a prominent place and the president has less power than the combined authority of the people’s “deputies,” as members of the Verkhovna Rada (literally translated the Supreme Council, “Rada” for short) are known. Members are elected in a political party-based system of proportional representation. The president is the face of the State and has significant authority over issues such as foreign and defense policy, and he serves as commander in chief of the armed forces. The Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers are responsible for everything else. The president can propose and veto legislation, and the Rada has the right to override vetoes. Ukraine also has a prime minister, who is appointed by the president with the Rada’s consent, and heads the government.
Unlike most post-Soviet countries, Ukraine is more suited historically, mentally, and traditionally to the dispersal of power that characterizes the parliamentary form of government rather than the relative concentration of power in a presidential system. Ukraine has a multi-party system, no party has won elections twice with a simple majority (a parliamentary majority usually requires a coalition), and successful legislation will always require a coalition and the support of a wide range of other deputies. If a party participated in the last convocation of the Rada and can get there again, it is a victory.
Politically, Ukraine is a very competitive country. There are many parties, leaders, ideas, views and so on. All this forms a unique culture in the Verkhovna Rada. The adoption of any important bill causes huge discussions, quarrels, and sometimes even physical fights. Because of such contentious politics, Ukrainians consider the Ukrainian Parliament a place of scandals, shouting, and conflicts, and they express little trust in the institution. A few months before Russia’s full-scale invasion, a public opinion poll showed that trust in the Rada had plummeted to 3 percent from 13 percent in December 2019.
This can be explained by the simple logic of the formation of democratic institutions and the problem of growth. For the past 30 years, Ukraine has been undergoing a process of transformation of the Parliament into a center of power and decision-making. Of course, this cannot be done without difficulties.
Such a system allows the State to be agile and flexible. Unlike more centralized systems or authoritarian regimes with a rubber-stamp parliament, Ukraine adapts better to changing conditions — even to a full-scale Russian invasion.
February 24, as the Rubicon
On Feb. 24, 2022, the whole world was shocked. Russia launched a major offensive against Ukraine with the apparent aim of capturing huge swaths of my country, if not all of it, including the capital Kyiv. Having crossed our border at multiple points, the enemy shelled peaceful cities. The Kremlin expected that Ukraine would not withstand the pressure and that it would cease to exist as a State. Before that onslaught, Russia had tried to discredit Ukraine’s democracy with references to “the Kyiv regime,” implying dictatorship. On the day of the full-scale invasion and in the weeks afterwards, Russian propaganda repeatedly issued disinformation saying that the Ukrainian government leadership had fled the country or that the Parliament or the government weren’t functioning, all of which were lies.
I was in the capital Kyiv, and my morning started at 5 a.m. with phone calls from colleagues alerting me that the invasion had begun — probably the worst words in the world. By 7:45 a.m., 273 people’s deputies (out of 423) were in the hall of the Verkhovna Rada. Legislation was introduced to impose martial law, a curfew, and a special entry and exit regime to ensure secure control of Ukraine’s borders. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a decree announcing a general mobilization for the military.
The Rada set the tone for the entire State machinery — the fact that there were no scandals, conflicts, or disputes in the Rada, as there had so often been in the past, surprised not only everyone inside the country, but also outside. Specifically, the enemy was counting on internal divisions to weaken Ukraine from the inside and open the way for their takeover. But during those days, all branches of Ukraine’s government worked synchronously. Even under the persistent threat of Russian missile attacks on the Parliament building, meetings go on as scheduled. It is an important commitment to reassure the population and project confidence to all State institutions.
Throughout the past year of the war, the Ukrainian Parliament has shown an example of unity against Russia. Important laws are adopted, personnel decisions are made, and the country’s budget is approved. It all happens under missile strikes in the capital, with threats to life and with power outages due to Russian assaults on critical infrastructure.
The staff of the Verkhovna Rada also continues to work, ensuring the functioning of the entire Parliament. Committees, meetings, communications, and so on continue mostly uninterrupted. Recently, Parliament adopted new anti-corruption legislation to improve transparency. This is particularly important for Ukraine internally and externally, as the country unfortunately has been gripped for too long by corruption throughout its economy, government, and society. But after the 2013 protests in Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan, and the subsequent change of government, Ukrainians began campaigning more vigorously against corruption, and we are making significant progress. Now, it is an existential question, not only internally, but to reassure our international partners that their crucial assistance is being used well.
Political campaigning has come to a complete stop during this past year of war. The martial law decree, which the Rada approved and that is renewed every 90 days, prohibits all political rallies, protests, and other usual tools of political life.
That reality makes Parliament even more important as a venue for the political opposition to express needs, spotlight problems, and even criticize authorities when necessary, and thus solve the problems of society, as it is supposed to do. And of course, due to Russia’s unmitigated assault, the challenges our people face daily increase exponentially.
`Do You Want It To Be Like in Ukraine?’
Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated this phrase many times before the war, in his efforts to spread disinformation to his people, many of whom were seeing a functioning – though at times chaotic – democracy next door. Very often, Russian propagandists compared footage of vigorous arguments or clashes in the Verkhovna Rada with images of calm and acquiescence in the Russian Parliament, which of course is actually controlled by Putin. They claimed their political system is stable and the way it should be, unlike the one in Ukrainian, ignoring of course the central control and repression that enforced that false calm.
As this war shows, democracy is also about controversy, debate, and conflict, within Ukraine and among its democratic allies. But Ukraine has demonstrated that it is by far the more stable political system compared with Russia, and that it can withstand even the onslaught of a country as large in military terms as its overbearing neighbor.
Precisely because of the democratic nature of the Ukrainian political system, it was possible in recent years to carry out reforms of the army, local self-government, anti-corruption bodies, the civil service, health care, and the police. The budget of the Armed Forces of Ukraine before the war with Russia was $5 billion a year. The budget of Russia’s Ministry of Defense is 12 times larger. Ukraine’s defense budget is equal to that of the Moscow metro. Despite having so much less money, Ukraine has achieved relative success in part because it is so much more efficient in how it uses the money that it has. We have less corruption, less nepotism, and less inefficiency than in Russia.
Only a democratic system, with its checks and balances, even during wartime, could support the way the Verkhovna Rada and the entire state apparatus have come together in the past year — all law enforcement agencies, the armed forces, all of Ukrainian society. The contrast with Russia shows that, in fact, an effective State – an effective planet, for that matter — is impossible without democracy.
Therefore, the question, “Do you want it to be like in Ukraine?” is no longer negative, but on the contrary, positive. Only a democratic political system can ensure stable State power, even when the second-most powerful military in the world fights against you.