Upgrading the Rada:
How capable is Ukraine's Parliament of working differently and re-inventing itself?
The epoch of universal reformation that Ukraine is struggling through today simply could not avoid touching one of the most sacred of its institutional cows, the Verkhovna Rada. Nor is it merely a tribute to a trend. In its quarter century of independence, Ukraine’s legislature, which has gone through many a cataclysm and achieved heroic deeds, has changed very little in its essence, stubbornly remaining a kind of soviet preserve. Few would question that the process of reforming it, from the legislative work of MPs to the internal reform of the secretariat, has not only long been due, but even overdue.
Indeed, it would be hard to find an MP who publicly is against the idea of modernizing this shrine of democracy. But this is the bit that is little more than a tip of the hat to a trend. In practice, Ukraine’s MPs fear any change to their cozy little nest like the plague and will do anything in their power to prevent it.
The first attempts to organize the work of the country’s highest lawmaking body when Volodymyr Groisman was Speaker. In February 2016, the European Parliament’s Needs Assessment Mission to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine led by Pat Cox, who was President of this parliament in 2002-2004, published Report and Roadmap on Internal Reform and Capacity-Building for the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. And it did a great job. For nearly half a year, it immersed itself in all the subtleties and explored the underwater reefs of Ukraine’s parliamentary system: the result was brilliant. Europeans finally understood who they were dealing with and the deep abyss into which the highest legislative organ of a country that they hoped to draw closer had fallen. Most importantly, they were not intimidated by it and did not give up. A total of 52 realistic recommendations were drafted that, if implemented, will make it possible for the Verkhovna Rada to achieve greater openness and accountability in its legislative activities and would bring it in line with the highest standards of European parliamentary systems.
On March 17, 2016, the Verkhovna Rada even passed Special Resolution № 1035-19 “On measures to implement the recommendations on internal reform and capacity-building for the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine,” in which MPs recognized “Ukraine’s irreversible course towards European integration” and, “guided by the provisions of the Association Agreement,” resolved to recognize the recommendations of the European Parliament’s Mis-
sion as the basis for VR internal reforms and capacity-building and to take all the necessary steps to implement it.
What the European experts recommended changing has been written up in detail many times and all the related documents are openly available. To sum it up, it has turned out to be a kind of reformers’ Bible that offers MPs guidelines to genuinely reach hitherto unreachable heights in self-improvement. Indeed, every Ukrainian who is even a little interested in politics should consider reading them over as well. At least then it would become clearer why there is little point in taking the word of their elected representatives at face value as they continue to say one thing and do another, what it is they are so afraid of, and why a year has passed and Ukraine’s lawmakers still have barely had the courage to start this admittedly difficult and risky process.
FANTASY VS REALITY
So far, the only thing on the long list of items provided below—which has effectively become a list of commitments— that has been achieved has been strictly technical changes that don’t require a vote in the Rada chamber. They may not be so obvious, but they are definitely there.
For instance, before, issues were not considered in packages, whereas today this practice is firmly established, thanks to the initiative of Speaker Andriy Parubiy. This approach, when bills that are related to the same issue are debated in a package on specific days has been praised by MPs themselves. Committee heads have said that this is correct, logical and convenient, and not only because deputies don’t have to constantly shift their focus. When bills are scattered and come up for debate in a random queue, their quality suffers. This seemingly minor change, which is actually not written down anywhere, should be a standard policy by the time the next convocation is elected and be practiced as a rule.
Ukraine’s MPs seem to adapt to good things quickly and aren’t willing to drop them. For instance, Mondays have traditionally been a day off from the weekly session work. Earlier, Monday was an ordinary working day: a coordinating session in the morning and then the plenary session. But in the late 1990s, more than 100 deputies decided to pick up some wisdom at the National Academy for Public Administration under the President’s Office. In order not to miss their Monday lectures, MPs decided that, while they were studying, Monday would be a free day. They even passed a Special Resolution instituting this on a temporary basis, but the practice became permanent. Today, it’s almost impossible to get a deputy to work on a Monday.
One more fairly important matter is greater openness in the legislature. Not just access to the building itself and a near doubling of VR excursions in the last year. Most of all this means access to a site with documents, transcripts of plenary sessions, and any information about what committees are doing. Not everything happens according to plan but journalists have become used to working this way. Portals called “Public Discussions of Bills” and “e-Conciliation Board” have been set up. Next in line are the Verkhovna Rada’s “e-Bill” system and the implementation a new IT strategy under the auspices of the European Parliament. This means that the session hall will be reorganized and the Rada voting system updated, as it is badly outdated. Fortunately, this last project is expected to be funded largely by Ukraine’s international partners rather than the country’s budget.
Considering the active assistance and cooperation with a variety of donors, such as the USAID RADA program, the EU/UNDP “Rada for Europe” project, the US-based National Democratic Institute, and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which are not only providing consultations and expert assessments, but also funding to finance projects, considerably more could have been achieved, but the hold-up is with Ukraine’s own MPs. A year ago, a Rada reform department was set up, but donors could not understand why everything was so difficult. Only when they were invited to a working group session did they “get” it.
ACTION VS IMITATION
To speed up the reform process and encourage MPs to work more actively, last October a working group of top MPs met in Paris at the initiative of Pat Cox, including speakers, faction leaders and leaders of groups. The only groups that did not have people at this meeting were the Opposition Bloc and Yulia Tymoshenko, who sent her deputy. A series of supposedly agreed positions on reforming the Rada were approved at this time and a list of bills that needed to be voted on to improve the VR Rules of Procedure and the work of the Rada would to be voted on. Everybody kissed and shook hands, and photographed themselves with Mr. Cox and members of the European Parliament. But the minute the plane with the delegation landed in Boryspil, the situation changed radically and all reform efforts stopped.
At that point, the Speaker supposedly also approved a decision to set up a working group consisting of representatives of all the VR factions, the VR Secretariat and the Cabinet of Ministers. “Let’s get down to some real work” seemed to be the message. “Let’s pick those items on the Roadmap that are the least disruptive and can please everyone and slowly move forward.” At first, interest in the working group was high. Everybody wanted to join it. But when it turned out that this would not be closed, as such, but that it would also not be a public working event and there would be no TV cameras, interest disappeared instantly. Instead, discussions raged for a couple of months. Another few months went by and the working group met six times: all the possible issues were discussed and different options were considered. Meanwhile, the latest “Monnet Dialogues” took place in Irpin, just outside Kyiv, where all the faction reps said that they were ready. Finally, they seemed to have reached an understanding and even drafted up two bills on committees and all the members of the working group and VR factions signed off on them.
The first bill deals with synchronizing VR committees in relation to the number of ministers with portfolios in the Cabinet. Following the European system, where most legislatures work on the basis of 20 committees that are correlated to ministries. In the current situation in the Rada, a slew of committees either have no connection to any ministries or are connected to more than one at the same time, the key function of control disappears from their activities. Making laws is only a fragment of the work of MPs. Of course, there might be committees that don’t have a clear connection, such as the regulation, budget and Eurointegration committees, but this should be the exception. Another exception could be ad hoc committees that are connected to some urgent issue that has come up. But they are temporary and are formed for a brief period. For instance, the British Parliament now has a committee that is responsible for Brexit. As soon as that issue is resolved, the committee will be disbanded. In general, this approach is with reference to permanent committees, which will strengthen relations between ministries and committees, and encourage better quality legislative work. Moreover, passing this bill would remove the option of horse-trading and setting up fake committees just because someone felt like it.
The second bill, also related to committees is about their distribution. Today, the composition of committees depends not only on the number of members in a given faction but also on backroom deals. The bigger the faction, the more it gets, while small factions get little—and sometimes nothing at all. To maintain some kind of correlation and fairness, a system used in most European countries is being proposed: simple mathematical proportion. And though bigger factions will continue to have the
advantage, the system nevertheless balances everyone’s chances better.
However, when it came to actually approving the already agreed-upon bills in the Rada, everything went on hold. The bill on the distribution of committee members is not even registered, while the one that involves synchronizing committees with ministries has already been brought down successfully three times. It turns out that, from the very start when the working group began to function, of most of the members that represented factions admitted honestly that this approach was not convenient for them. Even the proposal that these bills be passed but come into force with the next convocation—of course, no one would redistribute the committees now—had no support. Unfortunately, it seems that the current group of MPs is simply not prepared to undertake any serious reforms.
And however much deputies might talk at every opportunity about the need for these reforms, they have no intention of turning their words into deeds. They’re more than happy to talk about reforms, to embrace their foreign counterparts, and to travel abroad at donor cost, but they aren’t prepared to have their “rights” impinged upon. Every MP who looks into any reform first wants to know what benefits it will bring—if not for the MP personally, then for that their people or aides. In the last few years, deputies have probably travelled half the world at the cost of Ukraine’s international partners ostensibly on behalf of reform. They will probably request that the next Monnet Dialogue take place in Paris, because, you see, Irpin doesn’t work for them: it doesn’t quite have that charm. So far, donors haven’t said much although they can obviously see that they are being used, that their money is being milked and the results aren’t there. How much longer they will put up with this is anyone’s guess.
SELF-SERVING VS SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE
Right now the Rada is waiting for the Venice Commission to vet Bill #5522 “On amending the Verkhovna Rada Rules of Procedure,” which should bring the main legislative rulebook in line with the Constitution. It has already been debated in all the committees, but whether MPs will actually vote for it in the end is anybody’s guess. There are also elements that appeal neither to the ruling factions nor to the opposition ones. And this has not even touched on one of the sorest points—changing the work schedule to include more plenary weeks. Or the option of changing the voting model to allow most legislation to be passed by a simple majority of those present in the session hall, provided there is a legitimate quorum, which also requires amendments to the Rules and the Constitution both.
In the House of Commons in the British Parliament, which has 650 deputies, the passing of purely technical bills requires only 26 MPs to be present. Of course, there are important pieces of legislation that require the presence of half or even two thirds of elected MPs, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is the problem of a particular MP who was supposedly interested in a particular bill but did not show up for the session to vote. That MP will then have to publicly explain why this happened.
Another problem in the Rada today is the dominance of legislative spam. Just since the start of summer this year, MPs managed to slap together 4,500 bills, a vast number of them of dreadful quality. The committees cannot rework this quantity, nor can the Secretariat. All this soviet-style make-work takes place for one purpose only: to brag to the MP’s voters. The fact that out of hundreds of bills, none might pass in the end, does not bother anyone. Reducing this legislative storm can only be the result of clear restrictions and screening. One of the points of reform proposes establishing the legislative process in such a way that a bill is only registered after it has received all approvals and been brought to a proper state, including a clear outline of the resources needed: where the funding to implement it will come from and what the social impact of passing it will be. Of course, those same MPs are supposed to approve these changes, too, and so it’s easy enough to imagine that they are in no hurry to do so.
The same situation holds for reforming the VR Secretariat. It includes quite a few units and departments whose functioning is irrelevant. The systems for hiring people and paying them salaries need to be overhauled. There’s plenty of talk about the need to minimize the paperwork involved, and this is truly very important. But, once again, this means changing the way the Secretariat works. The IT department needs to be reinforced and its staff expanded...
The way the press works within the Verkhovna Rada is a separate issue, again. Something needs to be done so that the poor MPs aren’t offended that they are being persecuted and can’t work properly, while members of the press don’t really overdo it at times. Here, what is needed is a Rada pool and a change in the way journalists are selected to work in the legislature. Right now, more than 4,000 pen-wielding and camera-shooting sharks are accredited, which is clearly nonsense: there simply aren’t that many real media outlet that are writing about politics in Ukraine. In the British Parliament, for comparison, there are only about 100 accredited journalists, but they actually work and offer results, rather than hanging around and acting important. Journalists are selected very straightforwardly: the media outlet applies and the application is reviewed as to whether the outlet really does write about the Parliament. If yes, then is it about the actual work of the legislature or is it about what brand of purse someone is carrying? Only then is an accreditation issued.
Indeed, a good deal has already been achieved in reforming the Rada Secretariat. Things are slowly but surely moving along. Speaker Parubiy and acting VR Chief-of-Staff Petro Bondar are doing their best to push this cart forward. Not long ago, a communication strategy was approved that covers several years and provides for the proper branding of the Rada, setting up a VR pool, and working with the press. It has already passed the Committees for freedom of speech, culture and spirituality, and is inline for the Rules of Procedure Committee to review. But it, too, is running into the fear of MPs. Any reform within the Secretariat that requires staff lists, changes to the number of staff and a clear system for paying salaries depends, first and foremost, on a vote in the legislature. And that’s where the resistance will rear up.
Recently, Bondar met with the Secretary General of the European Parliament, Klaus Welle, in Brussels, and the two agreed on the assistance of European Parliament experts in carrying out a complete performance audit of the Secretariat in order to demonstrate all the pluses and minuses of its work and which of its activities need to be changed. They also promised to follow best available practice in European parliaments. This should radically change the entire system: from the selection of employees and principles and areas of work to how the workload is distributed among units and who is responsible for what. The Europeans are prepared to help to the point that a ready document can be presented for approval to MPs in the Verkhovna Rada. The question, again, is whether the same fate awaits it as awaited the Roadmap with the 52 recommendations. This will be the ultimate indication of just how ready Ukraine’s parliamentarians are prepared to reform.
IT SEEMS THAT THE CURRENT GROUP OF MPS IS SIMPLY NOT PREPARED TO
UNDERTAKE ANY SERIOUS REFORMS. EVERY MP WHO LOOKS INTO ANY REFORM FIRST WANTS TO KNOW WHAT BENEFITS IT WILL BRING—IF NOT FOR THE MP PERSONALLY, THEN FOR THAT THEIR PEOPLE OR AIDES
Taking over the task. Volodymyr Hroisman handed the EP recommendations on VR reform to Speaker Andriy Parubiy after he switched to the prime-minister's seat