Cannot dispense with a General Secretary? The main lesson from Leonid Kravchuk’s presidency

26 August 2021
Cannot dispense with a General Secretary? The main lesson from Leonid Kravchuk’s presidency
Home > Parliamentary Republic > Cannot dispense with a General Secretary? The main lesson from Leonid Kravchuk’s presidency

Let us recall how the state was built in the first years of the independence of Ukraine.

On the day of proclaiming its independence on August 24, 1991, Ukraine was a parliamentary republic. The majority of the Verkhovna Rada of the first convocation were communists. Only 125 MPs were critics of the Soviet Union. However, this has not prevented the Parliament from burying the Soviet Union and proclaiming the independence of Ukraine.

But have people that grew in the Soviet Union with its planned economy and the dictatorship of the communist party over all aspects of life managed to build a radically new system of governance?

The institute of the President was introduced in Ukraine just several months after the independence. Why? People that were closely following the events when the independence of Ukraine was proclaimed comment that there were two reasons for this. First, political elites of that time wanted to be “like everyone else,” and all neighboring countries had presidents. Second, when a country needs efficient decision-making, it needs a president, not a parliament that is prone to long discussions and deliberations.

At the dawn of independence, state powers were divided between the President and the Parliament in compliance with the Constitution of soviet Ukraine of 1978. This document was a foundation of Ukrainian law until 1996 despite all the changes. According to this Constitution, the Parliament was supposed to provide laws while the President was supposed to control the Cabinet. That is why Leonid Kravchuk, now the President, appointed all ministers except for the Prime Minister. He nominated the candidate for the Prime Minister position while the Parliament had the authority to approve or deny his proposal. The Verkhovna Rada proposed only four candidates for minister positions but still had the authority to dismiss the whole Cabinet.

Leonid Kravchuk and US president George H W. Bush, 1992. Photo from a telegram-channel “Yet not dead”

The only deterrent from conflicts over the Cabinet at that time was the fact that before the Constitution of 1996 was adopted ministers could also be members of the parliament. It was easier for the ministers to negotiate with other MPs directly without making scandals in the media. At the very least, they could negotiate without mediation from Bankova Street.

Initial hopes for economic growth during the first years of independence were dissipating. The planned economy has not worked properly anymore, and there was no obvious solution on how to introduce the market economy. That is why the Prime Minister became a powerful figure in the system of governance where the President had a significant influence over appointments of Cabinet’s members and the Parliament focused on legislation. The first Prime Minister appointed in independent Ukraine was Leonid Kuchma. In the first years of independence, the director of a defense and space enterprise Pivdenmash became an MP. Kuchma had an apparent advantage: he was ready to destroy the old system. To do that, he wanted only “some more powers.”

That is how the Kuchma’s Cabinet got the authority of the Parliament for half a year — the power to issue decrees that were as binding as laws adopted by the Verkhovna Rada. These documents were adopted by the Government, not the Parliament. The decrees addressed economic issues: forms of ownership, entrepreneurship, customs, taxes, pricing, etc. The Cabinet issued over 80 of such decrees. By the way, some of them are still in effect. The decrees changed the nature of economic relations in accordance with the needs of time and the market economy. Everyone turned a blind eye to the fact that the decrees were not compliant with the Constitution of that time.

Despite the successful results demonstrated by the Prime Minister, the time for his unlimited powers came to the end. Half a year of his boosted authority has ended. No one wanted to prolong it, so Leonid Kuchma resigned with a significant reputational bonus. He put on President Kravchuk and the Verkhovna Rada the responsibility not only for his resignation but also for the economic decline of 1993. During that year coupon Karbovanets of independent Ukraine deflated by 100 times. Only think about it!

The country was seized by the miners’ strikes, the President and the Parliament had to declare early elections.

Demand for reforms was channeled into an image of a person that could work only by taking powers from other government bodies.

Looking back at that period, it is clear that at the beginning of the 90th the Ukrainian Parliament had enough courage and political weight to proclaim independence. That is how the new country with new borders appeared. However, the MPs of the Verkhovna Rada of the first convocation found themselves in a radically new economic environment, uncontrollable and unpredictable. As a result, the Parliament had distanced itself from economic issues — MPs has abandoned their primary duty to represent their voters and control the executive branch when economic issues were of prime importance. As a result, the Prime Minister was the person who launched economic reforms. As a rule, it is not a problem when the Cabinet becomes a driver of the reforms, but Kuchma has gained unsupervised control over policy-making.

That is how Ukraine ended up with a leader with an unlimited mandate as far as he delivered results.

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