Ukraine has changed its system of government several times since independence. However, so far it is still unclear which system is the most suitable for Ukrainians. As part of the #ukrstateunderconstruction project dedicated to the 30th anniversary of independence, the Centre of United Actions conducted a series of interviews about the formation of the modern Ukrainian state and its institutions.
Ukrainian politician and lawyer Oksana Syroyid is one of those who took responsibility for the fate of Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity. An MP of the Verkhovna Rada of the eighth convocation and a member of the Samopomich party, she was the first woman to serve as the Deputy Speaker of Parliament. Today she is the head of Samopomich. She perceives events and changes in the system of government not through the prism of power games or political interests but as a search for the balance of power.
Сonstitution has not limited the influence of the President
What was your reaction to the independence of Ukraine? What were the emotions?
I remember everything quite clearly. I understood that we owe it to Archbishop Andrei Sheptytsky. He started to build state institutions at a time when no state yet existed. A significant part of his work was spreading the belief that we must prepare for the emergence of a state of our own. When the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in 1991, I thought it was quite normal, that finally there will be no muscovites here. Of course, it was a great uplift, a marvelous joy.
At the beginning of your career, you worked as an assistant to Ihor Yukhnovskyi, a legendary figure who drafted the Constitution of Ukraine.
I started to work as an assistant to Ihor Rafailovych right at the end of 1996. That is why I was even a little jealous of those who had been involved in drafting the Constitution.
Was that your first job?
I started my career working with another legendary person, Mykhailo Horyn. In 1994, I worked with both Mykhailo Horyn and Levko Lukianenko. When I later came to Ihor Rafailovych, I already had two years of work experience. Already a grown-up, a twenty-year-old person. That, of course, was a great honor for me.
After working with Ihor Rafailovych, I understood his phenomenon. He was a fantastic moderator. He was not seeking recognition. He even ran away from a photoshoot, can you imagine?
The famous one after the voting for the Constitution in 1996?
Yes. He always managed to find a proper place for everyone, he always was able to highlight everyone and show their importance. That is how he managed to maintain the process.
The Constitution of 1996 was supposed to limit presidential powers. Did it succeed in doing so?
Nothing was limited. It is a myth.
But quite a widespread one.
It is a known fact that Kuchma got extraordinary powers under a constitutional treaty that was in a year. He demanded extra powers under the pretense that we needed reforms. Presidents always say that there will be no reforms if they do not get some extra powers.
But there was another reason. At about that time the foundations for our oligarchic monopolies were laid. Leonid Danylovych has built a system where the President was the arbiter of this entire construct.
So do you agree that Kuchma is the father of this oligarchy? Was there anything good that he made for our country?
Are oligarchic monopolies good or bad for the country? Of course bad. The question is, could these monopolies have been avoided in the ’90s? I doubt it because the whole industrial sector was shut down. We needed someone who would be able to launch some production in Ukraine.
The option we have chosen is another matter. We could have followed the example of Poland, in particular, to go for smaller privatization. However, there was no money. Ukrainians did not have private property until 1991, i.e. there was no Ukrainian capital.
That is true, all our gold and foreign exchange reserves remained in Moscow.
It was not just about gold and foreign exchange reserves. We, Ukrainians, had no money because even those who had savings lost them. Then, in my opinion, the worst possible thing happened: the Russian capital came and began to take control over access to resources.
Well, they had petrodollars.
They either took over these resources directly or got them through figureheads like Dmytro Firtash.
The institution of the presidency was something completely new to us. What did Leonid Kuchma turn it into during his second term? How did he change it?
The layout introduced by the Constitution of 1996 has not changed much to this day despite amendments to the Constitution of 2007. We lack the balance of power and that is why we were doomed to slide into authoritarianism. That is just the nature of this model. What is it all about? People first elect a president and like him for a time being but then the same people crucify him for them being so naive.
And this story is recurring.
The fact is that our president is de facto the head of the executive branch. The executive branch is not about titles, the executive branch is about money and control over the use of force. In Ukraine, the President has twice or thrice more control over money and power than the Cabinet. In this model, the Prime Minister is toothless.
Let us get back to the Parliament. Leonid Kuchma never had his own party but he was quite effective when it came to influencing the Parliament. Which tools allowed him to do that?
That became possible after financial and industrial groups had formed. With presidential support, they received a number of tax benefits and access to resources: zero rent for gas and oil, and tax breaks available to anyone. And they wanted to preserve this status quo. This was how oligarchic political projects began to emerge. At some point it ceased to matter who particularly was backed up by oligarchs to run for the Parliament: they could nominate Mickey Mouse or Cheburashka, and those two would also obediently press buttons. Meanwhile, behind the scenes were several figures who ensured that everything was under control.
After the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko became president. How did he use his powers?
By the time Viktor Yushchenko became president, the monopolists already had the upper hand. All doors to embassies and governments were opened for them. They controlled their territories. The newly elected President had to decide whether he would continue to be the arbiter for the oligarchs. Leonid Danylovych has not become an oligarch. To become an oligarch was also an option: two presidents tried to become oligarchs while in office. One more option was to challenge the oligarchs.
In 2006, we resorted to an early election, the first truly free election. Rebooted the system. And once more got a dysfuncional parliament. Why was the Parliament blocked? What was the reason?
People behind the scenes of Ukrainian politics remained the same. You, I think, also witnessed how people hug each other privately and then arrange a scandal near the parliamentary podium.
As a result, we got President Yanukovych. How did society react?
I think it was a disappointment. We were disappointed in ourselves. I remember a poll at the end of the term of President Yushchenko: people were asked if they voted for Yushchenko in 2004 and only a minority admitted that they did.
Yanukovych immediately regained the powers of Kuchma times. What were the results?
Come on. Guys at the time were simple, no one paid attention to niceties. The first “ax decisions” were actually made by President Yushchenko. It was his trademark to dismiss people by amending decrees on their appointment.
Later, when Yanukovych and company came to power, they decided, for example, to change the Constitution by reverting previous amendments to the Constitution.
Also, you have to understand that there were no good alternatives. Not that many were ready to vote for Yulia Tymoshenko.
I think that the phenomenon of Yanukovych as the President was that he did not understand his country and his people at all. Ukrainian citizens, on their part, just dissociated themselves from the establishment. They realized that this was not their establishment.
They went to Maidan. Euromaidan demanded to change the system, not faces. Why didn’t this happen?
Do you remember how the relations between President Poroshenko and the Parliament were built after the Euromaidan?
We then thought that to have real power one must have some sacred knowledge. We thought that those who were at the Maidan stage had that sacred knowledge.
Is it true that many anti-corruption bodies and regulators were created in violation of the Constitution?
First, there was a demand from people for some qualitative changes. Second, it was clear that the window of opportunity is short and we must do something very quickly. The layout defined by the Constitution was and is very confining.
Was the Parliament a balancing force in times of Poroshenko?
It was a parliament where at least 60 people at the beginning and maybe 40 at the end were independent. They could act at their own discretion.
If you remember the end of Poroshenko’s term, there was a moment when he wanted to declare martial law for two months, probably dreaming to postpone the election. It was the Parliament that told him: “Bull! Only in 10 border regions and for one month only.” President Poroshenko then slammed the door, offended like a “capricious and delicate young lady.”
There was an even more important example. The year 2015. Poroshenko insisted on amending the Constitution to grant special status to Donbas. If not for the Parliament, we wouldn’t be talking with you today. I was the first one to publicly speak out against it. To harras me, Poroshenko even asked Chancellor Merkel to send emissaries and talk to Syroyid. They tried to “steamroll“ me thrice so that I would give up and support Petro Poroshenko.
To implement the Minsk agreements?
To implement the Minsk agreements. When I saw 282 votes on a parliamentary display on August 31, 2015, I was ready to hug each of those 18 MPs who failed the attempts to get 300 votes.
The phenomenon of Avakov. How did it happen that this minister survived three parliaments, four prime ministers, two presidents, and held this position for 7 years?
The Parliament has no control over anyone at all today. When someone asks me how to prevent the Minister of Internal Affairs, the President, or judges from abusing their powers, I answer that the solution is in the Budget Code and in the role of the Parliament. So far, the Parliament is just a bystander in a budget process.
The flaw of our budget process looks like this: whoever controls the money controls everything. When the United States Congress is considering the budget, every ministry sends its representatives. They know that everything depends on the parliament.
In Ukraine, though, everything depends on the President who can refuse to sign the budget.
So even a formally pro-European coalition has not managed to change this practice?
How can you change it? If you try amending the Budget Code, you will have to convince the President to sign it.
But formally our President was also pro-European…
What the pro-European President really wanted was European enrichment. That’s why the budget process suited him well.
Look, we have the Rules of Procedure of the Verkhovna Rada — it is a law. There is the Law “On the Cabinet of Ministers.” However, there is no law when it comes to the President.
Well, our people think of presidents as monuments, so who will even think about sending them to prison?
I have prepared a bill “On the President”. This was at the end of our parliamentary term. I spelled out there, for example, the status of the president’s wife, medical treatment procedures, certificates, e.g. medical certificates. All this stuff has to be regulated. We are talking about the institution, not a name.
We tried to propose regulations but were met with a tornado of hatred. At first, it was intriguing. We thought it was done by the bot farms of the newly elected President Zelensky. Later, though, we found out that these were Russian bot farms.
I think that Russians just really do not want us to have effective governance. They thought this will be a threat to them. Why do we still have no clear policy on liberating our occupied territories? Who should lead this process?
Policies concerning war and peace cannot be voiced by someone who is not the Head of State and the Supreme Commander-in-Chief.
How would you describe the system of government under President Zelensky? What are its strengths and weaknesses?
You know, I have a metaphor for that. Before we were like a ship at anchor and the scenery floated around us. Our leaders told us: “Now we are sailing towards such and such achievements, now we are sailing towards the course to NATO.” In truth, though, we were a part of the scenery.
What happened when Zelensky came to power? He tore or even blew up those anchors, and we started sailing somewhere. Nobody knows where and nobody knows how to row.
An interesting allegory. So where is the ship Ukraine sailing to?
We must give birth to knowledge about ourselves, about what our state should be like, and how we want to govern it. Neither the Venice Commission, Washington, nor Brussels has this knowledge. Only we have it. And I really want us to understand from the results of all these administrations, including the administration of Volodymyr Zelensky, that the President is not a sacred figure. The institution of the presidency must be regulated by law and controlled by the Parliament. This is not because it is written in some constitution or recommended by the Venice Commission. No, it’s because we want to sail in some clear and predictable direction. The oligarchs have to be dealt with not by introducing a register but by restricting the monopoly on access to natural resources.
All these changes must proceed simultaneously.
In old democracies, it took 200 years. We cannot wait that long, we have an enemy, a country that wants us destroyed. And this, by the way, is a shockingly powerful motivation to persevere and perpetuate.
It seems to me that we are still talking about what we should be like, like in the Soviet Union. But we exist already. We are fine. We have survived despite hundreds of years of destruction. And we learn. So, everything is alright with our abilities.
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