A classical parliamentary republic is historically and mentally the most fitting for our country. — Oleksandr Turchynov
30 years is a long enough period to look back and analyze what we have achieved and what to do next. This is exactly what the Centre of United Actions is trying to do with its #ukrstateunderconstruction project dedicated to the 30th anniversary of independence. By taking interviews with statespersons of different periods, Oleh Rybachuk is trying to get a better understanding of how the state machine worked and why independence has not brought any magic solutions to Ukrainian problems.
Ukrainian politician Oleksandr Turchynov was the coordinator of two Maidans and has experience in many high state positions. He assumed the post of the Chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada during the most critical phase of the Revolution of Dignity after the escape of Yanukovych and majority of Ukrainian top officials. For several days in February of 2014, he had absolute power, acting as the President of Ukraine, the Prime Minister, and the entire Cabinet. From 2015 to 2019, Oleksandr Turchynov held a position of the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, focusing on restoring state security and defense.
How well do you remember the day when Ukraine declared its independence? How did you imagine the development of an independent Ukraine at the time?
I remember those days quite well. For me, it was freedom in the literal sense because I was in the Dnipropetrovsk region among dissidents, the opponents of the communist regime. After the coup (August 19-21, 1991, the self-proclaimed State Committee on the State of Emergency tried to stage a coup to preserve the USSR — ed.), I was on the list of those who should have been arrested. As a matter of fact, the failure of the coup and Ukraine’s independence gave me the opportunity to work and live in a free, independent country. Despite the power of the Soviet Union, we independence gained at small cost — without fighting or even fierce confrontation. However, the room for transformations was limited by nostalgia for soviet times, by the generation that was born in the Soviet Union and filled up with dogmas dangerous to human consciousness. Unfortunately, rapid changes that many Eastern European countries have undergone and which we had hoped for, have not happened in our country.
How did the Ukrainian economy feel during the first years? What were the main problems for economic development?
Two destructive processes were unwinding in parallel. On the one hand, the Ukrainian economy was fully integrated into the soviet economy, and one day all these ties began to break down. On the other hand, 99% of our means of production were owned by the state. State monopoly. Planned economy. Therefore, the destruction of the planned economy, state property, and complete disintegration of all processes constituted a very severe blow.
Withdrawal from the ruble zone, panic, unemployment, and shutdown of many powerful industries, especially the defense sector, all happened simultaneously. It was really difficult, people had to study and work at the epicenter of the whirlpool of these devastating events.
And how did President Leonid Kravchuk interact with the Parliament and the Cabinet?
At that time, there were no factions in the Parliament. There were a communist majority and a democratic opposition, but it was a disorganized and amorphous “jelly”.
As a result, the Parliament was hardly able to make any decisions. Then, however, a very peculiar innovation was introduced, which President Kravchuk was not in favor of, but the Chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada Ivan Plyushch supported. The innovation was to give the Cabinet the right to pass decrees (legal acts equal to laws — ed.). It meant that the Government de facto became the legislature in matters of social and economic activities — virtually everything.
This unique regime was Ukrainian know-how that worked long enough to stop some dangerous processes. Unfortunately, many decisions made by the Cabient were pure lobbying or just illconceived.
What can you say about the period of “decree management“ now? Was that an adequate response to the challenges at the time?
The collapse of power when there was no structured Verkhovna Rada, no political responsibility, and no programmatic vision, it was necessary to overcome the crisis by passing governmental decrees. It was a way to somehow stabilize the situation. Even when a wrong decision was made, it could still be corrected. To do nothing at all would have been worse.
As an adviser to the Prime Minister, I was forced to work with the Parliament. Let me put it this way: it was difficult to get the vote. Everyone had their own vision, position, and everyone believed that only he knows what to do. And most of them were people who left the Soviet Union with a soviet upbringing and worldview. It seriously hindered our progress and economic reforms.
So why did the Constitution of 1996 limit presidential powers? Did these restrictions work for real?
I do not agree that they were limiting something. On the contrary, the Constitution of 1996 created a semi-presidential republic.
But at first, we had a purely presidential republic.
In truth, in the beginning the power belonged to those who thought they have the power. For example, most decisions depended on our Chaiperson Plyushch who just assumed power, and not President Kravchuk who felt more limited by law. Plyushch pushed Kuchma for the Prime Minister, and Kravchuk was not too happy with this decision because he had his own vision.
Before the Constitution was adopted, power was concentrated in the hands of the President because no one had the strength to really oppose him due to the lack of strong parties and factions, legal restrictions. As a result, the agenda was defined by the President: what questions had to be asked and what questions have to be suppressed. During the time of “decree management”, the center of decision-making shifted to the Cabinet of Ministers. After difficult discussions and conflicts, the Constitution of 1996 effectively put the President back at the center. It is incorrect to say that President Kuchma’s power was limited by law.
In other words, he lost nothing?
Moreover, he gained legal control over the Cabinet. The President picked the Prime Minister and ministers. He could appoint and dismiss ministers without consulting the Prime Minister. Strictly speaking, the entire executive branch including local administrations was under the president.
Moreover, the power to appoint judges made the judiciary dependent not even on the President but on his administration. The President also got control over law enforcement. In particular, the unreformed prosecutor’s office at its discretion could open criminal cases, decide which cases to investigate, independently report on them in court, etc. According to the Constitution, the Prosecutor General was also appointed by the President. It meant he gained control not only over the executive branch, but also over law enforcement. Eventually, this power was used against political opponents. Kuchma actively used it for his own purposes.
Kuchma is called the father of Ukrainian oligarchy. Do you agree with this statement? What other institutions did Kuchma create? Were they useful for the development of Ukraine?
Back when Kuchma was the Prime Minister and later when he became president, the so-called “Great Privatization” began and unwinded. It gave nothing to the majority of Ukrainians but helped to create a powerful business stratum that grew on state property and is now called oligarchs. The bond between big business and politicians, a fairly systemic corruption, blocked the coming of powerful foreign companies to the Ukrainian market: “Why should we share anything when we can take everything for free ourselves?” In fact, all the vast resources of state property were divided among a narrow circle of people.
I must say that Kuchma created quite effective law enforcement block. We parted ways with him, in part because of his political vision of the future of Ukraine. I was categorically against the usurpation of power and opposed President Kuchma. The confrontation in those days was fierce. I faced seven criminal cases “for attempts to seize power, for mass riots, for resistance to law enforcement agencies.” Three requests for my arrest were submitted to the Parliament. I remember quite well what it was like to be a member of the opposition in Kuchma times.
How did Kuchma change the institution of the presidency during his second term?
He created a power club capable of destroying any opponent. Mass protest movements “Ukraine without Kuchma” and “Rise up, Ukraine!” were the answer not only to the murder of a journalist but also to all the arbitrariness, lack of control over the government, and the fact that no alternative was left for people. Leonid Danylovych was the first one to use law enforcement agencies against political opponents. It became possible to lose not only your freedom but also your life.
After the Orange Revolution Viktor Yushchenko became president. He had Kuchma’s powers for about a year. How would you describe that time? What happened then?
In my opinion, the situation got worse. Our democratic camp was united during the Orange Revolution but right after the victory we began to fight for power instead of building Ukraine. There were a lot of conflicts. The biggest conflict was between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Yushchenko then used Kuchma’s powers to dismiss Tymoshenko. The power of the President to dismiss the Prime Minister without parliamentary consent — a relic from times of Kuchma — caused a very deep crisis. As a result, Yanukovych recovered from a crushing defeat as the head of pro-Russian forces in 2004.
After the election of 2006, Ukraine was already a semi-presidential republic. Amendments to the Constitution came into force. A new parliament was elected — more or less democratically. However, the Parliament still came to a stalemate. Why?
That was precisely the result of the conflict between the democratic forces. The platforms and goals of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine groups were not that different but there was no trust between the parties. There was an internal competition, internal confrontation that prevented these political forces from forming a solid coalition and working together on building the country. The formal reason was a discussion between three parties: BYuT, Our Ukraine, and the Socialists. They squabbled about the candidates for the Prime Minister and the Chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada.
Their mistrust, their inability to compromise and put the interests of the state above their political interests has delayed the election of the Chairperson and the Prime Minister. In the end, the Party of Regions led by Yanukovych took the upper hand. To put it mildly, they lured the Socialists to their side by promising Moroz the position of the Chairperson. As a result, a “horned” communist-socialist-oligarchic alliance emerged that appointed a government led by Yanukovych and took control over the country. They even tried to change the Constitution. We overcame this crisis only by holding an early parliamentary election. For a while, the situation stabilized.
But Yanukovych still became president. How the system of government has changed when he immediately concentrated power and regained the powers of Kuchma times?
Yanukovych has not won the presidential election. Democrats lost the presidential election. The struggle for power in the democratic camp left us no chances to unite in the face of new challenges: the global financial crisis of 2008, the gas war with Russia of early 2009, and the pandemic of a dangerous flu virus. As a result, no one took a stand against Yanukovych. Instead, Tymoshenko took a stand against Yushchenko — and vice versa. The party responsible for the defeat was the democratic camp: we have learned nothing from the situation of 2005 or the crisis of 2006.
How would you describe the presidency of Yanukovych?
Corrupted authoritarianism. First, he de facto raped the Constitution by restoring presidential powers from the times of Kuchma. It was a real usurpation of power. Second, he regained complete control over law enforcement, the executive branch, and the judiciary. As a result, we got a power monopoly of Yanukovych that surpassed Kuchma in its cruelty, pressure, and attempts to destroy the opposition.
The beginning of 2014, from February to June, is one of the most difficult pages of Ukrainian history: Crimea was taken away, parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were occupied, and Russia tried to convince the world that Ukraine is not a real country. Which state institutions deflected this information attack and managed to keep the country afloat?
It was not just an information attack. It was a hybrid war — a war on the battlefield, on the economic, energy, information, cyber, and other planes. I guess this was the most dramatic situation in Ukraine since 1918. The state was headless, and the war was waged against us.
The occupation of Crimea began on February 20, 2014. This was the day when Kyiv was covered in blood. They took under control the critical infrastructure of Crimea while we only began to form a new government. As it happened, politicians from the former opposition that now were in power elected me, the chief of staff at Maidan, the Chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada. At that time, it was the only legitimate top position in the country.
So you became an acting president?
It was not that simple. I commanded to prepare a resolution. Parliamentary lawyers came to me and said: “Olexandr Valentynovych, we can’t sign this because you are committing a serious violation.”
Violation of the Constitution?
Certainly. According to the Constitution, a person can serve as an acting president only if the President has died, resigned, or has been removed via impeachment or due to poor health. The Constitution does not provision that an acting president can be appointed if the President fled the country. The legislator could not have foreseen such emergency. Therefore, we were supposed to launch an impeachment procedure which takes six months at best and which would have never been supported by the “regionals” and communists. At the same time, the fate of the country depended on some immediate decision.
So how have you managed to convince those MPs?
I flipped through the Constitution and found the oath of the people’s deputy that states that the deputy has to defend the independence and freedom of the country by any means available. So I said: “You see? And you say that this is a violation of the Constitution. We defend our freedom and independence. Therefore, take the resolution to the floor.” And that is how I became an acting president. Then a decision was made that the Chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada would act both as the Prime Minister and the Cabinet since there were neither at the moment. I worked like that for some time.
Many Ukrainian politicians can only dream about such powers.
Powers are one thing: huge and unlimited. Quite another thing — the complete lack of resources, tools, and institutions. You are the Supreme Commander-in-Chief who has no army ready for combat. You have a completely destroyed security and defense sector, and a ruin of the defense industry. You lead the Cabinet, but you have about ₴100,000 in the national treasury and huge debts incurred by the financial pyramid of Azarov and Yanukovych. You do not have any ministers, you do not have ministries, and you do not have local administrations. And you have to somehow protect the country against powerful external and internal enemies.
Russians thought that we would not be able to cope with this, that we would not manage to stop the chaos. But we had no other choice and rapidly began to restore the power hierarchy.
Russian military aggression began and we needed help. I naively hoped that our strategic partners would immediately come to our aid as guarantors of our security in accordance with the Budapest Memorandum. However, when we turned to them hoping for protection and help, they replied: “Friends, this is a political declaration. We will cover you up only at a diplomatic level.” I asked: “Give us at least weapons, helmets, bulletproof vests — help at least with something.” They response was: “No, we cannot irritate Russia.” Basically, we were left alone against the military aggression of a tough nuclear country led by an inadequate leader seeking imperial revenge.
On March 1, the Russian parliament allowed Putin to send troops to Ukraine. I had no choice but to order the remnants of our troops in Crimea to stand their ground since they could hold a large part of enemy forces. Small units that the General Staff was able to assemble were thrown to the east and north to counter the invasion. I am grateful to the guys who remained faithful to their oath in Crimea. They gave us a month to mobilize, resuscitate the Armed Forces and restore the defense industry. During this time, we have been able to restore power, begin to suppress separatist uprisings in many regions and prepare for an invasion.
Russian plans to destroy Ukraine from within have failed. When they saw that we suppressed virtually all separatist uprisings except in several places in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, they started the war in Donbas.
Under such extreme conditions, in my opinion, we have worked out a model of governance close to an optimal one for Ukraine. After the Prime Minister was appointed, you were dealing exclusively with presidential issues — security and defense — while the Prime Minister was in charge of the Cabinet. Don’t you think that this model has proven its effectiveness? Shouldn’t it be restored? Because biggest problems in our history stem from the clash between these two branches.
You know, it was convenient for me because I was not only an acting president but also the Chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada. Defense, security, and international negotiations was taking all my time. That is why I relied entirely on the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
And how did you work with MPs?
You know, I used force, sheer force.
As the Chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada, I had to ignore the rules of procedure. Namely, we sometimes submitted a draft bill for consideration in the morning and passed it in the first and second readings at noon. There were no other options. For example, the law “On the National Guard”. I signed it as the author in the morning. At noon, the Parliament approved it in the first and second readings. I immediately signed it as the Chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada and the President. The law was published in the afternoon. This was probably our record.
No time for intrigues in such a situation?
That was not even an option. Everyone worked under extreme pressure. That is how we managed to ruin Russian plans. Then we began to restore our territorial integrity, began to liberate Donbas. At the same time, a fair and transparent presidential election was held. By the way, it was a unique wartime election. It was important for us that the whole world recognized its results.ентр
Do you think that the President, the Parliament, and the Cabinet can interact in such synchrony under normal conditions?
Having experience with many state institutions, I still believe that our path is to continue the constitutional reform in the direction of a parliamentary republic. A balance between the Parliament and the Cabinet is the key, the President should not interfere but instead deal with issues clearly defined by the Constitution: defense and international affairs.
Like European presidents?
Yes. European model is our way to go. Whoever will become president, there is always a temptation to take over the executive branch.
And this is the main problem. The executive branch is always overtaken by the President, broken down, and dependent on the President who formally is not responsible for its work. That leads to conflicts and abuse of power. In my opinion, a classical parliamentary republic is historically and mentally the most fitting for our country.
And how would you describe the time of President Poroshenko? The demand of Euromaidan was to change the system, not faces. Has it managed to do that?
I won’t say that they managed to achieve everything they wanted, but they achieved a lot. Our institutions today are still working despite all attempts to either turn them over or deform them.
You mean, like, anti-corruption bodies?
International, defense, and, of course, anti-corruption bodies like NABU, NAPC, the Anti-Corruption Court, and SAP — all of them were created in our time. At the time everyone wondered: “What are you doing? Asset declarations like you have in Ukraine cannot be found in any European country.”
That is true, they are quite different in Europe.
Corruption is a huge problem for us. This was one of the most dangerous issues for the state. That is why it was better to go to an extreme than to go on corruption too easy.
Why, in your opinion, Poroshenko has failed to win the second term?
There were mistakes, of course, but the main reason was that he lost the information war. Theses from Russian propaganda that “the war continues only because it the establishment makes money from this war” or “as soon as there will be a new government — the war will stop immediately” was made public, and many believed them. These were the core of Zelensky’s campaign: “I will come and immediately end the war from which the “old” government is gaining profit.” And this hope for a quick end to the war, for a simple solution to difficult problems, the hope for some magician who will come and solve everything, again, as many times before, led us to a dead end from which it is difficult to get out.
If we look at the era of Zelensky, how can we describe the current system of governance? What are its pros and cons?
It’s a mixture of dilettantism and legal nihilism. On the one hand, President Zelensky has unlimited power because he is the first president whose political force has a majority in the Parliament and can make any decisions. He has complete control over the Cabinet and all law enforcement agencies. He is trying to take over anti-corruption bodies that are supposed to be independent. He wants to take over courts with his judicial reform. This tendency to monopolize power and authoritarianism is very dangerous to the country.
On the other hand, there is a lack of vision, of a strategy for the development of Ukraine, European and Euro-Atlantic integration, how the government should work, and how to fight off the aggression. In other words, there are people who do not know how the system works, people who ignore things that are supposed to balance the system. All actions have to be based on laws and the Constitution. Otherwise, the desire to adjust the Constitution and laws to their own actions will lead to a colossal crisis — as it was with Kuchma, as it was with Yanukovych.
So where is the ship Ukraine sailing to? What is the trajectory of our flight? What will we be like?
I do not really like where we are sailing now but I want to say where we should sail. To a European Ukraine, Ukraine that is a member of NATO — a democratic, civilized, strong, and prosperous state. Those are our primary guidelines. With regard to constitutional changes, we must base them on European traditions and classical models. That is why the transition to a parliamentary model will solve many problems and contradictions.
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