Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 13

By Pavlo Kutuev

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has shown Machiavellian cunning in using administrative reform as a tool to confound his opponents while keeping his loyalists on their toes. This is vividly illustrated by the installation, and then the abrupt removal, of the posts of state secretaries, which were seen as a kind of Trojan horse ensuring presidential control over the government apparatus.

On May 29, 2001, Kuchma issued a decree “On the immediate tasks concerning further implementation of the administrative reform in Ukraine.” Although the title was not catchy, it succeeded in impressing Ukrainian political society. For instance, a deputy leader of the socialist party, Yosyp Vinsky, claimed that the decree would eventually lead to dictatorship in Ukraine. Kuchma’s critics had their reasons for being so wary of his political-administrative innovation: It highlighted a quiet revolution in the government and raised serious questions concerning its legitimacy as well as the opposition’s ability to affect political decision making by the head of state.

Kuchma’s decree introduced new positions within the government–the state secretary of the cabinet of ministers, and state secretaries in every government ministry. The state secretaries were to be tasked with “ensuring organizational, expert-analytical, legal, technical and other assistance to the cabinet of ministers and individual ministers.” Both the cabinet and ministerial state secretaries were to be nominated by the prime minister and appointed by the president. As conceived, each state secretary was to be the chief administrator at his respective agency. The secretaries would relieve ministers of tasks not pertinent to their status–namely, managing the activities of administrative units of the agency as well as its regional branches, and such other activities as supervising the finances and hiring and firing. Each state secretary would have a first deputy and deputies. The decree also eliminated the positions of first deputy ministers and deputy ministers, thus stripping cabinet members of the possibility of having political appointees around them to help push through government policy.

According to Kuchma’s camp, the rationale behind the decree was to draw a distinction between public service and politics. The minister would formulate policy, assisted by a state secretary who was supposed to be a career civil servant. State secretaries would be appointed for five years and could not be fired even in the event of the government’s resignation. The decree foresaw three major reasons for firing state secretaries and their deputies–unsatisfactory job performance, health problems, or a court conviction. This initiative was more than a technical reorganization. It touched the core problems of division of powers, government operations, and the distribution of political influence in Ukraine.

Kuchma insisted that the introduction of state secretaries was a step forward in bringing Ukraine’s political and administrative systems closer to those of Europe. Indeed, most West European countries have a division of labor between politicians and career civil servants, under which the latter is expected to implement policy in a bipartisan and apolitical manner.

The opposition argued that the proposed changes in the government’s structure should have been passed into law by the parliament, and they asked the constitutional court to review the reform. The court has yet to come up with a decision. The constitution itself contains rather contradictory statements on the matter. Although the president has the right to create and liquidate governmental agencies in response to a request from the prime minister, another constitutional clause demands that the structure of the cabinet of ministers be determined by the constitution and laws. Kuchma has often ignored the constitution–by failing to sign laws adopted by parliament, for example. Even in the implementation of this decree, Kuchma has typically appointed or dismissed state secretaries without apparently waiting for the formality of a nomination by the prime minister.

The institution of state secretaries was put in place–with a conspicuous lack of public discussion–after the fall of Viktor Yushchenko’s government and at the very beginning of Anatoly Kinakh’s tenure as prime minister. Although Yushchenko always exhibited a willingness to work with the president –even describing his attitude to Kuchma in terms of a “father-son relationship”–his policy was undermining Kuchma’s and his entourage’s economic and, thus, political base. To avoid the repetition of a situation in which the prime minister grows too independent in his actions–Pavlo Lazarenko being the most notorious example [1]–there was a need for institutional fetters restricting the government’s autonomy.

Given their five-year tenure, state secretaries might be in place even after Kuchma’s departure from the presidency, thus ensuring that his political family interests not be challenged. State secretaries, with their considerable powers, seemed perfectly suited to implement Kuchma’s decisions regardless of the attitude of the legislature–something that ministers, with their own political agendas and links to the parliament, often failed to do.

Thus, despite the president’s efforts to justify the introduction of the state secretaries in terms of efficiency and good governance, it was clear that they gave Kuchma an extremely powerful tool to employ in determining the government’s actions in “smoke-filled rooms” full of his hand picked appointees. And on all counts the decree failed to satisfy its principle declared goal–to underline the distinction between politicians and civil servants, since the former were often recruited from the ranks of the latter, and not vice versa.

The state secretaries functioned smoothly for two years, turning Kuchma’s ideas into action and often bypassing the ministers in the process. This second task became even more important after the introduction of the so-called coalition government model, under which all the pro-presidential parliamentary factions were represented in Yanukovych’s cabinet. Thus, Kuchma’s decree of May 26, 2003, which canceled the institution of state secretaries and reintroduced the positions of first deputy and deputy ministers, was as unexpected as was his earlier edict creating them. Both decisions have sent shock waves through the Ukrainian body politic. The cancellation was done in an abrupt manner that did not even pretend to be cloaked in public deliberation.

The president justified his unilateral decision in the traditional manner. He accused the parliament of hampering the adoption of legislation regulating the activities of the executive. In fact, it was the president who had vetoed the draft of the law “On the cabinet of ministers” eight times. At the same time, he did not use his right to initiate legislation to introduce a bill to the parliament outlining the government’s powers, duties and structure. Kuchma also claimed that by dissolving state secretaries he bridged a gap between Ukrainian and European models of public administration–employing the very same argument he had used to support the introduction of the secretaries.

Kuchma’s arbitrary decision triggered a storm of criticism. Even parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, who is usually quite loyal to the president, expressed disapproval of the action. By removing the state secretaries, who were a considerable check on the prime minister’s actions, Kuchma reinforced Yanukovych’s position. He also provided Yanukovych with an additional bargaining chip, since the prime minister can now offer some ministerial posts to parliamentary factions in exchange for their support.

Perhaps Kuchma was also thinking of the three hundred votes he needs from deputies to ensure passage of his constitutional reform proposal. An offer to join the government may be an effective incentive to members of the parliament to endorse the president’s initiative.

At the same time, Kuchma does not seem to have abandoned his favorite “divide and rule policy.” He appointed Volodymyr Yaczuba–who is faithful to him and hostile to Yanukovych–to the critically important position of minister of the cabinet of ministers, thus circumscribing the prime minister’s decision making power. Then, on June 4, the head of Lviv regional state administration, Myron Yankiv, was abruptly dismissed. Yankiv was said to be gravitating towards Yanukovych, having expressed a desire to head the Lviv chapter of his party of regions. By dismissing key Lviv regional administration officials (the police chief lost his job along with Yankiv), the United Social Democrats are trying to expand their influence in the region.

Kuchma’s decision with regard to the state secretaries is no less important than his search for a potential successor or possible constitutional reform. Kuchma is being compelled to maneuver and to consider different options. They include finding a reliable successor, prolonging his own term, or tailoring the constitution so that it would enable him to stay at the helm holding a different position–such as prime minister or parliamentary speaker.

To sum up, Kuchma’s latest reform of the government once again caught everybody off guard. Kuchma has succeeded in stirring up political society in Ukraine, while also ensuring that none of the pro-presidential factions gets an upper hand in their struggle for the president’s grace. His decision is going to have consequences for the main political players, since it promotes a “survival of the fittest” struggle among his cronies, especially with regard to choosing a presidential successor.

1. See Taras Kuzio, “When oligarchs go into opposition: the case of Pavlo Lazarenko,” Russia and Eurasia Review, volume 2, issue 11, May 27, 2003.

Pavlo Kutuev is an associate professor of sociology at the University “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.”