Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 6

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

.”.. justice is really someone else’s good–the advantage of the ruler–and the personal injury of his subjects who serve and obey him. Injustice is the opposite and rules men who are truly good-natured and just, because in doing what’s advantageous to their ruler, the stronger, their service makes him happy and them wretched.” —Plato, The Republic

In the political history of any country, there are events which are considered significant for its future development, despite appearing insignificant or even marginal when they actually occur. This is particularly true of countries in transition from totalitarian tyranny to democracy–above all, the countries of the former Soviet Union.

One such significant event was Yeltsin’s bombardment of the parliament building in 1993, enthusiastically supported by U.S. Preisdent Bill Clinton and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. At first glance this was a marginal event, the banal suppression of an “undemocratic” opposition which resisted the “reforms,” but it led to the establishment of aggressive nationalism as the dominant of Russian politics.

Evidence of this was provided by the two Chechen wars, and its apotheosis was the accession to power in the Kremlin of Vladimir Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, a man whose mentality was formed by the former heads of the KGB Yuri Andropov and Vladimir Kryuchkov, and whose views on the West and liberal democratic values are still a mystery to this day.

The April referendum in Ukraine also ranks among such significant events. Almost totally ignored by both the European and the American establishment and media, this referendum and its repercussions are crucial to understanding the processes underway in Ukraine, the relationship between the authorities and the people, and the transparency of these relations, as well as determining the prospects for the “Ukrainian” democratic model.

The question of the direction Ukraine will take following the referendum–to the West or to the East–is now the key to defining the American position in the region. If Ukraine moves towards Poland and the Visegrad Three, this will greatly ease the next White House administration’s task in working out its position with regard to Russia and the Baltics, based on a pragmatic take on the principles and values which best correspond to the national interests of the United States.

But if Ukraine retains its virtual status as a buffer state, or goes down the path of Belorussian or Russian-style authoritarianism, then the USA will face the problem of Ukraine’s possible affiliation to the Russia-Belarus union, with its blatant anti-Western and anti-NATO slant.


Only the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) refused to recognize the results of the Ukrainian referendum of 16 April. In doing so, PACE quite reasonably referred to the need to adopt a new law on referenda which did not contravene the 1996 constitution. However, Ukraine thought it possible to hold a referendum based on the 1991 law on referenda adopted when Mikhail Gorbachev was still in power. On 29 March the Ukrainian Constitutional Court retracted the two most controversial questions of the six posed in the referendum (on the possibility of the president disbanding parliament if the electorate had no confidence in it, and on the possibility of adopting a constitution by referendum).

PACE, however, warned Ukraine that the referendum would tilt the balance between the executive and the legislature in favor of the former, and threatened to suspend Ukraine’s membership of the Council of Europe if Kuchma tried to change the constitution by bypassing parliament–in other words by decree. The Ukrainian reaction was extremely edgy and embittered (see the Monitor, April 26). With the exception of PACE, the West adopted the tactic of basically ignoring the Ukrainian referendum–an event capable of changing the course of development of a huge state in the middle of Europe.

It is probable that a significant role in this was played by the traditional disregard for Ukraine shown by Western analysts brought up on a Moscow-centered approach. Another factor was that the referendum in Ukraine was held during the run-up to the presidential elections in Russia against the background of the ongoing war in Chechnya and the huge losses among the civilian population there.

A key factor in defining the West’s position was a reluctance to interfere in Ukraine’s domestic politics as expressed by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her visit to Kyiv on April 14. For this reason the Council of Europe, which had sent hundreds of observers to the presidential elections in October 1999, refrained from doing the same for the referendum of April 16.

With this, Leonid Kuchma’s administration received carte-blanche to implement its plans to change the country’s constitution.


As with everything that happens in this country, there is a touch of paradox to the Ukrainian referendum. A referendum usually contains one question which has a direct relevance to the lives and values of a huge number of people. Such was the referendum on the independence of Quebec in Canada. The Ukrainian referendum was more like a sociological survey. There were originally six questions, although nobody knows who actually formulated them. There was no preliminary discussion or explanation of the substance of the questions. The media controlled by the president’s administration did not do this for understandable reasons, while the voice of the few surviving independent publications (television in Ukraine is entirely state run) simply could not be heard. So the four remaining questions were put to the people–who decided to ask themselves about their confidence in the parliament which they themselves had elected in 1998 (another enigma of the referendum)–like biblical commandments coming down from heaven.

1) Should the president have the power to disband parliament when it fails to form a stable and operational majority within 30 days or adopt a budget within three months?

2) Should lawmakers’ immunity from criminal prosecution be abolished?

3) Should the total number of parliamentarians be reduced from 450 to 300?

4) Should the parliament become a bicameral legislature with a new chamber to provide regional representation?

The first question dramatically increases the president’s powers to dissolve parliament in circumstances which are not clarified. The decree on the referendum does not define what is meant by the term “stable and operational majority.” This aside, it means that if the main political groups which make up parliament cannot agree amongst themselves, the president disbands parliament in the name of the people who have only just elected it. The upshot is that the people have no confidence in themselves, or in their ability to elect an effective parliament, and hand over to the president–who represents only a relative majority of the electorate–the right to pass judgment on representative power. Paradox? No. The result of the “Ukrainian model” of democracy.

Second, by advocating the abolition of parliamentarians’ immunity from prosecution, the Ukrainian people are again casting the whole parliamentary system into doubt. What is at issue here? The voters elect parliamentarians to represent their interests, but they already consider them to be potential criminals. So they take away their immunity, but still demand that they should bravely champion the people’s interests. Another paradox…

As for the bicameral parliament, if a single house functions too slowly–as it is accused of doing–why should two houses function faster? No answer. And then, where did the figure of 300 deputies come from? What is the idea behind that? Again, no answer, which once again can be put down to the totally paradoxical nature of the Ukrainian referendum.

The main question is: Is the victory of the people over democracy a victory for democracy (given that representative power is the first principle and historical foundation of democracy)? Is it not a Pyrrhic victory? And should we admire a people that says “yes” to any invention of the president’s administration? (Sergiy Grabovs’kiy. Iak narodovladdia demokratiiu peremoglo. Vechirniy Kyiv, May 5, 2000).

The opportunity for manipulating the vote has been noted by prominent Ukrainian sociologists, such as Sergei Makeev, a doctor of sociology and head of department at the Institute of Sociology of the Ukrainian National Academy. His prediction for the turn-out, based on numerous sociological surveys, was around 60 percent. According to official figures, there was a turn-out of almost 80 percent–in other words a margin of error of 20 percent, where the norm is 2-3 percent. Makeev: “All I can say is that for me, as a sociologist, this referendum result does not indicate that the voters are interested in changing the power structure in the country; this is something else. But 99 percent “coming down from mountain regions” to vote is nonsense… I think that what is being shown as the result goes beyond the realms of sociology” (Den’, April 18).

This “something else” which is “beyond the realms of sociology,” which Makeev diplomatically declined to elaborate on, lies in the relations between the authorities and the people. Here, the Ukrainian authorities have surpassed even the best examples provided by their Soviet predecessors. A directive was sent out from Kyiv to the provinces with the figures for the turnout.

Moreover, even in Kyiv the authorities showed no inhibitions in their Stakhanovite struggle to overfulfil the plan. This is what a member of the Leningrad district election commission in Kyiv, Galina Dimlevich, had to say: “Over the nine days of early voting, that is, by Saturday, April 15, when I left the polling station, the record stated that 201 voters had received ballot papers. On Sunday, April 16, at 7 a.m., I was told that 1,452 people had voted. When I raised my suspicions of falsification, the chairman of the local referendum commission, F. Zhuravel, recommended to the commission that I be expelled, and I was.” Dimlevuch complained to Alexander Boiko, a member of the Central Election Commission, who said that such decisions were unlawful and that she should return to work. Dimlevich, however, was not even admitted to the vote count, and was told, in passing, that times were such that even deputies were being shot (Vecherniy Kyiv, May 5). In the opinion of Peter Burne from the Kyiv-Post newspaper, “officials knew that if they couldn’t produce a ‘yes’ vote, they would be out on the streets the next day.” (Kyiv-Post, April 28, 2000.) Burne continues: “One disturbing aspect about the whole affair was the inability and unwillingness of most of Ukraine’s virtual third sector to monitor the vote. Many organizations said they had not received funding from their Euro-Atlantic patrons, who have become increasingly reluctant to meddle in Ukraine’s “internal affairs,” or simply viewed the referendum as a fait accompli” (ibid).

The grounds for concern, however, go considerably deeper. One result of the referendum may be the complete paralysis of parliament in the near future. On 25 April Kuchma submitted to parliament a bill “On incorporating amendments into the Constitution based on the results of the All-Ukrainian referendum held by popular initiative.” Its intention is to amend four articles of the constitution–Articles 76, 80, 90 and 106. It is proposed to reduce the constitutional composition of the Rada from 450 to 300 deputies, and to remove from article 80 clause 3, which reads: “The people’s deputies may not, without the consent of the Supreme Rada, be prosecuted for criminal liability, detained or arrested.” Thirdly, the head of state can terminate the powers of a newly-elected parliament if it fails to form within one month a permanent (!) working majority, or if it fails to adopt a budget within three months (Zerkalo nedeli, May 5). Essentially, this is an ultimatum issued to the legislature by the executive, without any opportunity for an adequate response. Parliament can, of course, offer its counterproposals on the three proposed changes to the constitution, but it looks as though the president’s administration has already drafted a resolution on its early dissolution.

The question of the bicameral parliament–which won the approval of 80 percent of voters–remains unresolved; it has been ignored by Kuchma, although the Constitutional Court clearly ruled that all decisions adopted in the referendum were binding on the authorities. Apparently Kuchma and his colleagues do not know what to do with a bicameral parliament, so in the best traditions of Soviet decisionmaking, they have decided to set up a special commission to look into the issue, with no deadline for it to report back.


Like in a detective story, this is where it gets really interesting. According to article 154 of the Ukrainian constitution, “A bill to incorporate changes into the Ukrainian Constitution may be submitted to the Supreme Rada of Ukraine by the President of Ukraine or by no fewer than one third of deputies from the constitutional composition of the Supreme Rada of Ukraine.” Why did Kuchma need a referendum? Why, after forming a pro-presidential majority, could he not have just submitted all his proposals to the deputies?

It may be surmised that he was guided by the same considerations as Stalin, who did not put his signature to any execution, exile or deportation orders. If Kuchma himself had presented these proposals, he risked being accused by the international community of dictatorial intentions.

In a radio interview on Ekho Moskvy, the journalist Vitaly Portnikov offered a psychoanalytical explanation: “There was an occasion when Leonid Kuchma lost a battle for the constitution. He planned to disband parliament, and call for a referendum on the constitution, but then the deputies adopted it overnight. In this constitution, unlike the Russian one, the president’s powers are not very great. But Kuchma is a professional revolutionary, he is always fighting someone. When he was prime minister, he fought the president, when he became president, he fought parliament. Now he has won his second term, he is fighting his own rather limited powers, and he is winning again, avenging the humiliating defeat he received at the hands of the previous Supreme Rada” (Ekho Moskvy, interview with Vitaly Portnikov, April 17). Will Kuchma’s battle with the ghost of his own insignificance end in a Pyrrhic victory over Ukraine’s democratic prospects?


So why did Kuchma not use the opportunities granted him by the constitution to change it? Because he wants parliament to be dissolved at the hands of the people. The people and their opinion are hostages in a battle between clans–people whose psychological dominant is chiefly monological and does not entertain even the possibility of social dialogue. So Kuchmaism is a variety of post-Soviet monologism, a rejection of civil society, freedom of the press, dissent if it contradicts the views of the authorities, and, finally, parliamentary democracy.

Kuchma’s closest intellectual neighbor in this respect is the professional Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ulyanov–Lenin, whose thousands of pages of writings are shot through with hatred for the parliamentary democracies of Europe–particularly Britain and France. This repudiation of parliamentary democracy gave rise to Lenin’s theory and practice of the dictatorship of the proletariat, one of the first acts of which, after seizing power in November 1917, was to dissolve in January 1918 the Constitutional Assembly of Russia–that dream of the antimonarchist movement since the Decembrist uprising of 1825.

A consequence of the actions of the professional Austrian revolutionary Adolf Schicklgruber, who also repudiated the parliamentarism of the European democracies and the United States, was the pact with Lenin’s heir, Stalin, on the division of Europe, and the start of the second world war.


What will come of the latest attempt–this time by the professional Ukrainian revolutionary Kuchma–to restrict parliament, making it essentially a hostage to the whims of the executive? The question of the Belorussian model for development inevitably arises, with the eventual affiliation of Ukraine to the Russia-Belarus union, which could also be the subject of a “popular initiative” in response to the deepening economic crisis, the West’s disregard, and a general desire to be saved.

This answer is prompted by the contemporary political history of the post-Soviet countries and Ukraine’s closest neighbor–Belarus.

The logic of the development of state systems envisaged by Plato in The Republic provides the following possible answer to the question of the prospects for the “Ukrainian” democratic model. Plato believed that oligarchy develops into democracy. Ukraine is now a synthesis of oligarchy and the germ of democratism, or oligarchic democratism. The next step, according to Plato, is tyranny, which grows out of an unwillingness to take account of laws–written or unwritten. The tyrant uses the crowd and flirts with it for his own ends, and changes the constitution and the laws at his own discretion. After the April referendum, Ukraine is in the process of transition from oligarchic democratism to authoritarian (tyrannical) ochlocracy–mob rule, delegated by the ruler. In the words of Plato, which could not be more appropriate to the current situation in Ukraine: “subjects do what is advantageous to their ruler, because the power is in his hands. Their service makes him happy, and them wretched…”

Volodymyr Zviglyanich is a senior research fellow of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, a research associate at George Washington University and a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.