Political and institutional developments

Below follows a brief overview of the political and institutional developments in Ukraine from 1990 till the outbreak of conflict in 2014. 

Political institutions in Ukraine: turmoil since independence

The Ukrainian parliament declared independence from the Soviet Union on 24 August 1991, and called for a referendum on the issue of independence in December of that same year. In this referendum, a vast majority of the Ukrainian people voted in favor of independence.

It took another five years before the country’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted to adopt the constitution of an independent Ukraine, instituting a presidential-parliamentary system. An elected president would appoint the members of a Cabinet of Ministers with consent of a 450-member parliament, which in turn had little control over the executive after these appointments.

This constitutional distribution of power was overhauled in the context of the 2004 presidential elections. The political opposition, supporting Viktor Yushchenko, claimed that mass voter fraud had led to the victory of Yushchenko’s opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, in the second round of these elections. After street protests - popularly referred to as the “Orange Revolution” - a revote was ordered by the Supreme Court, which was won by Yushchenko.

This transition was accompanied by amendments to the constitution. From 2006, a parliamentary coalition would appoint the Cabinet of Ministers. The respective reduction of power of the presidential office in favor of the parliament resulted in increased but highly unregulated competition between the parliamentary opposition and the president.

Eventually, Yanukovych did win the presidency through elections in 2010. In the same year, the Constitutional Court declared the 2004 amendments to be unconstitutional. As a result, the 1996 constitution was reinstituted, concentrating power in the hands of President Yanukovych. International critics, for example the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, considered this Court ruling to be the result of political pressure.

On the eve of Yanukovych’s ousting in February 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted to readopt the 2004 amendments to the constitution. As a result, Ukraine presently has a premier-presidential system, in which formally the Cabinet of Ministers is solely responsible to the parliament.

Influence of business elites on the political process

The development of Ukraine’s political institutions occurred in parallel to the country’s economic transition. State-owned enterprises were privatized and the Ukrainian market opened up to foreign trade and investment. The political and legal institutions that would ideally oversee this economic transition were often non-existent or underdeveloped. Accordingly, the reallocation of ownership into private hands and associated market reforms were - and continue to be - subject to the influence of interest groups.  

These outcomes are characterized by high concentrations of ownership within specific industries and the regional concentration of power of business groups.  The respective networks often seek political representation to align legislature with their interests and instrumentalize Ukraine’s legal bodies to further these same interests.

Ukraine’s political system has proven sensitive to penetration by these business interest groups. Most notably, in all but the 2006 and 2007 parliamentary elections, at least 50% of parliamentary seats were distributed through single-mandate districts. This design is believed to facilitate regional economic elites to apply local resources to win representation in the central legislative organ.

Weak rule of law undermines faith in state institutions

A weak rule of law has affected all spheres of society throughout the three decades of Ukrainian independence. This weak rule of law is both a central subject of reform programs, for example under the auspices of the EU, IMF, and OSCE, and a factor severely limiting progress in other areas of reform.

Ukrainian courts have notoriously been used, established and abolished by acting presidents; in political disputes with political opponents, for example in the confrontation between President Yushchenko and parliament in 2007-’08 and in the return to the 1996 constitution under Yanukovych.

Law enforcement bodies suffer a lack of credibility as they display inaction or work in favor of political or economic elites. And whereas the Ukrainian media spectrum has generally been viewed to operate relatively freely from direct governmental involvement, attacks on journalists and other civil society actors often go unpunished.

The consequences of a weak rule of law and a lack of institutional credibility are especially dire as Ukraine today seeks not only to end the war in the east, but also to reconcile conflicting groups. The faith in the independence and fairness of state institutions is a primary condition in the respective processes of conflict resolution and reconciliation.

Discord over geopolitical vector

Political parties associated with elites from the east and south of Ukraine have often advocated a continuation and strengthening of ties with Russia. Most notably, Yanukovych’s “Party of Regions” was built around economic elites from the Donbas, an area in East Ukraine known for its heavy industry and coal mines. From 2006-’14, the Party of Regions was the biggest party in Ukraine’s parliament.

Ukraine signed the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States Free Trade Agreement in 2011, positioning the country to enter a free trade zone with eight former Soviet republics. Moreover, Russian subsidies granted to Ukraine through low gas prices have long been used as leverage on the central government. The respective subsidies also increased the dependence on Russia of business groups that used cheap energy imports to maintain their dominance in heavy industries.

This continuation and intensification of Russian influence in Ukraine was opposed by parties with support bases predominantly concentrated in the central and western regions of the country. These parties propagated the further consolidation of the Ukrainian nation-state and/or sought integration with the European Union (EU). 

In 2007, under President Yushchenko, Ukraine and the EU started negotiations on an Association Agreement, which would deepen political and economic integration between both sides and include a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.

President Yanukovych did continue these negotiations and a draft agreement was reached. However, on 21 November 2013, the Ukrainian government announced the suspension of preparations for signing the Association Agreement with the EU, referring to negative effects on trade with Russia that were to result from entering the agreement. This announcement gave rise to mass protests that would eventually oust Yanukovych.