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The Moulding of Ukraine

Kataryna Wolczuk


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1The collapse of communist federations in Eastern and Central Europe radically reshaped the political map of the region. Beside the states that regained their independence, such as Latvia or Estonia, a number of new states were created, such as Ukraine, Belarus or Moldova, which had no or very limited previous experience of sovereign statehood. Even in ‘old’, established states, such as Poland or Hungary, the process of redefining the political, social and economic profile of the state after communism was hardly straightforward. Yet, in new states, the task was considerably more onerous. They had to simultaneously undertake an unprecedented array of essential tasks such as the political transformation of the state, socio-economic restructuring and redefinition of national identity within the context of the overarching project of state formation. As the new states emerged from the rubble of their respective federations, pivotal decisions had to be made on the shape of the polity: Who are the ‘sovereign people’? On what terms do individuals belong to the political community? What form of government best ensures efficiency and representation? What should the distribution of power in the centre-periphery relations be? What socio-economic goals ought the state to pursue? In seeking answers to these questions, the state-builders did not have tried-and-tested models to fall back on, as the pre-communist past offered few or no guidelines on how to organise and run the state. At the same time, seeking answers by looking to long-established states was hardly less fraught with difficulties. This was not only because of the plethora of alternative models available, but also because of the advanced insight needed into how foreign models might work in indigenous circumstances.

2In light of the magnitude of the task of state formation, the aim of this book is to trace the key decision-making moments in the process of creating the blueprint of a new state, using Ukraine as a case study. Constitutional politics in post-Soviet Ukraine are examined with the aim of shedding light on the origins and consequences of the adopted model of statehood. This study of constitution making traces the process of working out the conception of statehood in the new constitution, while the analysis of post-constitutional developments highlights the ramifications of the adopted institutional design.

3In embarking on a study of state building through the prism of the constitutional process, the book adopts the premise that the function of a written constitution is not necessarily limited to that of a pre-requisite for liberal constitutionalism. Following the collapse of communism, Central and Eastern Europe experienced an upsurge of constitution making, and one state after another promulgated new fundamental laws. The evident trust in the value of written constitutions tends to be explained by the yearning for constitutionalism, that is a limited government that respects individual rights and freedoms, after years of communist ‘constitutionalism’. Yet it is not the only purpose of the constitutions. Notwithstanding the aspirations to constitutionalism, the constitution is a founding document of a state. Not only does it symbolically affirm newly acquired sovereignty; it also defines the institutional, territorial and cultural parameters of the polity.

4The framing of new constitutions is rarely accompanied by consensus on the model of the state, which the constitution is to assert and define. Being a profoundly political act with a pivotal bearing on the future life of a polity, constitution making in polities with at least some degree of pluralism and democratic contestation is bound to elicit conflicting ideas and interests. In the case of Ukraine the achievement of such a consensus proved to be a truly formidable task because political actors, who engaged in constitution making, lacked even the minimal common depository of ideals, values and beliefs to build on. The roots of this disagreement can be found in Ukraine’s history, which was marked by a circumscribed tradition of statehood. The past saddled Ukraine with diverse political experiences, levels of national awareness and adherence to different ideologies by the various segments of Ukrainian society. Therefore, despite the seemingly widely desired and almost uncontested passage to independence in 1991, orchestrated by the communist elites in tandem with the democratic opposition, the actual meaning of independence in Ukraine was far from understood and shared. Independence was gained before the essential thinking was done on the shape of the new state. This was reflected in the procrastination on constitution making in the first years of independence. But once the task could not be postponed any longer, it proved to be onerous. Divided by their interpretations of the pre-Soviet and Soviet past, some actors put forward different normative conceptions of statehood, while others, more narrowly mindedly, sought to take advantage of the opportunity to mould the institutional framework to their own liking. Therefore, constitution making engendered the contestation and reconciliation of different models of statehood, which were anchored in diverse interpretations of Ukraine’s history, as well as numerous individual and group interests. The difficulties in their reconciliation account not only for the delay in the promulgation and the mode of passage of the constitution—Ukraine was the last amongst the post-Soviet states to adopt a new constitution in 1996 in a dramatic although peaceful climax— but also for the shortcomings of the constitutional design.

5By removing the ideological and institutional residuals of the Soviet state model, the new fundamental 1996 law ‘constituted’ Ukraine as a modern, European nation-state with its homogenising aspirations and uniform institutional set-up. The passage of the constitution was heralded as a landmark victory for the ‘European option’ in post-Soviet Ukraine. In this context, the constitution functioned as a political manifesto. That the conservative Left failed in its attempt to preserve most of ‘Soviet constitutional achievements’ can be attributed to the informal alliance of the moderate right-wing and the president, who discovered much synergy in their views on the need to consolidate the state. In particular, the agenda of nation- and state building made the former democratic opposition pursue constitutional choices that it would otherwise eschew.

6However, the constitution did not lead to greater political stability, a necessary precondition for the realisation of the professed goal of Ukraine’s integration with Europe. The design of the legislative-executive relations put the branches of government on a collision course, something, which jeopardised the constitutional order by inducing conflict and uncertainty. Most of all, the hope for a strong presidency as an institution conducive to the consolidation of the state and implementation of the reforms has proved exaggerated. The aggrandisement of the institution has stifled the progress of democratisation and ‘rule of law’, while not delivering the promised economic recovery. The case of Ukraine demonstrates the discrepancy between the role of the constitution as a symbol and attribute of sovereign statehood, and its actual role in organising the machinery of the state, which is not necessarily conducive to the consolidation of a constitutional, democratic state.

7The book consists of eight chapters. The first chapter examines the conceptual framework for the study of state building through the prism of the constitutional process in new states. It puts forward an argument that the role constitutions perform varies in different polities: in new states, notwithstanding possible aspirations to constitutionalism, constitutions also play a state-building role. Chapter 2 surveys Ukraine’s past in order to provide both a historical overview of the circumscribed tradition of statehood and explain the reasons for the lack of clear-cut precommunist models, which could have been restored in post-Soviet Ukraine, even if there was agreement on such a ‘restoration’. Chapter 3 takes a closer look at the pivotal years, which witnessed the end of the Soviet Union and emergence of independent Ukraine. It is argued that Ukraine’s passage to independence in 1990–1991 was a result of the confluence of factors amongst which the re-orientation of the key section of the Ukrainian communist elite stands out. However, the rapid pace of disengagement in Kyiv–Moscow relations is contrasted with the reluctance of the national communist elites to abandon the Soviet model, both in institutional and ideological terms, as a template inspiration for the constitutional framework of ‘sovereign Ukraine’. Chapter 4 scrutinises the dismal record of constitutional reforms in the chaotic first years of Ukraine’s independence. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with the re-launched constitution-making process in the aftermath of the 1994 presidential and parliamentary elections. Apart from analysing the impact of the elections on the constellation of political forces, chapter 5 examines the preferences for the model of the state—that is the form of government, the territorial—administrative model and the concept of the political community—put forward by the main political forces. While the models advocated by the Left and Right were diametrically opposed to each other, the presence of the president and the centrist forces added to the complexity of the matrix of preferences. Chapter 6 investigates the process of the contestation and reconciliation of the preferences. The dynamics of constitution drafting over 1995–1996 are examined in order to account for the peaceful passage of the constitution, despite the underlying tensions, and explain how actors’ strategies either enabled or prevented them from shaping the content of the constitution. The product of the seven-year project, that is the conception of statehood that was enshrined in the new constitution, is analysed in the penultimate chapter. It is argued that not only did the passage of the constitution itself symbolise a critical threshold in the formation of a polity, but also that the content of the constitution was driven by the imperatives of state building. Thanks to the final dismantling of the Soviet model, the constitution contains the blueprint of Ukraine as a modern, European nation-state. But as chapter 8 argues this was achieved at the price of adopting institutional choices, which contributed to political instabilities and handicapped the process of democratisation. By examining the protracted legislative–executive conflict since the passage of the constitution, the chapter draws attention to the unforeseen consequences of the constitutional choices, insofar as the form of government was concerned.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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