Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada is famously dysfunctional and full of parliamentarians who engage in shady business practices and other assorted unethical behaviors. The parliament is badly in need of a well written code of ethics.
The Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, is (in)famous the world over for phenomena which include but are not limited to: fist fights, populist political showboating, and being the most exclusive business club in the country. It is however certainly not known for possessing a robust sense of integrity, individual morality, or the group ethic that is commonly associated with democracy and good governance. There is fact a vast chasm at the centre of the Verkhovna Rada where ethics should be. Since independence in 1991, no expeditionary force has yet ever to be sent into that void with the hope of groping around in the darkness and returning with the building blocks of parliamentary ethics.
The situation of Ukraine’s parliamentary ethics is one that has yet to be confronted. The concept of parliamentary work is one that requires framing within an ethical context and within certain expectations of political behavior both within and beyond the office. A society that is light years ahead of its parliament in terms of democratic values cannot continue to endure legislators who feel no obligation to consider the moral and ethical outcomes of their actions. While this negative perception continues within the domestic constituency and among external observers, there is little chance of increasing trust in the drivers behind national legislature. Given the almost inseparable melding of business and personal interests in the politics of many Ukrainian parliamentarians, there may be tangible gains in tackling corruption. In this context, the creation, adoption and enforcement of a parliamentary ethical code of practice would seem to be a necessary compliment to anti-corruption legislation and the national reform process.
But what should such a code look like? No two nations have exactly the same code of ethics for their State institutions. All vary to take into account national peculiarities, and any Ukrainian ethical code could not be a simple carbon copy of another nation’s code. There are numerous areas of overlap between anti-corruption legislation and any future parliamentary ethics code. Conflicts of interest, lobbying, advocacy, declaration of vested interests, and the receipt of “gifts” above a certain value are just the tip of a larger iceberg, and do not constitute an exhaustive list of issues where ethical and legislative lines can be smudged.
For any parliamentary code of ethics to have any hope of being adhered to, several concerns need to be addressed, including the one of code enforcement when parliamentarians stray or deliberately choose to ignore it. There is a necessity for a body to hear the issues, and to decide upon clearly identified and meaningful punishment for infractions. How the representatives in this body are chosen, and how they would identify a breach of parliamentary ethics would also have to be determined. An ethics committee with the power to discipline seems the simplest answer. All parliamentarians must be fully aware of what the code of ethics contains as well as the expectations set upon them. There would also have to be understandings about any possible exceptions. Perhaps a “handbook” could be issued to all parliamentarians, with a required signature upon receipt signifying not only familiarity with the contents, but also unquestioned agreement to abide by the code.
A recurring issue with Ukrainian legislature is that too often it creates legal text that either heads into unnecessary microscopic detail, or is left so broad as to be almost unenforceable. When creating an ethics code, care needs to be taken for it to be neither too restrictive, nor too slack without meaningful consequences imposed for those that transgress.
Approaching the issue of ethics for the Ukrainian parliament, simple yet pertinent questions need to be asked. What do Ukrainian parliamentarians consider their role to be, aside from furthering personal interests? What does the Ukrainian constituency perceive their current role to be, and what could their role be instead? Where are the gaps between the former and the latter? Is there any point to having a parliamentary code of ethics when all the parliamentarians enjoy absolute immunity from the law?
Whether absolute immunity should be retained or not, Ukrainian deputies will have to act according to the Constitution of Ukraine and to uphold the law at all times. Such things are generally included within the Oath when taking office, and equally generally ignored, but a reminder in the form of an ethics code with disciplinary consequences is entirely appropriate. Perhaps if the members of parliament are failing to find the courage to remove their own immunity en masse and permanently, then the ethics code could state that such immunity will not shield them against the just application of the law. Thereby immunity will be lifted as a matter of course unless it can be shown that the application of the law would be unjust. However, taking the events of Euro Maidan and the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ as a guide, there may have to be room for a narrow caveat to exercise civil disobedience in support of democracy or human rights issues.
An ethical code should also contain an imperative for each parliamentarian to insure that the national laws that they personally draft and vote for, comply with the obligations and commitments to international law and treaties to which the nation has entered. As recent Ukrainian history underlines, it would be wise to institutionalize certain attitudes regarding protecting and promoting democracy. In the usually fractious, dirty and nefarious Ukrainian political world, undertaking to accept legitimate democratic outcomes is a necessary condition. A duty to pluralistic and tolerant discourse both within and without parliament is worthy of inclusion in the code – that is within the bounds of tolerance, for there are of course limits to tolerating the intolerable. Considering the Verkhovna Rada often resembles a Roman gladiatorial theatre, clearly an absolute ban on physical violence and intimidation will have to be included. There may be a need for a requirement that a parliamentarian condemns unconditionally any violent actions whenever they occur. Any such actions clearly bring the institution into disrepute and should not be suffered without meaningful recourse.
There is currently little fear of the shrinking space for civil society returning to Ukraine as witnessed under the Yanukovych regime. Nevertheless, an ethical code should oblige parliamentarians to insure a broad and fertile space for civil society, because it is not a document written just for a particular moment in time. It is a code of somewhat eternal nature, albeit having to stay in step with societal ethics as they too change and evolve over time. It would also be wise, if not a necessity in Ukraine’s current state of development, to include a solemn undertaking not to undermine or nefariously influence the institutions of State. Phrasing it as a duty to advocate for and protect all democratic institutions would also cleverly put a positive veneer upon such an issue.
Sadly, it would be quite necessary to include a specific reminder to deputies that they do indeed serve the public and not merely themselves. This could be framed as a public interest clause making it absolutely clear that their duties within the Verkhovna Rada are to create and implement effective governance. These duties could be fulfilled through the legislation they write and pass, through their participation in committee debate, through regularly turning up to work at the Verkhovna Rada (in far too many MP’s case this needs needs to be spelled outright). When absent from the Verkhovna Rada, unless on sanctioned holiday or on official delegation visits, parliamentarians should be obliged to be engaging with, representing, and serving their constituents. There must be accessibility that goes far beyond having a Facebook page or a generic email address which always goes unanswered.
It seems some consideration regarding interaction with the media will be required too. Neither Ukrainian parliamentarians, nor the Ukrainian media have much in the way of constituency credit when it comes to ethics. What level of political spin, half-truth and fairytale is acceptable before it becomes unethical?What of social media interaction when a parliamentarian’s Facebook seeks to cut out an equally unethical media conduit? The cleverer way may be not to deal with media interaction specifically within an ethics code. Rather, it might fall within a wider clause relating to transparency, good will, and good faith with regard to all public interaction.
Theoretically, the more time filled with national politics and the more obligations contained within an ethics code, the less time the would be available for furthering personal and vested interests. It would seem foolish not to use an ethics code to try and force a wedge between the business interests and political duties of each parliamentarian. However the absence of a codified ethics is addressed, it cannot be ignored indefinitely. If the Verkhovna Rada confronts this issue and adopts such a code, it could set an example that would seep into the regional legislatures and other State institutions as well. The Ukrainian policy arena will suffer if it does not do so.