Post-Soviet parliamentarian drama: a view from ‘the gods’ in Kiev

The political history of Russia’s neighbours can be described in terms of one long conflict between a presidential authoritarian tendency and democratic parliamentarianism. Parliaments are the key.

Mikhail Minakov
22 February 2016


Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. Martin Schulz/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Contemporary post-Soviet nations’ achievements and setbacks directly coincide with the development of representative parliaments, fair electoral systems and political pluralism. National dialogue and orientation for the public good is supported mainly by the parliaments – at least in those former Soviet countries (fSU) that still have them.

Post-Soviet polities are quite a recent invention. Fabricated out of Soviet totalitarian and post-totalitarian institutions, the ‘perestroika’ political inventions, and liberal-nationalist experiments of the early 1990’s, the development of the newly independent states has been fuelled by a tragic tension between authoritarian and democratic trends since 1991 until the present day.

In this 25-year-long political drama, post-Soviet presidential institutions have been a cradle for despotic inventions while parliaments (central and local) were busy limiting anti-democratic tendencies and – though with meagre results so far – were able to promote democratic politics.

Parliamentarian traditions

The parliamentarian and local self-governance traditions of the late Russian imperial era (1864-1917) ceased to exist during the revolutionary experiments of 1917-1924. Imperial parliamentary processes started from the local self-governance reforms of the 1860’s that ended up in the creation of the central imperial parliament in 1906. The February revolution in Saint-Petersburg, the launch of a temporary republican cabinet and preparation of an establishment assembly, the movement of the councils of workers and peasants (Soviets), not to mention the creation of national parliaments in the former imperial provinces (i.e. Tsentralna Rada [Central Council, 1917-18] in Ukraine, or Sfatul Ţării [the Country Counsel] in Moldova 1918) – these are just a few examples of the political creativity of those nations that generated new forms of emancipatory political institutions between Warsaw and Vladivostok.

Yet most of them were short-lived. The victory of the Bolsheviks and establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics broke with most of the parliamentary traditions in swift succession, while the emancipatory potential of the Soviets was corrupted by the totalitarian practices of the Bolshevik party.1

Supreme councils

The Soviet Union formally preserved its parliaments in the form of the USSR Supreme Council, and republican supreme councils. Yet the elections to these parliaments were a tragicomic imitation of citizens’ voting. The supreme councils were a place neither for decision-making nor for debate. They were totally controlled by one party.

However, the repetition of certain practices from one generation to another can take an institutional form. In the case of the Soviet parliaments, this was a strange configuration, whose major task was the imitation of public debate and fake representation of constituencies. The Soviet-imitated parliament, having become habituated to the belief that strategic decisions are made by some informal group (whether this is the Politburo, Central Committee of the ruling Party, a group of oligarchs, or a presidential administration)2 while the formal public space is unworthy of notice. Soviet political culture promoted (and still promotes in many fSU countries) the civic instinct that a parliament is an imitation of due political process.

This tradition was questioned and somewhat ruined in 1988 when the first free elections took place into the USSR Supreme Council. In the following year the republican parliaments were also elected. These parliaments buried the USSR in 1990-1991 and started a new era of political development oriented towards political pluralism and market economy.

Perestroika’s two faces

Simultaneous with the democratic parliamentary process, the perestroika era of the USSR also established a new political institute with strong authoritarian potential: a president. The first Soviet president was elected in 1990 by the USSR Supreme Council. It was Mikhail Gorbachev, the Communist Party leader, who proceeded to use legislation to shore up his dominant position through parliament.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, presidential and parliamentary institutes entered into competition in most post-Soviet countries. The political history of independent Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and/or Ukraine can be described in terms of a long-term conflict between a presidential authoritarian tendency and democratic parliamentarianism.

Conversely, in certain moments, the presidents could promote liberal agendas while the parliamentary democratic consensus was being shaped by extreme anti-liberal programmes. An example of the latter is the military subjugation of Russia’s Duma by President Yeltsin in 1993.3 Another example was the struggle (also deploying the use of military force) of Zviad Gamsakhurdia and the Georgian Supreme Council in 1990-92.4

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, post-Soviet regimes in Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine had stabilised after the political and socio-economic crisis of the 1990’s. Economic stability brought with it normalised markets and some entrepreneurial successes. But political stability was gained mostly as a result of the parliaments’ subjugation at the hands of the presidents.


In Belarus, President Lukashenko established an undisputed authoritarian regime where the Cabinet and parliament were once again a set of institutions imitating government, whereas the presidential administration informally took the government reins for itself. The Soviet legacy was probably the most influential here in shaping the formal and informal institutional setup. Up until today, both parliamentary culture and political pluralism are almost entirely absent from this country.5

In Russia, the liberal reforms of the 1990’s were reversed by the long reign of President Putin. A slow decline of parliamentarianism in 2003-2011 coincided with the degeneration of media freedoms and the fake imitation of party pluralism. With the destruction of NTV’s independence, all major mass media fell under the undisputed control of the Kremlin. Political parties controlled by the presidential administration have slowly become the only parliamentarian forces. Political power as it has become concentrated in the so-called ‘power parties’ has grown to resemble that of the Soviet CPSU.

Other dependent political groupings shaped a ‘systemic opposition’ that imitated criticism and debate while supporting the president in all of his initiatives. The independent political parties have moved to the margins of the political process. Oligarchic groups, which initially supported political pluralism in the Yeltsin era, have signed off the first Putinist social contract and have been subsequently removed from political decision-making in favour of guaranteed economic stability and property rights. The rest of the population has been slowly entering into the patron-client networks that distribute the oil money. Under such conditions, client-voters were bad citizens, and supported the decrease in civil freedoms.

“Putin’s revolution” in 2011-13 used the achievements of established authoritarian governance to destroy any remaining liberties. Peaceful association, civic assemblies, political opposition, minimal sectoral media freedoms, the autonomy of local authorities, and the residual rights of the federal lands were all legally devastated.6 All these decisions were formally endorsed by the Russian Duma.

An institution imitating parliament, the Duma, turned out to be a space for declaring the most odious political ideas and anti-democratic initiatives: war with neighbours, anti-western propaganda, accusations against liberal NGOs alleged to be foreign agents etc. The quintessence of the parliamentary degeneration in Russia was well expressed by Boris Gryzlov: “Duma is not a place for discussions!”

Unlike Belarus and Russia, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council) has been an institution that in critical moments in recent history has managed to defend its own independence and the civil liberties of its constituencies. In the last 25 years Ukraine has survived two revolutionary cycles (1991-2004 and 2005-2014), and it was the Rada that twice provided the platform for conflict resolution and the defence of core human rights.

The aforementioned revolutionary cycles started with the promise of political liberties and economic freedoms in 1992 and 2005. Quite soon the oligarchic groups and presidents started forgetting their promises. In the competition between the financial-political groups (FGP) that controlled major private sector industries, publicly-owned companies and core posts in government, parliament and courts, one group usually took over the presidential post. In the clash of FGPs the public good disappeared soon enough from the political agenda, parliament degenerating fast through the marginalisation of the opposition, and the co-optation of the judiciary into an integral part of the ‘power vertical’.7 With time, presidents promoted the interests of their groups to the extent that they united other oligarchic groups and grassroots protesters against these authoritarian rulers, jointly chasing them down.

And at moments of the deepest political crisis, with a totally dysfunctional central government exacerbated by separatist insurgencies in 2004 and 2014, it was the Rada that found a way to save the polity and afford the Ukrainian republic one more chance at a democratic solution.

After Euromaidan

After the Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea and the most bloody period of the on-going Donbas war (August 2014 – August 2015), parliament remains one of the major factors of Ukraine’s democratic reconstruction and a space promising to reinstate public dialogue in a country severely fragmented by war, separatism, and poverty.

After relatively free and fair elections in October 2014, the ruling coalition united pro-reform factions with a sufficient number of MPs to alter the constitution, taking critical measures to limit corruption in the public sector. Those reforms that have already been introduced in Ukraine have made government more responsive, as well as bringing order to the dispensing of public services, granting some autonomy to local authorities, and making fair elections possible. The de-centralisation and de-oligarchisation of the justice sector, and implementation of tax reforms are much less successful so far.8 Yet the parliament is still a place where you can hear different voices and look for a nationwide consensus.

Among the biggest risks for parliamentarian democracy in Ukraine is the marginalisation of the opposition. Those groups who entered the electoral campaign opposing government in 2014 head none of the parliamentary committees. The leaders of the parliament’s opposition groups are under criminal investigation. Basically, the post-Soviet tradition of polymorphous pressure on the opposition is intact and in place in post-Maidan Ukraine.

Another risk for any functioning parliament in Ukraine is the way the coalition works. Although Ukraine is formally a parliamentary-presidential republic, where coalition is a tool for the oversight of the government, the leaders of the executive branch use it to legalise their initiatives without further discussion. The infamous ‘de-communisation’ laws were approved in exactly this manner.9

In 2015, too many laws were approved without proper discussion and through simplified procedures. The exclusion of MPs from proper legislative processes and the systemic intervention of the president and the prime minister into parliamentary processes with the aim of limiting discussions resulted in several crises for the coalition, and a stalemate for constitutional reform. Some MPs, groups, and one faction have already abandoned the coalition.

Yet, despite the fact that these perverse forms of post-Soviet politics are present in the work of the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada remains the place for debates and for the representation of most of the constituencies of Ukraine.

There is a more disturbing situation with the parliaments of Central Asia. Here, the post-Soviet controversy between presidents and parliaments was soon resolved through the establishment of despotic regimes. Rulers of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have created isolated authoritarian regimes that combine post-Soviet totalitarian institutions with traditional Central Asian monarchic modes of domination.10 Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are more open societies and economies, but their authoritarian rules are strict and inflexible.11

Kyrgyzstan’s parliament tells a somewhat different story. A weak link in the chain of Central Asian dictatorships, the Kyrgyz citizens have tried to restore their republic. The Tulip Revolution (2005) triggered an ambivalent process: it opened up an opportunity for the Zhogorku Kenesh (the Kyrgyzstani parliament) to restore its public and representative nature; however, this was swiftly overtaken by tragic civil conflict and attempts to establish authoritarian rule.12 The parliamentary elections in October 2015 showed that society in Kyrgyzstan enjoys political pluralism, yet this has not so far ensured that Kyrgyzstan joins the ranks of representative democracies. Still, for the future of democracy in post-Soviet Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan plays a critical role: its mild authoritarian pluralism leaves space for the slow strengthening of parliamentary democracy and civil society.13 These processes may have an emancipatory impact on all neighbouring nations.

An overview

To sum up, 25 years after gaining independence the post-Soviet political geography is now defined by five groups of countries and territories if measured by the effectiveness of their parliaments:

  1. Fully-functioning democracies with strong parliaments (three Baltic countries);
  2. Partially-functioning democracies whose parliaments are guardians of democratic practices (Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Ukraine);
  3. Fully-fledged authoritarian regimes without functioning parliaments (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan);14
  4. Un-recognised authoritarian polities of Abkhazia, Karabakh, South Ossetia and Transnistria, where parliaments are important parts of political systems, functioning to preserve some civil rights for their constituencies;15
  5. Un-recognised military-run territories of Donbas without representative legislatures.

Since the first group of countries has detached itself from the post-Soviet space, their successful experience of introducing EU standards of political life is not applicable for the more than 12 other fSU countries. The future of democracy in the post-Soviet region is fully dependent on the successful reforms of Ukraine and similar countries. The key player in making reforms successful and creating stable support for democratic practices is a parliament.

  1. See Hannah Arendt’s (1965) On Revolution (London: Penguin Books). ↩︎
  2. The role of informal institutions in the post-Soviet political institutions is described in detail here: Mikhail Minakov, ‘A Decisive Turn? Risks for Democracy in the post-Maidan Ukraine’, Carnegie Endowment for Democracy, February 3, 2016. ↩︎
  3. Stephen White (1997) ‘Russia: Presidential Leadership under Yeltsin’, in: Ray Taras, ed., Postcommunist Presidents (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 57ff. ↩︎
  4. For more information please see: Glenn E. Curtis (ed.) (1994) Georgia: A Country Study, (Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress). ↩︎
  5. For more information please see: Andrew Wilson (2011) Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship, (Stamford: Yale University Press). ↩︎
  6. For more information please see: Richard Sakwa (2014) Putin Redux: Power and Contradiction in Contemporary Russia, (London: Routledge). ↩︎
  7. On post-Soviet ‘power vertical’ political systems please see: Vladimir Gelman and Sergei Ryzhenkov (2011) ‘Local regimes, sub-national governance and the “power vertical” in contemporary russia’, Europe-Asia Studies (63:3), p.449ff. ↩︎
  8. More in-depth bi-monthly assessments of the Ukrainian reforms are available from Ukraine Reform Monitor (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). ↩︎
  9. For more information on these laws, see this balanced assessment from the special commission of the Council of Europe. ↩︎
  10. For more information please see: David Lewis (2015) ‘“Illiberal Spaces”: Uzbekistan's extraterritorial security practices and the spatial politics of contemporary authoritarianism’, Nationalities Papers, (43:1), 140-159; and Abel Polese and Slavomir Horák (2015) ‘A tale of two presidents: personality cult and symbolic nation-building in Turkmenistan’, Nationalities Papers, (43:3), 457-478. ↩︎
  11. For more information please see: Matthew Stein (2013) ‘Unraveling the violence in Kazakhstan’, Small Wars & Insurgencies, (24:3) 394-412; and Lawrence P. Markowitz (2012), ‘Tajikistan: authoritarian reaction in a postwar state’, Democratization, (19:1), 98-119. ↩︎
  12. For more information please see: Andrew Baruch Wachtel (2013) ‘Kyrgyzstan: between democratization and ethnic intolerance’, Nationalities Papers, (41:6), 971-986. ↩︎
  13. An interesting perspective is provided here: Baktybek Beshimov and Ryskeldi Satke, ‘Kyrgyzstan: The Next Ukraine?The Diplomat. ↩︎
  14. More assessment of the two above country groups is made by Freedom House Index ‘Freedom in the World’. ↩︎
  15. Political systems of these polities are under-studied. But there is enough evidence to show that the parliaments here play important roles in advocating basic rights of their populations. For more information about un-recognised post-Soviet nations please see: Laurence Broers, Alexander Iskandaryan and Sergey Minasyan (2015) ‘Introduction: the unrecognised politics of de facto states in the post-Soviet space’, Caucasus Survey, (3:3) 187-194. ↩︎

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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