KIEV — Yugoslavia is in political crisis; Eastern Europe is yet again living up to its reputation for volatility. But recent elections have delivered both stability and hope further east.
Ukraine, formerly the second-largest republic in the Soviet Union, recently marked the 10th anniversary of its declaration of independence. Also warranting celebration is the new direction taken by the Ukrainian Parliament.
Last January, reformers led by Viktor Medvedchuk, now first deputy chairman of the Rada, ousted its neocommunist leaders. Medvedchuk had been a lawyer in the old Soviet Union. His father was a Ukrainian independence activist who was exiled in the 1940s. This double experience helped Medvedchuk realize that “the most important thing was to create a system to defend the rights of the individual.” As an attorney, Medvedchuk’s duties included the unenviable task of representing dissidents, who were inevitably convicted. “Under the old system, lawyers were like a piece of furniture,” he explains.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, he became president of Ukraine’s union of lawyers. He helped draft the country’s constitution and worked to “create rights for lawyers of Ukraine” and “more important, the legal base for expanding the rights of Ukrainian citizens.”
He first ran for Parliament in 1994, falling just short of victory. After a stint as a presidential adviser, he won a special election in 1997 and was elected deputy chairman, Parliament’s third-ranking position, in July 1998.
At the time, leftists ran the legislature. The result was little reform and a shrinking economy. But after President Leonid Kuchma’s re-election last fall, Medvedchuk says that “supporters of the president’s course of reform” decided to act, forming what has been called the New Majority. Victory was not easy: The incumbent leaders attempted to block any votes. Fist fights broke out on the legislative floor.
Medvedchuk and his supporters eventually prevailed. They ousted the chairman and first deputy chairman and rid the parliamentary building of its old Soviet-era symbols, including a giant seal featuring the hammer and sickle.
With “the re-election of President Kuchma and the emergence of the new majority in Parliament, I consider it to be the start of a new epoch,” Medvedchuk observes. During its first nine years of independence, Ukraine “never had a time when all branches — legislative, executive and president — were in accord on key issues.”
In his view, earlier governments wanted to improve conditions in Ukraine. But sending proposals to the Parliament was “like having them fall into a black hole.” Medvedchuk now proudly points to Parliament’s recent record. “For the first time we have adopted a budget without a deficit,” he says.
A privatization program was approved “where residents of Ukraine and nonresidents of Ukraine enjoy equal rights.” Today, he emphasizes, “foreign investors can come and be on an equal footing with Ukraine parties.”
Equally important, he notes, “for the first time we looked at serious land reform, where land would become an active commodity that can be sold and bought.” This summer, that measure received its first of three required readings. When Parliament finalizes the legislation, Medvedchuk predicts, more “investors will come to Ukraine.”
Parliament has been working on taxes since 1996. Only this summer did reform legislation receive its first reading. The goal is to create a “stable environment for investors to work in.” Telecommunications privatization has been on the agenda for three years; the bill’s first reading was in July.
Even more momentous is work on a new civil code. “The civil code in this country was adopted in 1961,” explains Medvedchuk. Legislators have now passed the code in its second reading, with final passage expected soon. In Medvedchuk’s view, Parliament had no choice but to act: “The time has finally come when we should not talk of reform, but actually do something.”
Medvedchuk is particularly hopeful that foreign investors will take note. “For the first time we have gone from mere declarations to actual decisions,” he says.
What can other nations do to help? Unlike many foreign leaders, Medvedchuk doesn’t blame others for his country’s problems: “The most important responsibility lies with the Ukrainian people, with the Ukraine itself. I believe that help goes to those who do something first.”
After a decade of independence, Ukraine continues to face enormous challenges. Yet the emergence of reform-minded leaders such as Medvedchuk provides new hope that Ukraine is moving, however unsteadily, to take its rightful place in the international community.
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