Outrage Sparked in Ukraine by Parliament Speaker's Efforts to Sabotage Opposition Internationally

Wednesday, 10 January 2024 — , European Pravda
Credit: AFP/East News
The Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine Ruslan Stefanchuk during his visit to the European Parliament. Strasbourg, 8 June 2022

As 2023 became 2024, Ukraine realised it was going through a tough time in terms of foreign policy.

Ukraine has already witnessed a temporary halt in US financial assistance, while funds for weaponry are running out. The latest EU funding has also been delayed. While both programmes will likely be approved later, the delay sends out a troubling signal, and the extent of support remains uncertain.

Only a year ago, global assistance to Ukraine was unconditional. Now, even key partners are explicitly stating that this period is over and are making demands related to the implementation of structural reforms. 

Another change concerns the taboo on political criticism of Kyiv,

which will come to an end in 2024. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s parliamentary leadership sometimes does things that make the situation worse.

Up to now, Ukraine's partners have turned a blind eye to democracy issues that are inevitable during wartime.

That silence is likely to end in 2024, and Ukraine's actions are bringing this moment closer. Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk, in violation of parliamentary principles, has unilaterally restricted the international activities of other Members of Parliament (MPs) and political parties, including the opposition.

Stefanchuk has curtailed rights to hold political meetings abroad and restricted the work of Ukrainian delegations in inter-parliamentary assemblies. The parliamentary leader gives the impression that he does not comprehend the consequences of his actions.

PACE: Halting on the Brink

Ukraine is not yet an EU member, but it does belong to the Council of Europe, a pan-European organisation based in Strasbourg. An important political component of this forum is the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which does not adopt binding decisions but often shapes European political processes.

January brought good news for Ukraine in PACE, with a preliminary decision from the Conservative Group that Ukrainian MP Oleksii Honcharenko is to become the chairman of the Committee on Migration and Refugees according to the conservatives' quota.

The committee’s chairman gains an influential international platform, becomes part of the PACE Bureau, and influences the planning of decision-making for the assembly as a whole. This is a significant political asset for Ukraine, especially considering the importance of issues related to Ukrainian refugees.

Honcharenko is an experienced member of PACE, having worked in the assembly for many years and built up international connections. However, he represents the opposition Ukrainian party European Solidarity and is a harsh critic of the government at home, which has seemingly led Speaker Stefanchuk to consider recalling him from the Ukrainian delegation.

The decision to appoint Honcharenko to the PACE position undermines plans to "punish" him.

Taking Honcharenko off the list of assembly members would be an unwise move for Kyiv right now.

Moreover, several of European Pravda's sources have reported that Kyiv has been given a warning by Strasbourg, which is keeping a close eye on any potential persecution of the opposition. They are not going to stay silent this time.

An interim resolution will come very soon. In a few days, the Speaker is expected to provide Strasbourg with a list of the members of the Ukrainian delegation who will be participating in the winter session from 22 January. If Honcharenko is not among them, it will create serious problems for Ukraine. If he is, problems will still arise, but they will arise later.

Rules of Censorship for Members of Parliament

Those who follow Ukrainian politics closely may have seen reports that Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk has once again restricted the right of MPs to go on official trips. There have been several high-profile scandals over the past few months when opposition MPs have been excluded from meetings with international partners.

Given the recent scandals this issue has attracted considerable media attention. Especially since there have been several issues with order No. 1367, including the requirement for MPs to receive "Foreign Ministry-approved talking points and comments for MPs regarding the implementation of foreign policy" before any trip abroad.

This new requirement is pure nonsense as far as European parliamentarism is concerned.

At the same time, the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada (who is not, in fact, the "leader" of MPs according to the constitution and does not have the right to impose such requirements and restrictions) signed order No. 1366, which poses no less of a threat to Ukraine.

This document regulates the rules governing the appointment of MPs to Ukraine's delegations in over 10 inter-parliamentary organisations, with PACE at the top of the list.

Essentially, the speaker proposes to change the entire principle on which delegations are formed for inter-parliamentary work. For example, PACE and some other assemblies have a strict rule that the composition of delegations must proportionally represent all parliamentary parties. The parties themselves delegate their representatives in all Council of Europe countries without exception.

Because of Stefanchuk's decision, Ukraine has become the first and only country in Europe where parties are now deprived of the right to independently choose their representatives. The Speaker's decisions mean that candidates, including those from the opposition, can also be proposed by committees where the majority is from the ruling party. This is to provide the speaker with a broad list of opposition representatives from which he can choose the most loyal ones to participate in events abroad.

Another absurd provision states that "a Ukrainian MP can only be part of one permanent delegation".

Currently, several MPs sit on multiple assemblies simultaneously, since international affairs need to be handled by experts in international affairs. The Speaker wants people who have no expertise in international affairs to represent Ukraine at international meetings.

This is ridiculous! No such rule exists anywhere else in Europe or the rest of the world.

The last major problem is that Stefanchuk has granted himself the right to independently make decisions "on the premature exclusion [of any MP]... from the permanent delegation in the event of action or inaction by him/her that poses a threat to the national interests of Ukraine or discredits the Verkhovna Rada". The person who judges whether there has been any "discrediting of the Verkhovna Rada" is expected to be – you guessed it – Ruslan Stefanchuk.

Under the new rules, all he needs to do to implement this punishment is to meet with the "offending" MP and the "relevant candidate".

In essence, the Speaker has introduced the right of unilateral control over the opposition’s international activities and the right to punish opposition MPs for criticising the government. This is unacceptable. It’s what dictatorships do, not democracies.

Don't Step into the Abyss

Kyiv's new initiatives have not been well received by its partners. According to European Pravda, PACE representatives have already warned their counterparts in the Verkhovna Rada that violations of principles will not be tolerated. If appointments violate quotas or candidates are put forward by a party that did not delegate them, this will automatically result in the delegation's authority being challenged, with unpleasant political consequences for Ukraine.

This won’t just affect Honcharenko, who will likely hold onto his position due to his role. The arbitrary replacement of any MP by the Speaker could trigger a chain reaction. There is hope that following these warnings, Kyiv will understand what is at stake and refrain from exercising the powers that Stefanchuk has granted himself.

However, this won't solve the problem systemically. The arbitrary restriction on MPs' foreign trips by the Verkhovna Rada’s leadership has already exhausted the patience of our Western partners. Lately, Ukrainian experts and journalists are increasingly being asked about this by Western diplomats and politicians, especially after recent controversial decisions such as the travel ban on Poroshenko, which has also been covered by key Western media.

During 2024, this issue will officially become the subject of a PACE-level investigation. Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party member Serhii Vlasenko, an experienced opposition member of PACE, has already been appointed as the rapporteur for a special resolution on the restriction of MPs' travel to the assembly's events.

"This isn’t just a Ukrainian issue," Vlasenko told European Pravda. "There are other countries that, to a lesser extent than us, also create obstacles for MPs' trips. And when I’m asked whether the Ukrainian issue will be investigated, I will answer: yes, of course!"

Vlasenko predicted that the resolution will be drafted during 2024 so that it can go to committee hearings in the autumn and be approved early next year. This will signify the official lifting of Europe’s taboo on criticising Kyiv and actions that, frankly, are manifestations of political censorship and obstruction of the opposition.

The West has remained silent for two years to avoid rebuking Ukraine as it fights an existential war, but the trends noticeable in the government's decisions are alarming to many. And so this grace period has come to an end.

Kyiv must finally understand this and cease its struggle against political opponents, which, ultimately, is harming all of Ukraine.

Sergiy Sydorenko,

Editor, European Pravda

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