How Ukraine’s Parliament Functions during Wartime
One of the ways to evaluate the state of democracy in a country is to scrutinize how its parliament functions. The war in Ukraine has afforded a new perspective on this issue. When the executive's powers expand, as often happens during wartime, it is the responsibility of parliament to ensure that the country does not devolve into autocracy.
Ukraine, a transitional democracy, is in the thick of the world's largest contemporary armed conflict. Its legislative body, parliament, has responded in different ways over the course of the war, in its communications and legislative actions, in response both to wartime exigencies and to citizen activists, where the security concerns of the former meet the latter’s demands for greater transparency. Developments since the war began have shed light on the dialogue between the legislature and the populace and on the robustness of constitutional provisions to ensure the continuation of parliamentary functions in Ukraine’s democracy during national crises.
Unless otherwise specified, the data provided in this article come from research presented in the report Parliament under Conditions of War: Ukraine's Example, conducted by the USAID-RADA Next Generation Program expert team.
From Consensus to Debate: The Theater of War Sets the Rules
On February 24, 2022, massive shelling of Ukraine began, with Russian ground troops crossing the border from Belarus and advancing toward Kyiv, Ukraine's capital. They traveled approximately seventy miles to reach the city. At the same time, Russian airborne forces landed in Hostomel, about twenty miles from Kyiv's city center, and in other nearby areas.
That day Ukraine's parliament convened for a historic session. The session was attended in person and held in the parliament building, which easily could have been targeted by Russian missiles. It lasted only nine minutes, the shortest meeting ever for a parliament of the current convocation. However, during those nine minutes parliament approved the president's decrees establishing martial law and instituting national conscription (according to Ukraine's constitution, the proclamation and extension of martial law and conscription must be supported by parliament).
Parliament then operated under a sixty-day emergency regime. Meetings lasted an average of thirty-two minutes in March 2022 and forty-eight minutes in April 2022. In March 2022, 83 percent of the issues on parliament’s agenda were adopted on the day of their initial consideration and on the first reading, while the usual procedure required two readings. More than 300 issues taken up during martial law were adopted without discussion or following the address of only one member of parliament.
After Russian troops were pushed back from Kyiv’s immediate surroundings, political activity in parliament became more intense. Beginning in May 2022, the average length of a parliamentary session increased to three to four hours. In comparison, the average duration of a prewar parliament meeting was five hours. Parliament also reverted to its usual legislative procedure of two readings, and only 20 percent of laws were adopted on the day of their first consideration from April 2022 to June 2023.
Thus political debate returned to parliament. As parliament represents the will of the people, debate is always a possibility.
The War Continues: No Debate
Despite the return of political debate, one type of decision is always supported without opposition. This is the approval of the president's decree to extend martial law. Martial law has been extended nine times, and each time, all political factions in parliament have supported the initiative.
Moreover, despite the security risks, Ukraine's parliament has been meeting offline since the first wartime meeting. Unlike many of its European counterparts, Ukraine's parliament did not switch to remote sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic, instead allowing only committee meetings to be conducted remotely.
Parliament Must Go On
Why does parliament have to function during the war in the first place? The Ukrainian constitution requires parliament to stay in session until martial law is lifted. Even if the parliamentary term ends while martial law is in effect, parliament must continue to function until postwar elections are held. The current elected term of Ukraine's parliament expired on October 29, 2023; however, parliament continues to function as a result of a direct provision of the constitution.
In addition, Article 92 of the constitution specifies a list of issues that must be regulated by law. Parliament has no power to delegate its legislative powers to the government; the war is not an exception.
Therefore, the operation of parliament in wartime is part of Ukraine’s constitutional order. The collapse of parliament could lead to the state becoming dysfunctional.
Parliament’s Communications and Civil Society
Security measures always apply to classified information. In the Ukrainian context, parliament also became subject to tighter security measures with the onset of the war. For instance, parliament’s agenda and schedule of meetings were no longer publicly available, nor were the legislature's meetings broadcast any longer on television or streamed online.
These limits on traditional modes of communication encouraged more activity on parliament’s social media. In 2022 the total number of followers on parliament's web pages across all platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and Instagram—increased by 146 percent over 2021. This trend demonstrated the increased trust of Ukrainians in state institutions that exhibited resistance to Russian aggression.
As the situation with communications evolved, some limitations became apparent, so parliament decided to make public recordings of its sessions. Despite the increased transparency, civil society advocates continue to push for the legislative agenda to be made public so as to engage citizens actively in the legislative process.
A number of issues plague Ukrainian parliamentary democracy. However, it should not be forgotten that parliament is still the forum where the nation's key decisions are debated and approved. Thus the battle for democracy continues both on the front lines and in state institutions.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more