Legislation on a Budget

If there is a problem with Ukrainian MPs, it’s their pay. You would not think that from their Lexus cars, Brioni suits, Patek Philippe wristwatches or thousands of dollars mysteriously appearing on their bank accounts, but a Ukrainian MP is entitled to a grand total of 6000 UAH (that’s about 250 USD) a month.

It is little wonder MPs do not do their job all too well, a condition prevalent across the Ukrainian government apparatus; however, unlike MPs, the average government employee is expected to survive on a meager 1700 UAH (about 68 USD) monthly salary. Even in some of Ukraine’s better days (although I can’t, for the love of me, remember one year in Ukraine when people weren’t complaining about how bad life was), this wasn’t nearly enough to survive on. It most assuredly isn’t now.

Ordinary Ukrainians are enamored by the idea of a European official, preferably from Denmark or the Low Countries, happily cycling to work through downtown Copenhagen or Amsterdam (as opposed to, say, downtown Kyiv, a city where ‘downtown’ is seldom actually ‘down’), so much that every attempt to raise MP salaries is met with fierce opposition. A bit of Catch-22 is also in order. With a salary impossible to live on, many if not all MPs turn to other varied sources of income, of similarly varied degrees of legality. The average Ukrainian knows that and therefore says that MPs do not do anything but steal, take bribes and get kickbacks. The average Ukrainian, therefore, is strongly against raising MP salaries, because look how MPs live, they don’t deserve large salaries! Let them live on a teacher or a doctor’s salary, see how they like THAT!!

Teachers and doctors do not get much in Ukraine, a country with universally free education and healthcare (textbooks and medicine not included). It is a regrettable fact, but if low pay isn’t motivating enough for teachers and doctors, why should it motivate someone responsible for making the country’s laws?

Roughly half of Ukraine’s corruption can be chalked down to tiny, impossible to live on salaries: MPs, government officials, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, schoolteachers, university professors, doctors, nurses, you name them. Faced with a grim prospect of starving or freezing, most would turn to illicit sources of income just to survive. The other half is just downright abuse of power, but greasing palms is par the course for most, if not all, Ukrainians from all walks of life.

No wonder Rada MPs aren’t any different. Indeed, most seek a career in legislature to better their standing in the world, not vice versa. Indeed, the first crop of Ukrainian MPs were newly-minted local strongmen, eager to solidify and further their influence in a freshly-independent country; and what better way is there than make the country’s laws yourself?

MPs aren’t actually allowed to own businesses. So far this hasn’t actually stopped anyone with a vested commercial interest. Less fortunate MPs have to do with other ways – being some other vested interest’s Rada proxies. Half of the Rada is always said to be owned by one oligarch or another, a bond that often transcends political parties and parliamentary factions. The arrangement often starts before an MP is elected: until very recently, you had to run your election campaign out of your pocket, and the costs are pretty impressive. You usually have to chip in with a political party to stand a better chance of getting elected, and party membership usually costs quite some money, too.  It is little wonder, then, that most MPs either have someone else covering their expenses in exchange for loyalty, or are pretty affluent people themselves.

Rinat Akhmetov, a man so large he was 20% of Ukraine’s GDP once upon a time, briefly moonlighted as an MP in faraway 2006. In today’s Ukraine, however, oligarchs rarely show up in the Rada proper, but they have scores of MPs to do the job for them. However, while Akhmetov used to have the entire Party of Regions at his beck and call, the modern movers and shakers like Ihor Kolomoyskiy (of Privat Group fame) have to rely on a wide variety of sub-factions within different parties and blocs, plus about a dozen of non-partisan MPs who hardly ever show at work. I suppose this should count as an improvement.

Attendance is another issue with MPs, as they have literally zero motivation to be present at work. At times, the Rada had difficulty assembling a quorum to even work. Whenever MPs actually show, however, is when their party, or their sponsors – or the party’s sponsors – demand that they do, usually because something important is in the works. Even then, 100% attendance is rare even within the most disciplined political parties – ‘disciplined’ not actually being a compliment in some cases.

This is because there aren’t actually many ways to punish a MP. This is probably the crucial reason why most people strive to be MPs – because of the immunity their position provides. The only way a MP can be held accountable is if the Rada strips them of immunity: that is, the Prosecutor General has to petition the Rada to rescind a wanted MP’s immunity, and the Rada then has to VOTE on that. Only then can a MP be charged and brought to court. The procedure is lengthy enough that most MPs can and often literally do flee the country rather than face the music.

Abolishing MP immunity is a staple of Ukrainian election campaigns, right there with ‘fighting corruption’ and ‘taking the wealth from the oligarchs’; the nuances of how people with 250 USD per month salaries are supposed to fight corruption aside, each and every party that gets into the Rada forgets about their promises of abolishing MP immunity exactly 0.000005 seconds after getting their mandate. Funny how this happens.

With this kind of motivation, or lack thereof, it is no wonder MPs go to utmost lengths not to work. Whether they’re off throwing corruption allegations at everyone (while not noticing the thousands of dollars mysteriously appearing in their confederates’ pockets), making an ass of themselves at court hearings, reciting plays from the Rada tribune or kicking Security Service generals in the head, they aren’t doing the crucial thing – voting, especially when crucial legislation can’t get enough votes to pass. Giving interviews and frequenting talk shows to speak about how the government isn’t doing anything is also popular; and while such behavior may be understandable if you’re the opposition (such as the eponymous Opposition Bloc, ex-Party of Regions), it hardly is so when your party is part of the ruling coalition.

This is what EU isn’t happy with, folks. Unlike homegrown Ukrainian experts and Western observers, the EU, at least, knows that not all blame lies with the President or the Prime Minister. Quite a few of it rests on the coalition parties – the same parties that once pledged to contribute to Ukraine’s reforms. Pluralism is all and well: nobody expects a paper-stamp parliament, and nobody expects the coalition to be CPSU. But there is pluralism, and there is rampant populism and petty power struggles.

Then again, what can you expect from a parliament which looks out for everyone’s interests, but not for that of its country’s?


Legislation on a Budget

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