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When and why parliaments are closed by political leaders

Lisa JWalters6 September 2019

The White House (Moscow, Russian Federation) following President Yeltsin’s 4 October 1993 attack. © AP / Shutterstock

Dr Ben Noble is Lecturer in Russian Politics at UCL SSEES. He was awarded a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award in 2019 for his project Parliaments Under Fire. He is on Twitter @Ben_H_Noble; the project’s account is @parlsunderfire.

This blog was first posted on 2 September on the British Academy website

In August 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to prorogue Parliament caused an uproar. It’s not difficult to understand why. Insofar as the aim is to frustrate the ability of the legislature to debate and scrutinise the executive, then this appears to be an attack on the sovereignty of Parliament – the core of the United Kingdom’s constitutional system.

But Boris is not Charles I. Nor is he Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, who violated the Russian constitution in September 1993 by dissolving the country’s legislature (the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies). Parliamentarians in Russia responded by, among other things, barricading themselves in the parliament building – something that MPs in Westminster have threatened in response to prorogation. Frustrated by this legislative intransigence, Yeltsin eventually ordered tanks to fire on the White House, the seat of the Russian parliament in the heart of Moscow. In this battle between the executive and the legislature, the president won. This allowed Yeltsin to beef up the powers of the executive in the new Russian constitution – adopted in a referendum in December of the same year – leading many to label it ‘super-presidential’ and Yeltsin a dictator. 

This wasn’t the first time a legislature was closed by the executive in Russian history. Tsar Nicholas II dissolved the first Imperial State Duma merely months after it opened in 1906, annoyed by the vocal way in which legislators pressured for sweeping social and political reform. Rather than barricade themselves in the Tauride Palace in St Petersburg, the seat of the imperial legislature, a number of Duma representatives assembled in Vyborg to write a declaration calling on the Russian people to stand up to authoritarian overreach. This didn’t work: most of the signatories to the declaration were imprisoned. But Boris Johnson is also not Tsar Nicholas II.

Authoritarian leaders and parliaments

These particular historical examples vary in how well they are known. Although we have lots of general and expert knowledge about the most prominent cases of attacks on legislative powers – especially when these bodies have been dissolved in defiance of the constitution – we know much less than we should about the full range of cases. This is particularly surprising given the resurgence of interest in political science in non-democratic politics – a trend sustained by the use of this work to help make sense of developments in recent US politics.

We have developed sophisticated theories that explain why authoritarian leaders set up and maintain legislative bodies. These theories suggest that parliaments in non-democracies are used to appease members of the political opposition; to share power between the ruler and other members of the elite; and to gather information on citizens’ concerns. We have, therefore, multiple insights into why these bodies are created. We know much less, however, about why they are dissolved.

Legislative closure might be puzzling to consider when starting from the conventional wisdom that legislatures in non-democracies are unimportant, entirely subservient bodies, filled with regime loyalists who simply ‘rubber stamp’ policy initiatives from the regime leadership without critical debate. Recent work – including my own – has challenged this ‘rubber stamp’ model of authoritarian legislative politics. But we still need to know much more.

Studying parliamentary closures and near misses

That’s where my new project, Parliaments Under Fire, comes in. The goal is to collect detailed information on moments of parliamentary closure. This is no mean feat. To make it possible, the project involves creating a network of political science scholars with country- and region-specific expertise. By drawing on, and pooling, this case-specific knowledge, the project combines the depth of area knowledge with the comparative political science tools that all members of the network share.

Currently, cross-national datasets only include information on whether a legislature existed in a particular year for a particular regime. That’s very basic, and some of this information is of questionable quality. My project will improve the detail we have publicly available of when legislatures have operated, while also improving our knowledge of the pathways leading to, and the actors involved in, parliamentary closures.

The project will also focus on ‘near misses’ – episodes when political leaders have attempted to close down legislatures but were prevented from doing so. PressOne example is from Ukraine in 1994, when President Leonid Kravchuk wanted to close down the Verkhovna Rada, but was prevented from doing so by the military. The executive intent was there, but the capacity was not. Beyond near misses, the project will also analyse moments of closure in the context of other, less extreme ways in which the powers of legislatures are weakened.

The project outputs should help provide a richer set of historical cases with which we can help navigate contemporary moments when legislatures come under pressure from executives. It should also help enrich existing theories of non-democratic parliaments, as moments of shutdown throw into sharp relief relations between actors that are usually shrouded in secrecy.

Boris Johnson is not a dictator. But his steps to hamper the constraining function of Parliament put him in awkward company. My project will allow us to understand in much greater depth why authoritarian leaders sometimes shutter their assemblies.

Soft Power: Cats, Branding and the Ukrainian Far-Right

Lisa JWalters20 June 2019

Author: Michael Cole (@NotTheMikeCole), Early Stage Researcher for the UCL SSEES-led FATIGUE project

“There are three secrets to successfully interviewing gangsters,” declared the keynote speaker. “First, convince them your work is irrelevant. You’re an academic, that’s usually not too hard”. “Second”, he continued, “is alcohol. If you can hold your drink, you’ll usually win respect and get them to talk”. And the third trick: “Have a cute dog”. I was attending my first major political science conference since starting a PhD. Three days packed with panel discussions, roundtables, keynotes and fried breakfasts to really get my teeth into. As a relative newcomer to the field I was more than keen to soak up any drops of wisdom that those who’ve been in the game for a while had to offer. But something about his advice didn’t quite sit right with me.

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PLAYING WITH FIRE: The 2018 March of Independence in Warsaw as a ritual of national identity building.

Lisa JWalters23 January 2019

By Marta Kotwas (PhD Student, UCL SSEES) and Jan Kubik  (Professor of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL SSEES)

On 11 November 2018 Poland was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its independence. The holiday attracted a lot of attention, both inside and outside the country, not only because it was a commemoration of a major milestone in the nation’s history, but also because in previous years, particularly in 2017, it was dominated by the massive March of Independence organized by a coalition of far right groups. In some years, particularly during the PO’s (Platforma Obywatelska – Civic Platform) term in office, aggressive football hooligans, often expressing radical nationalism, vandalised the streets and attacked their opponents or journalists.

The question many were asking in 2018 was how the day was going to turn out, bearing in mind the significance of the centenary. Would it be a joyful celebration of national pride dominated by stately parades and leisurely outings in a festively decorated city? Or – again – a day to be remembered for threatening columns of young ultranationalists parading in unison, occasionally under neo-fascist banners, and propounding a menacing, narrow vision of Polishness?

We have just published an article in which we describe and analyse the history of Polish Independence Day, particularly since the fall of communism. The holiday, established in 1937, was banned by the Nazis and Communists and reinstated in 1989. In the post-1989 period it has come to be regarded as the most important day in the national ceremonial calendar. While following the gradual change in the event’s organization, décor, performative style, and ideology, we have become intrigued by what we have eventually conceptualized as the “symbolic hijacking” of the day by several extreme right-wing organizations.

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Softly, Softly Belarus

Lisa JWalters11 June 2018

Andrew Wilson, Professor in Ukrainian Studies

This speech was delivered at the European Parliament, ‘Belarus: The Voice of Civil Society’, 5 June 2018

Belarus is changing. It is changing in ways that help European engagement. But, just to be clear, the one area where change is minimal is probably where we want to see it the most, in the political sphere. The label ‘Last Dictatorship in Europe’ may be out-of-date, but Belarus is not about to become a democracy any time soon.

No, what is driving change is sovereignty. First is the logic of sovereignty, which has been operative for some time; but often belated or delayed by political factors, namely Belarus’s formerly close relationship with Russia. Second is the threat to sovereignty since the Ukraine crisis in 2014; though partly this can be traced back to the war in Georgia in 2008.

President Lukashenka’s primary motives are regime survival and personal survival. He is pushing changes for instrumental reasons. Nevertheless, these changes are significant across four main areas: cultural policy, foreign policy, security policy and economic policy. Change, as I said at the top, has been least noticeable in domestic politics. However, in order to achieve Belarus’s goals in the other areas, there is some change even there.

All of this is done slowly. But the cumulative change is great. And arguably, this may take Belarus just as far away from Russia as Ukraine in the long-run.

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Poroshenko Seeks Reelection

Lisa JWalters8 June 2018

Andrew Wilson, Professor in Ukrainian Studies

Ukraine is already in election year. Both the president and parliament chosen in the tumultuous year of 2014 are due to be reelected in 2019. The presidential election comes first, in March; the parliamentary elections are expected to follow in October. As always, there are rumours of some politicians plotting a different time or a different order. But, currently, the depressing prospect for the 2019 elections overall is that all of the major players will return. So none has an incentive to campaign for early elections. (Former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has seen his party’s support collapse, but most of his team will jump on to other parties ae ‘life rafts’).

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Pot Calls the Kettle Black: Russian Report Describes the Spread of ‘Modern Technological Populism’

Lisa JWalters16 June 2017

Prof Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies

When it comes to political dirty tricks, you can rely on the Russians to know how to call things by their right name.  Russians also have the habit of using terminology to describe the wider world that is reflexively useful for conceptualising Russia itself. A recent Report by a new Russian think-tank on ‘Modern Technological Populism’ has therefore caused quite a stir; both because Russia has been accused of not-so-covert support for populists like Donald Trump and Marine LePen, and because the Report is the first product of an institution directly linked to the Kremlin.

The think-tank in question is the ‘Expert Institute of Social Research’ (which in Russian has the acronym EISI), founded in the autumn of 2016 and launched in March 2017. The EISI is attached to the Presidential Administration and is presumed to reflect the thinking of the new Kremlin propaganda chief, former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and his ‘Strategy 2030’.

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Ukraine: Waiting for Donald, worrying about the EU

Lisa JWalters16 March 2017

Prof Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies

This commentary was originally posted on ECFR.eu on 18th January 2017

Ukraine’s prospects are under threat from developments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Something is stirring in Ukraine. The most obvious cause is Donald Trump’s imminent inauguration on 20 January, and the widespread fear in Kyiv that his push for some kind of Yalta 2.0 agreement with Russia will be at Ukraine’s expense.

But another parallel cause is the fear that the European Union is losing interest in Ukraine. After Dutch voters rejected the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement at a referendum in April 2016 (though many were really voting about the Netherlands and Europe), the price of bringing the Dutch government into line was high. In fact, it took a triple reassurance just to get PM Mark Rutte to take the issue back to parliament for a vote to overturn the referendum result.

Those reassurances came in the European Council’s resolution of 15 December, which declares that ‘the Agreement does not confer on Ukraine the status of a candidate country for accession to the Union, nor does it constitute a commitment to confer such status to Ukraine in the future’. Furthermore, it ‘does not contain an obligation for the Union or its Member States to provide collective security guarantees or other military aid or assistance to Ukraine’. And finally, it ‘does not grant to Ukrainian nationals… the right to reside and work freely within the territory of the Member States’. While this resolution does not roll back existing, modest, European commitments to Ukraine, it was interpreted as a major setback in Kyiv.

‘Ukrainian Eurointegration’: The Ukrainians are barred entry to the locked doors of the ‘EC’(EU).#

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Survival of the Richest: How oligarchs block reform in Ukraine

BlogAdmin30 April 2016

 

by Professor Andrew Wilson

This post originally appeared on the ECFR blog. Reproduced with kind permission of the Author.

The resignation of Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the elevation of Volodymyr Groisman demonstrates the failure of Kyiv’s reform process, and offers Europe an opportunity to push for deeper changes.

And while Ukraine suffers from many types of corruption, it is the penetration of its politics by the super-rich oligarchy that forms the main obstacle to reform.

Wealth is concentrated in few hands in Ukraine. Before the Euromaidan protests of 2013 the assets of Ukraine’s 50 richest individuals made up over 45 percent of GDP, almost five times as much as in the US. Politics in Ukraine is extraordinarily expensive, with campaign expenditures running at hundreds of millions of dollars. And oligarchical media ownership further strengthens the hold of the wealthy over Ukraine’s democracy.

The author highlights two key areas, the judiciary and Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises, where the nascent process of ‘de-oligarchisation’ has failed to take hold. Control over the courts means that there have been no high-profile leading figures from the Yanukovych era brought to trial. And Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises siphon off government funds to the pockets of oligarchs, providing further funds for them to control events in Kyiv.

The EU remains Ukraine’s only plausible ally and, as such, has the potential to wield a huge amount of influence over the reform process. Wilson highlights two main areas that European policy makers should focus on, both of which focus on decoupling the oligarchs from the political system, rather than attacking the oligarchy itself.

The first step should be to strengthen the pressure applied on the Ukrainian authorities from below, by local civil society. Engagement could take the form of encouraging the participation of Ukrainian NGOs in EU-Ukrainian government dialogue.

The EU and its member states should also pressure Ukraine’s leaders, who are perpetuating and in some cases directly benefiting from some of the worst practices of the Yanukovych regime. Abuses by oligarchs’ placemen in the state bureaucracy and others must be investigated.

 

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Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.