Referendum Democracy in Ukraine: Its History and Prospects

August 2016
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Dedicated to Ivan Dziuba

After the ambiguous results of last year's referendums in the Netherlands (on ratifying the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union) and the United Kingdom (on its departure from the EU), Europeans' (and especially Ukrainians') interest in referendum democracy has increased substantially and has become a factor in Realpolitik.

In independent Ukraine, our 25-year experience of referendum democracy is a complicated one - with its peaks and valleys and various attempts to exploit referendums in political games. This experience must be examined deeply and carefully, including both what actually happened and the "missed opportunities" - processes of a concealed (latent) character.

After the Revolution of Dignity [that is, the Ukrainian revolution of 2014], the future of referendum democracy can only be pro-European, since Ukraine officially chose the path of Eurointegration. The country needs a European model for this sort of democracy that would fulfill the needs and demands of civil society. Today society reacts harshly to any attempts to limit the rights of the nation as the single source of authority in the country, as established by Article 5 of the Constitution of Ukraine.

The groundwork for rebooting referendum democracy must be, above all, constitutional provisions on common European democratic values (CEDV), which is to say on human dignity and rights, the rule of law, and constitutional democracy, which is to a certain degree established in Articles 3 and 8 and in Sections II and III of the Constitution of Ukraine.

The Orange Revolution, as well as the Revolution of Dignity, somewhat pushed referendum democracy onto the back burner. Essentially, these revolutions accomplished something that possibly should have been done through a number of referendums.

With regards to CEDV, today they have fairly broad support from society, but we are still a long way from their systematic introduction in Ukraine. Thus, "rebooting" referendum democracy on the basis of CEDV is an extremely complicated task. But its necessity is already recognized by at least the progressive segments of the Ukrainian political class, those initiating and backing reform efforts. The question is just how to do this most effectively.

History

As is well known, history teaches us that history teaches us nothing. The same can be said of the history of referendum democracy in Ukraine. After a boom in the early 1990s, it ceased to be a priority and is today experiencing a deep political and legal crisis. There is a lack of European-quality leaders, of contemporary legislation on Ukraine-wide referendums based on CEDV, and of new constitutional doctrine.

The history of Ukrainian referendum democracy got its start in the Union-wide referendum of 17 March 1991 on the preservation of the so-called “renewed” USSR. At that time, the leadership of the Ukrainian SSR added to this union-wide question a republic-specific one with a question for Ukrainians: “Do you agree that Ukraine should be part of a Union of Soviet sovereign states on the basis of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine?” (This declaration had been approved by the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR back on 16 July 1990.)

After Ukraine’s independence was declared, a new phase began. On 1 December 1991, at the initiative of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (henceforth “parliament”), the first Ukraine-wide referendum took place, which confirmed the Act of Declaration of the Independence of Ukraine from 24 August 1991. This referendum was significant not just from a constitutional and legal perspective, but also for its socio-political meaning: with it appeared the first signs of a new political nation that had opted for a democratic future.

A second referendum was held on 16 April 2000 at popular initiative. In it, four questions...

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka