20 years under Putin: a timeline

Vladimir Putin’s article “On the Historic Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, which was published on the Kremlin’s website on July 12, triggered expert discussions not just in Russia, but far beyond the country as well. Free University professor Ekaterina Mishina also read the infamous article and highlighted a number of crucial factors of the Ukrainian constitutional development, which clearly escaped the Russian president’s attention.


A copy of the 1710 Constitution of Hetman Orlik is on display at Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada. Photo: president.gov.ua.


Curiousity about what Vladimir Putin ended up writing, after all, led me to read his recent article. Typically, the president adheres to the oral form of communication, unlike, say, Russia’s Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Valeriy Zorkin, who occasionally treats his readers with epistles that abound in burning linguistic napalm. I was drawn to the historical foray of Putin’s essay, considering that the Russian past becomes increasingly unpredictable. One particular paragraph caught my attention: “Those, who today turned Ukraine over to complete external management, should keep in mind that, back in 1918, a similar decision proved fatal for the Kiyevan regime. The Central Rada was overthrown with the direct involvement of occupational forces, and Hetman [Pavlo] Skoropadsky came to power and proclaimed, in place of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, a Ukrainian State (Ukrainska Derzhava), which virtually existed under the German protectorship.”

“Complete external management” is a creative euphemism for “independence.” However, it is even more important that, in spite of a very detailed historical foray and a most nuanced description of the events that took place on the territory of present-day Ukraine in 1918-1920, the president completely failed to mention the fact that on April 29, 1918, the Central Rada of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) ratified a Constitution which never went into effect due to consequent developments in the country. With that in mind, Putin mentioned that “while working on this article I relied not on some kind of a secret archive, but on publicly available documents, which contain well-known facts. The leaders of modern Ukraine and their external benefactors prefer not to remember these facts.” However, the author ignored the text of the 1918 Constitution of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, which is also publicly available. And here is why.

The UPR Constitution enshrined the principle of separation of powers and established a parliamentary republic. The first section fortified the legal bases of a sovereign and independent Ukrainian state. The UPR’s sovereign power belonged to the people, who exercised it through the All-People’s Ukrainian Assembly, which was a part of the state’s legislature. The second section of the Constitution contained a list of rights for all citizens of Ukraine, including equal social and political rights for everyone, collective right to vote and to be elected into office for all citizens above the age of 20, a ban on capital punishment, freedom of movement, inviolability of the home, habeas corpus, and restraint measures involving deprivation of freedom that shall be imposed by courts. Paragraph 11 states that “the law of the UPR knows no difference between the rights and responsibilities of men and women,” and that “only a ruling by the Republic’s court may take away a UPR citizen’s civil rights” (Paragraph 10). Article 6 regulated the status of the courts and created various types of court procedures and jurisdictions, while Paragraph 65 claimed that there is a single Court for all citizens of the Republic, including the members of the All-People’s Assembly and the Counsel of People’s Ministers, which held the top executive power in the Republic.

The fact that the Ukrainian history of constitutional development is much longer than its Russian counterpart, that criticisms of autocratic power, and the principle of separating the executive power from the judicial one were all enshrined in a constitutional act three centuries ago, undermines [Putin]’s arguments.

The text of this Constitution looks especially impressive if one is to compare it with the provisions of the 1918 Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federative Social Republic (RSFSR) which was adopted two and a half months later. Instead of separation of powers it proclaimed unity of power; instead of universal suffrage—a vast list of individuals who had no right to vote or to be elected, instead of a detailed description of the judicial branch’s powers—no mention of courts at all. These differences explain why the Russian president neglected to mention the 1918 UPR Constitution.

Putin also ignored the 1710 Constitution of the Zaporozhian Army, which is also known as the Constitution of Hetman Orlik—a document that, in terms of its constitutional significance for Ukraine, can be compared to the Magna Carta. This Constitution limited the authority of the Hetman, who acted as head of state, and criticized autocratic power: “However, when some Hetmans of the Zaporozhian Army have wrongly and unlawfully claimed autocratic power for themselves and made legal such a despotic right: ‘The way I want to, I will rule!’—it is through this autocracy, not inherent to the Hetman rule, that disagreements and a destruction of rights and liberties happened in the Zaporozhian Army.” 

The Constitution of Hetman Orlik separated the executive and judicial powers, prohibited the ruling Hetman from interfering with the affairs of the General Court, and provided for the creation of a representative body for the Hetman: three annual all-people’s councils which were meant to take place on Christmas Day, Easter, and Pokrov Day, and which were attended not just by the colonels “with their elder and their sotniks”, but also the general advisor from every regiment, as well as the ambassadors of the Lower Zaporozhian Army.

It comes as no surprise that Putin overlooked this unique document as well: the fact that the Ukrainian history of constitutional development is much longer than its Russian counterpart, that criticisms of autocratic power, and the principle of separating the executive power from the judicial one were all enshrined in a constitutional act three centuries ago, undermines the president’s arguments. And, considering the latest amendments to the Russian Constitution, the mention of the UPR’s Constitution, which established a parliamentary republic and proclaimed a separation of powers, seems completely inappropriate.

Read further: Putin’s article as a manifesto against Ukraine’s sovereignty

Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.