Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine

Kyiv 10:26

June 28 - Constitution Day of Ukraine

28 June 2016, 10:10

One may claim that the modern history of a nation begins with its constitution. In 2016 Ukraine celebrates the 20th anniversary of the adoption in 1996 of its modern Constitution. But not many know that the beginning of a constitutional process in Ukraine can be traced back as far as to the ХVІІІ century.

The eighteenth century was the period in which several nations received their constitutions for the first time: the United States in 1787-1789, France and Poland in 1791. Ukraine led in this respect, with a constitution adopted in 1710. 

The first Ukrainian Constitution of Hetman Pylyp Orlykcan be acknowledged as the first European constitution in a modern sense. This example of political, philosophical and legal thought was approved on April 5, 1710 at the UkrainianCossacks assembly near the small town of Bendery (now in Moldova). The full title of the first Ukrainian Constitution wasPacta et Constitutiones Legum Libertatumque ExercitusZaporoviensis (Treaty on the Constitutional Rights and Freedoms of the Zaporozhian Army). This document was made in the Old Ukrainian and Latin languages thus is widely known in history. The Constitution consisted of 16 articles and regulated such spheres as religion, territory and borders, relation with the Crimea, administration of state power, judiciary and military affairs. Besides defining the territory of Ukraine and inviolability of its borders, the document has determined the rights of all groups of the Ukrainian population, noted independent status of Zaporizka Sich and basically contained the division of powers in the modern sense. 

The distinctive feature of the Orlyk Constitution were the points limiting the Hetman’s power (ruler of Ukraine) in favour of the Council – a kind of a Cossack Parliament. Provision was also made for local self-government on the basis of then Magdeburg law. 

The important peculiarity distinguishing the OrlykConstitution from ordinary Hetman orders which made it similar to the subsequent European constitutions was that it was signed not between Hetman and other sovereign (protector of a Ukrainian state) but between Hetman and the Cossacks acting on behalf of the Ukrainian people. The 1710 Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk was written under the influence of the Western European ideas of parliamentarianism and enlightenment. The Constitution has established the republican form of government in the Hetman Ukrainian stateof the ХVІІІ century and has done this well before the wave of bourgeois democratic revolutions in Europe.

The Ukrainian Constitution of 1710 was recognized by Sweden and Turkey immediately upon its adoption. Even today it amazes by relevancy and high level of legal technique. One can argue that having incorporated the ideas of its inspirer – Hetman of Ukraine Ivan Mazepa – the OrlykConstitution as the supreme state legislation got ahead of the ХVІІІ century French revolution ideas. 

Next steps in the constitutional development in Ukraine were made at the beginning of the XX century. The Constitution of the Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1918 culminated the historical struggle for freedom of the Ukrainian nation after collapse of the Russian Empire after WWI. The Constitution contained such important definitions as the people being at the core of origin of a state power, separation of legislative and executive branches, and supremacy of law, the parliamentary and republican order.Historical developments later showed that occupation and subordination of Ukraine to the Soviet Union did not stop the development of constitutional ideas and that the Ukrainians were instrumental in this. 

Constitutions of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic of 1919, 1929, 1937 and 1978 were of declarative nature, carrying political and ideological narrative imposed by the Soviet rule. They lacked proper implementation mechanisms and were rather manifesto then a legal document. But still they contained important provisions such as equality of peopleirrespective of their race, nationality or origin as well asequality of national minorities, acknowledgment of social democracy policy and a republican form of governance.  

Even at the times of Soviet communism and ideological oppressions every next Constitution of Ukraine contained some novellas and new constitutional ideas. Again, not many people know that according to the Constitution of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic of 1929, Ukraine was declared a sovereign state, which voluntary entered the union forming the USSR and which had a right to withdraw its membership from the union. That Constitution contained also the provisions on the Ukrainian citizenship and inviolability of state borders.

The Constitution of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic of 1937 in its turn allowed the Ukrainian SSR to participate in the elaboration of the UN Charter after WWII as a semi-independent state and allowed Ukraine to become a founding member of the UN in 1945. This was an acknowledgment of a distinctive nature of the Ukrainian nation.    

After restoring independence of Ukraine in 1991 it tooklong five years of constitutional changes to be introduced and voted overwhelmingly and for the Ukrainian people to get rid of the communist ideological postulates and create a new modern European Constitution. Developing its distinctive features and accommodating the surrounding reality of society the Ukrainian Constitution of 1996 has survived many changes and amendments through its relatively short history including the attempts to reverse its progressive rule in 2010. 

Today a constitutional process continues in Ukraine with the aim to improve further the main law of a state. One of the main objectives is to establish effective and efficient mechanisms of division of a state power, which would provide safeguards in future against usurpation of a state power whilesimultaneously providing a coherent state policy. It is a common understanding that the Constitution should adequately reflect the contemporary challenges and changes inthe Ukrainian society.

Three main directions for amending further the current Ukrainian Constitution are defined as decentralization of power, improvement of judiciary principles, enhancement of constitutional regulation of human and citizens’ rights, freedoms and responsibilities. One of this spheres – judiciary reform – has already been voted for by the Ukrainian Parliament and is being implemented. The others are to follow. 

The overall aim of the constitutional reform is to guarantee future development of the Ukrainian state, consolidate national community, improve the public trust in the state institutions and speed up Ukraine’s integration into the European community. 

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