On Monday, November 26th, the Ukrainian parliament approved presidential decree “On Institution of Martial Law in Ukraine.” The measure was passed with 276 votes in favour during an extraordinary session of parliament. The decree was put forward by President Poroshenko on advice of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine in response to Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels and 23 sailors in Kerch Strait on Sunday.
Before the martial law was approved, the President was forced to compromise on a number of points. First, the initial decree requested that martial law be introduced for 60 days. Lawmakers only agreed to 30 days. It came into effect at 9am on November 28 and will be in place until December 27. Initial proposal also suggested that martial law would be introduced on the entire territory of Ukraine. But per the approved law, it will cover only 10 regions and territories along the Russian boarder, the Sea of Azov and the Black sea.
Second, lawmakers insisted on the relaxation of the proposed limits on the rights and freedoms of citizens. To reassure the citizens, the Parliament voted not to debate the martial law proposal in closed session but instead the debate was televised on national TV. On his website, the President insisted that the decree was proposed mainly as a security measure and assured that he did not intend any restrictions to citizens’ rights. The President also noted that neither partial nor full mobilization was envisioned unless the conflict escalates further.
Finally, during the Parliamentary session, lawmakers demanded assurances that introduction of martial law will not affect the holding of presidential elections early next year. Only 5 minutes after the Parliament voted in favour of martial law, it approved a law officially setting the date of the next presidential election for March 31, 2019.
These recent political events generated two main concerns. First, of course, comes the issue of security, territorial integrity, and independence of Ukraine. Russia has denied any wrong-doing. However, other countries and international organizations have supported Ukraine. During a press conference, NATO’s chief stated that “there is no justification for the use of military force against Ukrainian ships and military personnel” and demanded that ships and sailors be immediately released. Concerns about what the attack and declaration of martial law could mean for the security in the region are high. President Poroshenko was careful to insist that “martial law does not mean declaring war. It is introduced with the sole purpose of boosting Ukraine’s defense in the light of a growing aggression from Russia.” He also noted that it did not mean that Ukraine either gave up or was not amenable to diplomatic solutions to the crisis, insisting that Ukraine will continue to comply with the Minsk agreement and all other international obligations.
Second, what impact will the introduction of martial law have on the political situation in the country, especially on the upcoming presidential elections? The opposition has accused the President of using martial law to divert public attention from his failing popularity. Some even expressed concerns that martial law will allow the possibility of postponing or cancelling the election complete. According to opinion polls, only 5-10 percent of citizens were ready to vote for him in the last couple of months. Less than 15 percent trusted the President. However, other presidential candidates have similar low levels of support and trust. For instance, 75 percent of those surveys did not trust Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the main candidates running for president next year.
The next couple of months will be critical for Ukraine and its President. On the one hand, it will be important to secure territorial integrity of the country and avoid escalation of the crisis. On the other hand, the President will need to ensure that he keeps his word and that free and fair elections do take place as scheduled on March 31, 2019. In the words of the recent Foreign Policy dispatch: “Martial law is a test. Will Ukraine’s democracy pass?”