Interview with Dr Volodymyr Venher

Dr Volodymyr Venher

Dr Volodymyr Venher, Executive Director of the Kyiv-Mohyla Rule of Law Center, is visiting the Institute of European and Comparative Law (IECL) and Brasenose College this academic year. He has been interviewed by the outgoing IECL Director, Professor Birke Häcker, about his work and his experiences at Oxford.

BH: Volodymyr, it is wonderful to have you here in Oxford with us. You have now been based at the IECL and at Brasenose for a term. How is your research going?

VV: Thank you, this is a really new and interesting experience for me. Oxford University is a hub and epicentre for academic activities, including research visits. This makes it possible to have access to excellent sources of information (the Law Library is wonderful!) and to test research ideas more or less immediately through communicating with representatives of different countries and different legal systems. For my research, this is incredibly useful, because for the formulation of substantive conclusions in comparative constitutional law, it is valuable not only to be able to read modern research papers, but also to communicate with colleagues who have ‘practical’ information and a deep understanding of legal reality. Here in Oxford at the IECL this is possible and very fruitful.

BH: What exactly are you working on right now?

VV: Right now, I am working on the comparative aspects of limiting legislative activity in extraordinary circumstances, primarily in wartime. Ukraine’s current experience is quite indicative and a really interesting case for analysis. My research is all about the main substantive requirements that the legislative activity of a parliament has or ought to meet in wartime conditions (such as the preservation of the constitutional model of parliamentarism; a balanced legislative regulation; the provision of civilian control over military administration, etc.). The war in Ukraine is the first case for many decades in continental Europe; and the challenges of war are testing not only the army, but in fact the entire legal system. The usual processes and instruments of legislative regulation in peacetime cannot be applied in conditions of active hostilities, shelling and occupation, without at least some modification. Therefore, a careful analysis of the limits of such legislative influence is useful not only for Ukraine, but for the whole of Europe and indeed potentially the entire world.

BH: This is the big picture relating to the organisation of government and the state, but I understand that your research is in fact wider. It is not merely about the legal system in general, but also about the specific challenges of protecting individual rights, isn’t it?

VV: Of course. In a democratic state with a developed legal system, war creates a great number of challenges and threats to people’s everyday life. So, for example, the following questions can be very acute and need lawyers to think about them: can military officers at checkpoints look through everything in my mobile phone? My business is not working due to the war – do I have to continue filing and paying tax? My employer doesn’t allow me to be evacuated, I’m forced to stay at work, despite being under military threat, often also affecting the family. Is that allowed? Who is responsible for registering a person's death and what documents should be prepared before the burial?

The Ukrainian legal system is now tackling and overcoming these challenges. The Ukrainian government has by and large succeeded in safeguarding the constitutional model of judiciary (evacuation of courts, judges, staff, and cases; closure of public case-law practice register; transfer of territorial jurisdiction in urgent cases to other courts etc. ) and kept public administration functioning (basic administrative services are provided for the population, especially humanitarian support such as temporary settlement of internally displaced persons also known as IDPs, provision of food, water and healthcare, registration of IDPs, issuing of documents to substitute for lost passports, etc.; budgetary payments and the social protection of the population are guaranteed; business activities have undergone significant changes, but still function). All these activities are carried out on the basis of relevant legislative acts promptly adopted by the Ukrainian Parliament and the Government of Ukraine when the war first broke out. Maintaining and balancing the legal system in wartime conditions has yielded both a number achievements, but also thrown up some problematic issues. It is therefore extremely important to carry out a proper legal study of these various aspects.

 BH: But is your longstanding underlying research interest in the ‘rule of law’ doesn’t stop at – or concentrate solely on – what one might call ‘extraordinary’ legislation?

VV: I am indeed working on a more general topic provisionally entitled ‘Limiting legislative discretion: scope, constraints and principles for the Ukrainian Parliament’. The research will be based on the analysis of the already developed theoretical achievements in Western doctrine of democracy. It will serve as a starting point for identifying the legal nature of parliamentary legislative powers and their limits. The comparative analysis of, on the one hand, international parliamentary experience and, on the other hand, Ukrainian parliamentary practice will be a key part of my research. Finally, the study will include a detailed examination of the main Ukrainian legislative acts, which could provide some useful lessons for implementing a new quality of law-making procedures in Ukraine.

Accordingly, the challenges of ‘extraordinary’ legislative regulation are only one element of this broader study.

I have made really good progress with my research while at Oxford. Communication with colleagues made it possible to look at this problem in a slightly different way and has added new accents. So, for example, the opportunity to read ‘The Principles of Constitutionalism’ and then to discuss some practical points with the author of this work, Professor Nicke Barber, is simply unique. It is very interesting and useful for my project.

BH: I am so pleased you feel that the University of Oxford, its Law Faculty and the IECL has helped advance your research. You yourself have of course already made a significant contribution by presenting some of your finding at a joint lunchtime seminar of the IECL and the Public Law Discussion Group. While you are here, how do you maintain research contacts with your home university in Ukraine and the ‘Rule of Law Centre’ you lead? I know that you have been keen not to let anything slip back in Kyiv during your research visit to Oxford.

VV: It is more than maintaining contact; it is in my case full and active work at the National University ‘Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’. Our Kyiv-Mohyla Rule of Law Research Center continues to implement research activities in Ukraine and has done so throughout. Several interesting research projects supported by the Council of Europe aimed at fostering the rule of law and the democratisation of Ukraine have just been completed, even in wartime.

In addition, I continue to teach several courses at my home university. The main course is ‘Constitutional Law’ for law students. Again, communication with colleagues here at the University of Oxford provides an opportunity to develop the course syllabus and enhance the comparative component. Already next year, I hope, this course will be taught in a slightly different, much improved format. 

BH: Moving onto the logistics of providing legal education in wartime conditions, how is the teaching currently in Kyiv? Can and do students continue to attend courses in classrooms?

VV: In general, the studying processes continue. At our university, we use a hybrid format where those students who are able to can come to the classroom and others can attend classes online. It is an interesting fact that in the first year cohort of the bachelor’s programme in law, 110 of 120 students actually came to the first offline lecture in the ‘General Theory of Law’ course in September. That is a huge percentage and fantastic turnout given current conditions. So the motivation level is extremely high. Therefore, yes, our legal training continues very actively even in conditions of severe restrictions (such as power outages, frequent lack of internet, etc.). And the opportunity of bringing some fresh perspectives as a result of my time at the University of Oxford is of course very valuable. So thank you very much indeed to colleagues here!

BH: Volodymyr, it is a great pleasure to host you, and thank you very much for the interview.