The Next Step in Ukraine: Meeting the Governance Challenge | Freedom House

The Next Step in Ukraine: Meeting the Governance Challenge

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty By Christopher Walker
The peaceful, civic response to the flawed second round of Ukraine's presidential election has been an impressive testament to the democratic determination of the Ukrainian people. Should Viktor Yushchenko ultimately prevail in the repeat of the run-off election on 26 December, as polls indicate, it will open a new chapter in Ukraine's post-independence politics.

To a large degree, however, the truly difficult work will begin after the "third round," when Ukrainians will need to translate the past weeks' "people power" into meaningful institutional reform and more responsive, democratic governance. Ukraine's legacy of unresponsive and corrupt governance will pose a considerable reform challenge for the government that follows 10 years of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's leadership.

Some of the first, critical steps, dealing with election reform, have already been taken. The members of the Central Election Commission were dismissed after the Supreme Court ruled that the 21 November ballot was fraudulent, and the new commission's composition will feature more balanced membership.

In advance of the 26 December repeat of the second round, parliament amended the election law to address two of its most glaring deficiencies. First, the total number of absentee ballots permitted will be reduced from 4 percent of total eligible ballots to 0.5 percent. Second, mobile ("at home") voting will be circumscribed to prevent the sort of extensive abuses that occurred during the first and second rounds. These reform measures and others, if implemented and followed, should have a salutary impact on the 26 December ballot, as well as on the administration of future elections.

But beyond these immediate steps relating to the election process, there are several key institutions to keep in mind, whose development is essential and which should serve as a barometer of Ukraine's democratic progress in the postelection period.

Ukrainian news media, which suffered under systematic intimidation and manipulation during the Kuchma years, is one such institution. The system of "temnyky," theme directives that instructed editors on news coverage, was emblematic of the nontransparent and controlling environment in which media were forced to operate.

Ukraine's judiciary is another key institution. Beset by corruption and heavy influence from the executive, Ukraine's courts have in the past not met a standard that would enable the country to advance toward the West. Legal procedures more often have been used as a tool to protect the government's interests rather than that of its citizens.

The shape and capacity of Ukraine's political opposition will also be important. The absence of a credible, responsible, and accountable opposition voice will neither advance the success of a new government's program, nor serve the country's overall democratic maturation process. Candidate Yushchenko has indicated that he would not be a vindictive victor (Viktor?). In fact, during the weeks of protest and election-related tumult, Yushchenko has worked assiduously to send reassuring messages to all corners of Ukraine and to expand his political coalition. This sort of inclusive politics would stand in stark contrast to the divisive and exclusive politics that has been the hallmark of the Kuchma era.

There should be no doubt that parts of the old guard who will form the political opposition under a Yushchenko presidency will seek to operate according to old practices. Nevertheless, a fundamentally magnanimous leadership posture, which enables responsible political opposition, would be a very welcome development in Ukraine.

Given the duress under which news media, the judiciary and political opposition have been operating, embedding reform will be a tough challenge. But there are signs of promise on which further reforms can be built.

Since the 21 November ballot, the beginnings of a transformation have already been set in motion in the Ukrainian media. The civic engagement that followed the flawed vote paved the way for Ukraine's media to report more freely and in an unbiased manner. Television news broadcasts, including on 1+1, Inter and UT-1, which regularly denied access to the political opposition, used the civic action as a basis to begin to report on issues in a more open and dramatically different manner. During the campaign, only Kanal 5, a pro-opposition channel, consistently offered coverage of the Yushchenko campaign and the protests in the aftermath of the 21 November vote.

The judiciary has also seized the opportunity and asserted its independence. It was on the basis of the Ukrainian Supreme Court's invalidation of the second round results that a repeat of the flawed election was enabled. These decisions are admittedly only a first step, but the court's action -- if it becomes the rule rather than the exception -- can lay the groundwork for a new legal landscape based on the rule of law.

Of course, positive developments in the media and judicial spheres and the existence of a responsible political opposition, should they emerge, would also help make headway against a scourge that plagues Ukraine: entrenched, pervasive corruption.

So what are the prospects for a positive scenario to emerge in Ukraine after the political euphoria ends?

Recent experience in other countries, while not exact replicas of the Ukrainian case, can help inform the reform challenges Ukraine will confront.

In Georgia, on the heels of a deeply flawed election in November 2003 "people power" opened the door for the removal from power of former President Eduard Shevardnadze. In the year since President Mikhail Saakashvili has come to power, he has sought to maintain the political momentum from a year ago. His reform program has made some real forward progress, including essential efforts to tackle Georgia's massive corruption problem. But his government's methods are not without its critics. Saakashvili, who has faced virtually no political opposition, has been accused of cutting corners in the implementation of his reform program. This has included, for example, questions about the manner of collection of fines from officials accused of corruption or embezzlement during the Shevardnadze era. (In a number of these instances, these former officials have paid substantial fines as part of the resolution of their cases. More than $50 million is believed to have been collected in this fashion. This enforcement method has raised questions about the soundness of a process by which lump-sum contributions paid by a suspect can be transferred to the Georgian treasury, or if criminal charges can actually be dropped on the basis of this sort of payment.) Georgian media, which faced considerable obstacles during the Shevardnadze period, are apparently facing pressure under a Saakashvili administration as well.

Serbians used flawed elections in September 2000 as a basis for protesting the results and ultimately jettisoning former President Slobodan Milosevic from office. Confronting a corrupt system of governance and a raw, postconflict environment, the post-Milosevic government that took office in January 2001 sought to implement an ambitious reform program. In the last four years, some steps have been taken to consolidate democratic practice, but many Serbs still perceive their democratic progress as falling far short of expectations. A high level of corruption is among the biggest sticking points.

In Slovakia, parliamentary elections in September 1998 enabled opposition democratic forces to defeat the HZDS party of former President Vladimir Meciar and open the door to reengagement with Europe and the trans-Atlantic community. Slovakia's poor image abroad and lackluster governance at home were hallmarks of the corrupt and insular Meciar regime. The coalition government that followed Meciar was dealt a difficult hand, facing, among other challenges, a system of widespread cronyism and corruption. Today, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that at the time of the pivotal 1998 elections, President Meciar had taken Slovakia off course, leaving it behind the other Visegrad countries in its aspirations for membership in NATO and the EU.

Over the past five years, under new leadership Slovakia's reform efforts have paid real dividends. Independent media and civil society have played an important role in this transformation, which has resulted in a reorientation of the country's politics, a consolidation of its key institutions, and membership both in NATO and the EU.

Slovakia's speedier democratic advancement has undoubtedly benefited from its relationship with NATO and the EU, something that should be kept in mind as international policy makers look to help the consolidation Ukraine's democracy.

Of course, in Ukraine the first priority is the holding of free, fair, and lawfully administered elections on 26 December.

Should the favored Yushchenko win, the euphoria of successful democratic change will give way to the reality of governing. Then, the biggest challenge for Ukraine's incoming leadership may be management of high expectations, as has been the case in other such political transitions. Keeping the momentum that has gained strength during the remarkable multiphased election process will not be easy. The incoming government should look to fashion a focused and manageable reform agenda, in which the Ukrainian people can see concrete successes in the near to medium term.

In a speech delivered in Brussels on 8 December, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell observed, "We know that democracy depends on certain attitudes and institutions that don't arise overnight." Ukraine in these short weeks has come a long way toward changing attitudes at home, and abroad, about its dedication to democracy. Positively changing its institutions will take similarly firm dedication and patience from the Ukrainian people, and steadfast support from abroad, in order for Ukraine to consolidate its place as a normal, European state.

Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House, is co-editor of Freedom House's survey of democratic governance, "Countries at the Crossroads." He served as an election observer of second-round voting on 21 November in Ukraine's presidential election

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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