In the New Ukraine, Much of the Old Survives

< back to Freedom At Issue Blog
ukraine euromaidan protests

A protester stands near a barricade at Hrushevskogo street on January 26, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine after protests turned into violent clashes. Photo by Sasha Maksymenko

By Matthew Schaaf, Senior Program Officer, and
Zoryan Kis, Project Coordinator for Ukraine

More than two years after the Euromaidan Revolution, Ukraine continues to struggle with many of the same ills that plagued the country under previous presidents.

Russian-backed separatism in eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea have significantly complicated the task of recovering from the authoritarian rule of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych and building a new rule-of-law state, where respect for human rights and dignity is a universally held value and there is no tolerance for corruption.

Yet much of the domestic political turmoil that racks Ukraine today—and contributes to poor public services, daily human rights abuses, and rampant graft—stems not from the events of the past two years, but from the same old challenges that have troubled the country since its independence.

To get at the root of the problem, one should not ask what has changed in Ukraine, but rather what has remained a constant despite several elections, new leaders, a revolution, and a violent conflict—and why.

A lack of accountability

Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report on political rights and civil liberties in Ukraine, released today, provides some insight into how democratic development and respect for human rights are affected by poor governance, the social and political exclusion of broad swathes of society, and a stubbornly persistent nexus of corruption among political and business elites.

Rating Ukraine as Partly Free, the report highlights weaknesses in the electoral system (as demonstrated by the 2015 parliamentary by-election in Chernihiv and the disenfranchisement of displaced persons), minimal progress on combating corruption (including a lack of prosecutions), and violations of the freedoms of expression and assembly (such as bans on journalists and violence against peaceful protesters).

Yet there is little accountability for these governance failures, leading Ukrainians to wonder whether their perseverance through war, daily indignities, and two revolutions since 2004 was all in vain.

When the government or private actors use violence against ordinary citizens, little is done to bring the perpetrators to justice. The investigations of major cases from 2014—the abuses and shootings on Kyiv’s Independence Square and a deadly fire amid clashes in Odesa—are still unresolved, and those responsible for related crimes remain at large. Even when right-wing extremists announce plans to attack a peaceful demonstration, such as the LGBTI rights–focused Kyiv March for Equality, and make good on their promise, they face no legal consequences.

The year 2015 was also marred by disturbing attacks on the media. News photographer Serhiy Nikolaev was killed while covering fighting in the east in February, and Oles Buzyna, a journalist with strong pro-Russian views, was murdered in Kyiv in April. These cases need to be investigated if the government wants to demonstrate its commitment to strengthening freedom of the press and building a democratic and pluralistic society.

While Russian-backed separatists in the east are looting local businesses for supplies and forcing residents to perform menial tasks, small and medium-sized businesses in the rest of Ukraine continue to suffer at the hands of corrupt bureaucrats, tax collectors, and corporate raiders. Corruption affects regular people and public services on a daily basis, and many Ukrainians are understandably frustrated with the painfully slow pace of reforms.

Corrupt politics

Oligarchs continue to control political parties, which are often little more than a tool to serve their patrons’ private interests, and generally lack coherent ideologies or policy platforms. Ihor Kolomoysky and other tycoons exploit weak and poorly enforced campaign-finance laws to fuel dirty campaigns and entrench their positions in Ukraine. Once in the parliament, political parties use their influence to steer the operations of lucrative state companies.

In a context of economic decline and increasing poverty, a number of parties stoop to handing out “grechka” food packages, and sometimes cash, to attract votes. The parliamentary by-election in Chernihiv last July, dubbed the “apotheosis of grechka,” was marred by flagrant vote buying as President Petro Poroshenko’s forces vied with Kolomoysky for control of the district. Poroshenko’s candidate prevailed. Once again, accountability—for vote buying, electoral manipulations, and unmarked advertising in the media—has been nonexistent.

In many cases in 2015, Ukrainians weren’t even able to vote. The electoral laws did not allow internally displaced persons to cast ballots outside their home municipalities, leading to an impermissible violation of their political rights.

The factors contributing to Ukraine’s poor scores in the Freedom in the World report, even compared to the scores for 2011–13, are also major obstacles to Ukraine’s integration with Europe, raising legitimate questions among European countries about whether Ukraine is indeed a member of the family.

Pressure from below

Whatever progress has been made in Ukraine over the last two years can be attributed in large part to the Ukrainian people. Ukrainian civil society is more mobilized than ever, playing a greater role in determining what direction the country takes, and in many ways redefining public life.

Civil society was instrumental in the creation of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, among other important structural reforms. Public debates about the new constitution and legislative changes have created new opportunities for Ukrainians to discuss and share their vision for the future. Independent media have blossomed, with new enterprises growing in strength and shining a light on important social, political, and economic trends. Under public pressure, the government itself has initiated some notable reforms, such as the introduction of a new street-level police force, which has begun transforming the relationship between the people and law enforcement bodies.

If Ukraine is to build on these successes and move forward as a democratically ruled and socially inclusive country, its leaders need to take seriously their duty to improve the rule of law, respect for human rights, and political transparency. And crucially, those holding Ukraine back must be made accountable for their actions. Petty political infighting, old-style governance, and corrupt plutocracy should finally be relegated to the past.

This article has also been published by Ukraine’s Novoe Vremya.


Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

Share this story