Ukraine | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


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Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The strong showing of former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc in the parliamentary elections of 2002 marked the first postindependence victory for opposition forces other than the Communist Party. Although Yushchenko failed to muster enough support to form a new government, his bloc's win signaled the growing strength of democratic forces in the country and galvanized thousands who took to the streets during the year to demonstrate against President Leonid Kuchma's heavy-handed government. Nevertheless, Ukraine remained characterized in 2002 by pervasive corruption and organized crime, as well as by regular violations of basic political rights and civil liberties. President Kuchma also came under increased scrutiny from Western and other democratic leaders when evidence surfaced that he may have authorized the sale of a powerful radar system to Iraq in violation of a UN embargo. Although the president announced Ukraine's intention to seek membership in NATO, the alliance failed to invite him to its historic summit on enlargement held in Prague in November.

In December 1991, Ukraine ended more than 300 years of Russian ascendancy when voters ratified a declaration of independence and elected Leonid Kravchuk president. In 1994, Communists proved victorious in parliamentary elections, and Leonid Kuchma, a former Soviet director of military production, defeated Kravchuk. Since then, Kuchma has struggled against a Communist-dominated parliament to effect reforms. However, he also has increasingly been the target of domestic and international criticism for his government's failure to respect the basic rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens. In particular, the murder in 2000 of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, and the surfacing of evidence that could implicate President Kuchma, sparked continual public demonstrations and calls for Kuchma's dismissal.

Although Ukraine commemorated a decade of post-Soviet independence in 2001, polls that year revealed that more than three-quarters of the country's population believed nothing good had come of it. Less than a quarter of the population considered the country a democracy. When the Communist Party engineered the ouster of the reform-minded prime minister Viktor Yushchenko in 2001, very likely with Kuchma's blessing, thousands of Yushchenko's supporters organized rallies to protest the decision. Yushchenko soon formed an electoral bloc called Our Ukraine and announced his intention to participate in the next parliamentary elections.

According to the OSCE, the parliamentary elections of March 2002 "brought Ukraine closer to meeting international commitments and standards for democratic elections." In particular, the OSCE noted the improved electoral framework contained in Ukraine's new election law (adopted in October 2001) and the orderly, timely, and transparent administration of the election by the Central Election Commission. Still, the election was marked by irregularities, such as the interference of governmental authorities in campaign activities, the monopoly coverage by state media of pro-Kuchma parties, and incidents of campaign-related violence, including the election-eve murder of Mykola Shkribliak, a prominent candidate and deputy governor of the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast.

Following the election, Viktor Yushchenko accused governmental authorities of falsifying the vote and declared that "democracy is the loser." Although Our Ukraine stripped the Communist Party of its dominant position in parliament, it failed to secure the necessary majority to form a new government and secure top parliamentary leadership posts. Instead, Pro-Kuchma forces led by For a United Ukraine received enough postelection support from the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party-United (SDPUu), the Communists, independent candidates, and even members of Our Ukraine to dominate parliament. Prime Minister Anatoly Kinakh remained in power until November, when Kuchma fired the government allegedly for failing to implement economic reforms.

In the official results of proportional and single-mandate voting, Our Ukraine received 110 seats; followed by For a United Ukraine with 101 seats; the Communist Party with 66 seats; the SDPUu with 24 seats; the Tymoshenko Bloc with 22 seats; and the Socialist Party with 22 seats. Other parties gaining seats were the Democratic Party of Ukraine-Party Democratic Union, 4; the Unity bloc, 3; the Party of National-Economic Development, 1; and the Ukrainian Sea Party, 1. Independent candidates took 93 seats.

Throughout 2002 incidents reinforced the image of pervasive governmental influence on life in Ukraine, particularly with regard to freedom of expression. In September, for example, when thousands of protesters gathered in Kyiv to commemorate the death of Heorhiy Gongadze, television stations were unexpectedly pulled off the air. Government officials defended the move as routine maintenance, but protesters alleged they were blocking coverage of the protest. Also in 2002, Mykola Tomenko, the chair of the parliamentary Committee for the Freedom of Expression, released documents containing directives from the presidential administration to national television channels prescribing acceptable news items and coverage. The instructions, known as temniki, apparently are issued weekly, and failure to comply can result in various forms of harassment such as tax audits, canceled licenses, and libel suits.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Ukrainian voters can change their government democratically. Citizens aged 18 and older enjoy universal, equal, and direct suffrage. They elect the president and delegates to the Verkhovna Rada, the 450-seat unicameral parliament. Under an election law adopted in 2001, half of parliament is elected in proportional voting and half in single-mandate constituencies. The president appoints the prime minister and other cabinet members.

In the 1999 presidential election, Leonid Kuchma defeated Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko in the second round of voting with 56.21 percent of the vote. Symonenko received only 37.5 percent. Observers declared the election unfair, citing harassment of independent media, biased coverage by state media, intimidation of candidates and their supporters, and illegal campaigning by state officials. The next presidential election will take place in 2004, and President Kuchma has indicated that he will not try to seek a third term. Viktor Medvedchuk, a powerful oligarch and the head of Kuchma's presidential administration, is expected to be a lead candidate in the 2004 election, as is the reform-minded opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.

The 1996 constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, but the government frequently disregards these rights. Under a law that took effect in 2001, libel no longer carries criminal charges. State media reflect a pro-Kuchma bias, while private media typically reflect the views of their owners. Journalists who report on corruption or criticize the government are particularly subject to harassment and violence, and press freedom groups noted numerous cases in 2002. Also in 2002, in response to increased political interference in their work, journalists issued the Manifesto of Ukrainian Journalists against Political Censorship. For example, the chairman of the parliamentary Committee for the Freedom of Expression released documents containing instructions from the presidential administration on appropriate news coverage by national television channels. Like many cases, the murder of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze remained unresolved.

The constitution and the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion define religious rights in Ukraine. There are some restrictions on the activities of foreign religious organizations, and all religious groups with more than 10 members must register with the state. In 2002, President Kuchma signed a decree calling for the creation of a commission to explore mechanisms for restoring religious property seized under communism. In April, approximately 50 soccer fans threw stones at Kyiv's main synagogue and shouted anti-Semitic statements as they left a nearby stadium. Ukraine has several thousand nongovernmental organizations and an increasingly vibrant civil society. The constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly but requires advance notification to governmental authorities. In 2002, protesters continued to march against President Kuchma's alleged involvement in the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. In September opposition parties organized the "Rise Up, Ukraine!" campaign to mark the anniversary of Gongadze's death and thousands of protesters gathered around the country to call for the president's resignation. Fifty opposition members of parliament also staged a hunger strike. Authorities allegedly detained some individuals and impounded the cars of others in an effort to limit participation in the demonstrations. Similar protests continued throughout the fall.

The judiciary consists of a supreme court, regional courts, and district courts. There is also a constitutional court. The constitution guarantees equality before the law, but the president, members of parliament, and judges are immune from criminal prosecution unless parliament consents. The judiciary is inefficient and subject to corruption. Although the Constitutional Court is largely free of political interference, other courts lack independence. Judges are often penalized for independent decision making. In 2002, the Council of Europe's Committee for Prevention of Torture issued a report that criticized the Ukrainian police for using methods of interrogation that could be considered torture. These include electric shocks, cigarette burns, asphyxiations, and suspensions by the arms or legs. The report, based on visits to Ukraine between 1998 and 2000, also noted overcrowding, inadequate facilities for washing and cleaning, a lack of adequate food supplies, and extended detention of suspects.

The government generally respects personal autonomy and privacy, and the constitution guarantees individuals the right to own property, to work, and to engage in entrepreneurial activity. However, crime, corruption, and the slow pace of economic reform have effectively limited these rights. In 2001, the Constitutional Court struck down the country's Soviet-era propiska system, which had required individuals to register with the Interior Ministry in their place of residence. Opponents of the provision had long argued that the regulation violated freedom of movement. Under a 2001 law, the purchase and sale of land will be allowed beginning in 2005.