Freedom in the World
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The erosion of the rule of law in Ukraine was characterized by further attacks on press freedom in 2003. In addition, the major reform party was violently attacked by a mob that opposition forces claimed had been organized by the ruling elite. Promising leads in the country's most significant case of political murder--that of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze--were not fully pursued despite credible allegations about the operation of a political death squad. In the face of widespread public support for an opposition candidate for the October 2004 presidential election, parties linked to the ruling elite and supportive of incumbent lame duck president Leonid Kuchma lunched efforts at constitutional reform that would strip most powers from the presidency.
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 came in first in parliamentary elections, and Leonid Kuchma, a former Soviet director of military production, defeated Kravchuk in the presidential poll. In the first years of his presidency, Kuchma struggled against a Communist-influenced parliament to effect reforms. However, over time, his government became the target of domestic and international criticism for extensive and high-level corruption and for the erosion of basic political and free speech rights.
In the 1999 presidential election, 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 because of harassment of independent media, biased coverage by state media, intimidation of candidates and their supporters, and illegal campaigning by state officials. The murder in 2000 of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, in which credible evidence appeared to implicate Kuchma in the crime, sparked mass public demonstrations and calls for the president's dismissal.
Despite polls that showed reform-minded prime minister Viktor Yushchenko with an approval rating of 63 percent, a coalition of the Communist Party and parties controlled by economic oligarchs ousted Yushchenko on April 26, 2001, who was replaced by Anatoly Kinakh. The subsequent strong showing of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc in the parliamentary elections of 2002, where it emerged as the single largest political force in a party-list vote, marked the first electoral success for the democratic opposition since independence. Although Yushchenko eventually failed to muster enough support to form a new government, his bloc's strong support in the party-list vote 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 Kuchma's growing authoritarianism.
The opposition's strong showing notwithstanding, government pressures on the large bloc of "independent" deputies enabled Kuchma to shape a working parliamentary majority. Since the 2002 election, Ukraine has continued to be plagued by pervasive corruption and ongoing violations of basic rights. Kuchma has also come under increased scrutiny from Western and other democratic leaders because of evidence--believed to be credible by the U.S. government--that he had authorized the sale of a powerful radar system to Saddam Hussein's Iraq in violation of a UN embargo.
According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the parliamentary elections of March 2002 "brought Ukraine closer to meeting international commitments and standards for democratic elections." However, following the election, Yushchenko accused government authorities of falsifying the vote--particularly in single-mandate districts, where opposition candidates did poorly and where pro-government candidates captured some three-quarters of their seats--and declared that "democracy is the loser." Ultimately, pro-Kuchma forces led by For a United Ukraine received enough postelection support from the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine-United (SDPUu), the Communists, independent candidates, and even members of Our Ukraine to dominate parliament. Prime Minister Kinakh remained in power until November 2002, when Kuchma dismissed the government allegedly for failing to implement economic reforms. Kinakh was replaced as prime minister late in 2002 by Viktor Yanukovych, a former convicted felon and representative of the Russian-speaking Donbas region, where economic oligarchs tightly control the local media and political life.
Since the 2002 parliamentary election, and the ascendancy of President Kuchma's chief of staff Viktor Medvedchuk, authoritarian policies have been reinforced and there is unassailable evidence of pervasive government interference in the media. 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 on acceptable news items and coverage. The instructions, known as temnyky (theme directives), were said to be issued weekly, and failure to comply can result in various forms of harassment such as tax audits, canceled licenses, and libel suits.
Public opinion data throughout 2003 showed strong support for Yushchenko, who ran ahead of all other potential candidates by at least a margin of nearly two to one. With the unpopular Kuchma barred from seeking a third term in office, parties linked with the ruling elite proposed constitutional amendments that would strip the presidency of most of its power and create a parliamentary republic. At the end of the year, these efforts had not borne fruit, but the pro-Kuchma majority hoped to revise the constitution in 2004.
In November, opposition leaders released what they said were instructions from the presidential administration to local government officials demanding efforts to undermine opposition meetings and rallies and to deny the opposition coverage in local mass media. Late in the year, a conference organized by backers of opposition front-runner Yushchenko was disrupted by a violent mob in the eastern city of Donetsk.
Ukraine's relations with Russia appeared to be strengthened with the signing on September 19 of an agreement to create a Common Economic Space that could eventually link the two countries with Belarus and Kazakhstan in a common market and customs union. However, in October, relations suffered after Russia unilaterally constructed a dam encroaching on Ukraine's territory in the Kerch straits near the Sea of Azov. The action precipitated a major diplomatic crisis, as Ukraine reinforced its security presence in the disputed area, Tuzla Island.
Ukrainian voters have been able to change their government democratically, although growing evidence suggests there is no longer a level playing field in terms of legal protections, media access, and unfettered campaigning. A May 2003 mayoral election saw the de-registration of the front-runner and opposition candidate, opening the way for the victory of the candidate backed by the presidentially appointed regional governor. State pressures on other major mayoral elections were also registered in the summer of 2003, and election-monitoring groups warned that these were a harbinger of potential massive interference in future elections.
Citizens 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. The next presidential election will take place in October 2004, and President Leonid Kuchma is constitutionally ineligible to seek a third term.
The 1996 constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, but the government has frequently violated these rights through direct and well documented interference in media content. Opposition figures who command a large public following are given little media coverage and are frequently subjected to unbalanced reporting on nationwide television, which is either state owned or controlled by economic oligarchs closely associated with the president and the government. State media reflect a pro-Kuchma bias, while private media typically reflect the views of their owners. Under a law that took effect in 2001, libel no longer carries criminal charges. Journalists who report on corruption or criticize the government are particularly subject to harassment and violence, and press freedom groups noted numerous cases in 2003. In April, Ukraine's Human Rights Ombudsman, Nina Karpachova, reported that over the previous 10 years, 36 media workers had been killed, and that there had been numerous beatings and acts of intimidation against journalists. She also reported on frequent cases of the freezing of bank accounts of media outlets and confiscation of print runs of newspapers. As in the case of other political killings and the assassinations of journalists, the murder of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze remained unresolved, and new leads have not been resolutely pursued.
The constitution and the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion define religious rights in Ukraine, and these are generally well respected. There are limited 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 established a commission to explore mechanisms for restoring religious property seized under communism. Acts of anti-Semitism are consistently investigated and condemned by state authorities.
Academic freedom is generally respected, although students who engage in opposition political activity are subject to threats of expulsion or suspension. New private universities are playing an important role in augmenting state supported higher education.
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 government authorities. In recent years, organizations critical of the government have been subjected to surveillance and harassment, especially at the hands of tax authorities. Some demonstrations and civic meetings have been dispersed or violently suppressed. A conference of democratic forces, organized by the leading opposition party bloc, Our Ukraine, was disrupted by a violent mob in the eastern city of Donetsk in October.
Trade unions function, but strikes and protests are infrequent. The leader of the country's largest national labor federation was forced to withdraw from an opposition parliamentary faction as the result of an orchestrated threat to his union leadership organized by allies of the presidential administration. A smaller independent labor federation that includes miners and railway workers is closely linked with democratic opposition parties.
The judiciary consists of the 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 as a rule has functioned independently, the retirement in 2003 of its well-regarded chief justice has raised questions about its ongoing independence. Other courts lack independence. Judges are often penalized for independent decision making, and there is significant evidence of routine interference in judicial decisions by the executive branch.
In 2002, the Council of Europe's Committee for the 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, asphyxiation, and suspension 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, lack of adequate food supplies in prisons, and extended detention of suspects. In August 2003, the issue of political killings resurfaced with the death of former militia officer Ihor Honcharov in police custody. Honcharov's attorney alleged that his 43-year-old client, who was arrested on suspicion of criminal activity, died as a result of beatings administered in prison. Posthumously released affidavits from Honcharov charged that a death squad directed by officers from the militia and operating with the knowledge of Ukraine's highest ranking officials, including President Kuchma, was responsible for the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Several individuals whose names had surfaced in conjunction with the death squad allegations were held at various times of the year in criminal detention. In November, a city council member whose name had surfaced in conjunction with death squad activities escaped assassination as his automobile exploded in a busy Kyiv street.
In response to ongoing allegations of criminal attacks on opposition figures, the prosecutor general in charge of investigating these cases was dismissed from office and replaced with an official analysts regarded to be more resolutely loyal to the president.
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, thus far severely limited, will be broadly allowed beginning in 2005.
Gender discrimination is prohibited under the constitution, but women's rights are not a priority for government officials. In some settings, women face discrimination in employment, but there is little effective redress through existing anti-discrimination mechanisms. The sexual trafficking of women abroad remains a major problem and a threat to women's rights and security.