Ukraine | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Ukraine's civil liberties rating improved from 4 to 3 due to increases in media independence and associational rights resulting from widespread civic mobilization protesting fraudulent elections in November.


As 2004 drew to a close, opposition reformers led mass nonviolent public demonstrations against voter fraud in the second round of Ukraine's November presidential election. The "Orange Revolution" protests involved as many as one million participants. The upsurge in public demonstrations also contributed to opening up Ukraine's media, particularly TV and radio, which formerly had been under the tight control of the executive branch.

In December 1991, Ukraine's voters ratified a declaration of independence from the USSR and elected Leonid Kravchuk president. In 1994, Communists won a plurality in parliamentary elections, and Leonid Kuchma, a former director of the USSR's largest missile production facility, 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 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 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, credible evidence that appeared to implicate Kuchma in the journalist's abduction, and revelations contained in secretly recorded conversations of the president's conversations all contributed to sparking mass public demonstrations and calls for the president's dismissal

Despite polls showing that reform-minded primeminister Viktor Yushchenko had an approval rating of 63 percent, a coalition of the Communist Party and parties controlled by economic oligarchs ousted Yushchenko in April 2001; he was replaced by Anatoly Kinakh.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared that the March 2002 parliamentary elections had "brought Ukraine closer to meeting international commitments and standards for democratic elections." However, reformers and domestic election monitors 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 all seats. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc emerged as the single largest political force in the party-list vote, marking the first electoral success for the democratic opposition since independence. However, the pro-presidential For a United Ukraine bloc received enough post-election support from the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine - United, independent candidates - and even some members of Our Ukraine - to create a parliament majority. Nevertheless, the success of Yushchenko's electoral bloc 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 Kuchma's growing authoritarianism and corruption.

After the election, Ukraine continued to be plagued by pervasive corruption and ongoing violations of basic rights. Kuchma came 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.

Kinakh remained prime minister until November 2002, when Kuchma dismissed him, ostensibly for failing to implement economic reforms. He was replaced by Viktor Yanukovych, a former convicted felon and representative of the Russian-speaking Donbas region, where economic oligarchs tightly controlled the local media and political life.

With the ascendancy in 2002 of Kuchma's chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk, authoritarian policies were reinforced amid unassailable evidence of pervasive government interference in the media through instructions, known as temnyky (theme directives). These directives were issued weekly, and failure to comply could result in various forms of harassment, such as tax audits, canceled licenses, and libel suits.

In 2003, Ukraine's reintegration 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. In April 2004, amid street protests, Ukraine's parliament ratified the agreement.

The main political events of 2004 revolved around the October-November presidential election. Despite high economic growth in 2003 and 2004, opinion polls showed that incumbent pro-government politicians were generally out of favor and that opposition reformer Yushchenko was by far the most popular candidate and the likely winner of the presidential vote.

To reduce the chances of an opposition victory, the government tightened control over radio and television broadcasting. In January 2004, a lower court order that a major opposition newspaper, Silski Visti, be shut down after it had published two anti-Semitic articles. Opposition leaders pressed the editors to apologize for the publication of the articles, but charged that the banning of the paper was a government effort to silence opposition media; the paper continued to publish as it challenged the court ruling. U.S.-sponsored Radio Liberty programs were removed from the radio airwaves in February, and in March, a court ordered that transmitting equipment be seized from opposition station Radio Kontynent. A national cable television station, Channel 5, with a national audience of approximately 3 percent, was subjected to tax inspections and frequently silenced in key urban centers.

In June, opposition members of parliament denounced the sale - for $800 million - of the Kryvorizhstal steelworks to a consortium headed by Donetsk industrialist Rinat Akhmetov (a financial supporter of Yanukovych) and Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk. An alternative bid of $1.5 billion with a further $1 billion in capital improvements from a consortium led by Britain's LNM and U.S. Steel was turned down by the State Property Fund. Reformers claimed the bid process leading to privatization was rigged.

With Yushchenko and other opposition presidential candidates - including Socialist Party leader Oleksander Moroz - virtually banished from the national airwaves, opposition campaigning focused on mass meetings throughout the country. Once the election campaign moved into high gear in July, opposition candidates, especially front-runner Yushchenko, encountered harassment and obstacles to campaigning. Meeting halls were locked by local authorities at the last minute, public squares were blocked, and the campaign airplane was denied landing rights in nearby airports, creating delays as Yushchenko traveled from more distant airports to reach voters.

In September, with his grassroots campaign attracting large crowds around the country, Yushchenko took ill after a meeting with high-ranking State Security officials. His illness was life-threatening and debilitating, forcing the candidate off the campaign trail for several weeks. Forensic tests later determined the candidate had been poisoned with a large dose of dioxin in what was deemed an assassination attempt, only one of several attempts on his life.

In the first-round vote on October 31, which included significant evidence of voting irregularities, Yushchenko came in first among 24 candidates with 39.7 percent to 37.3 percent for Yanukovych, who enjoyed strong official backing from Russian president Vladimir Putin. Incumbent President Kuchma did not run as the Constitution precluded his seeking a third term.

In the November 21 runoff, Yushchenko faced off with Yanukovych. Exit polls conducted by a consortium of polling groups led by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, found Yushchenko had won comfortably by a 10 percent margin. However, preliminary results from the Central Election Commission (CEC) showed Yanukovych the winner by less than 3 percent. The CEC's results, moreover, showed a near 100 percent voter turnout in Yanukovych's home region of Donetsk (well above the national average of 78 percent) as well as massive last- minute infusions of absentee ballots in southern and eastern Ukraine. Opposition politicians went public with tapes of high-ranking executive-branch officials indicating a conspiracy to commit massive voter fraud by tampering with the CEC's computer server. The opposition and international and domestic monitors denounced the results as tainted and the putative winner, Yanukovych, as "not legitimate."

As November 2004 drew to an end, millions massed peacefully in Kiev and other major Ukrainian cities to protest evidence of fraud in the second round vote. Television journalists organized protests that helped surmount government censorship and content controls. There were signs that the Supreme Court and parliament would reexamine the results, which had not yet been officially published pending opposition court challenges. The "Orange Revolution" offered hope that the crisis would end in the eventual victory of due process, the likely election of Viktor Yushchenko, and an end to the corruption and criminality that had characterized the rule of President Leonid Kuchma.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Ukrainian voters are able to change their government democratically, although the bitterly disputed 2004 presidential election did not offer a level playing field in terms of legal protections, media access, and unfettered campaigning opportunities for opposition candidates. The elections were monitored by more than 4,000 foreign observers, the largest international mentoring effort in history, and 10,000 domestic monitors were deployed by the Committee of Voters of Ukraine. While some monitors faced impediments and hostility, monitors were generally able to collect significant data on election abuses. Despite the falsification of several million ballots and the rigging of the data coming to the computer server of the CEC (Central Election Commission), massive citizen protests offered hope that the attempt at voter fraud would fail and a democratically elected president would emerge from the process.

Citizens elect the president and delegates to the Verkhovna Rada, the 450-seat unicameral parliament. Under a 2001 election law adopted, half of parliament is elected in proportional voting and half in single-mandate constituencies. The president serves as the head of state and can appoint and dismiss the prime minister, who in turn appoints most other cabinet members in consultation with the president.

Ukraine has a number of political parties and coalitions, the most important of which are the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine bloc, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, the National Agrarian Party (linked to parliamentary speaker Yuri Lytvyn), the Socialist Party, the Party of Regions (linked to Prime Minister Yanukovich), and the United Social Democrats (headed by President Kuchma's chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk).

Corruption at the highest levels of the Kuchma administration was believed to be widespread, and there is significant petty corruption at the lower levels of authority. Ukraine was ranked 122 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

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. In October and November, journalists organized protests and hunger strikes against state control of media content. After the second-round presidential vote and amid massive street protests, controls over journalists were removed at private national TV channels 1+1, Novy Kanal, and ICTV.

During the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, two small independent television broadcasters, cable station Channel Five (with a 3 percent national audience in November 2004) and Era-TV (which broadcasts in the mornings and late evenings through a licensing arrangement with state television) were crucial independent sources of news and information. Independent and opposition newspapers were published throughout the year and appeared in enlarged editions during the weeks leading up to the presidential vote. The rural antigovernment newspaper Silski Visti challenged a court order to cease publication and expanded its circulation in special editions to six million copies during the period between the first and second round of the elections.

As 2004 ended, opposition figures, who throughout the year had been frequently subjected to unbalanced reporting on nationwide television, began to appear and speak directly to the public on news and interview programs. Until November, state media reflected a pro-government bias, while private media outlets typically reflected the views of their owners, usually pro-government oligarchs.

Journalists who report on corruption or criticize the government are particularly subject to harassment and violence, and press freedom groups noted numerous such cases in 2004. Nearly 40 journalists have been murdered, and the killing of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze remained unresolved amid significant evidence of a government cover-up. Under a law in effect since 2001, libel no longer carries criminal charges.

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. Acts of anti-Semitism are consistently investigated and condemned by state authorities. In 2004, political divisions emerged between religious denominations with clerics from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Protestant denominations generally critical of the ruling elite. Many hierarchs and clerics from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) actively campaigned for the ruling elite's candidate for president, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

Academic freedom was generally respected in most disciplines, although students who engaged in opposition political activity were subject to threats of expulsion or suspension. Students were pressed in numerous universities to vote for the government candidate. Often these pressures were exerted by university administrators, including rectors and deans, who threatened students with expulsion from dormitories if high levels of support for Yanukovych were not forthcoming. New private universities played an important role in augmenting state-supported higher education, and their students played a key role as volunteers in election-monitoring efforts and in protests of voter fraud.

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. As 2004 progressed, civic groups - many of them led by young activists - became increasingly active in nonpartisan voter-education efforts and in preparations for election monitoring. In November, the strength of civil society was demonstrated in massive protests of voter fraud in which the authorities did not use force to interfere.

Trade unions function, but strikes and worker 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, as well as 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 often functioned independently, the retirement in 2003 of its well-regarded chief justice raised questions about its ongoing independence. However, as 2003 drew to an end, there were signs the Supreme Court would take an objective look at the massive array of evidence suggesting voting fraud and a stolen election. Other courts traditionally have lacked 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, including electric shocks, cigarette burns, asphyxiation, and suspension by the arms or legs.

In response to ongoing allegations of criminal attacks on opposition figures, in 2003, the prosecutor-general in charge of investigating these cases was dismissed from office and replaced with an official analyst regarded to be more resolutely loyal to the president.

While the country's Roma population suffers from discrimination, the government has actively interceded to protect the rights of most ethnic and minorities, including the Jewish minority and the Turkic Crimean Tatar community.

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. Property rights are generally respected, unless the interests of oligarch clans are involved. In such cases, cronyism and protection of insider interests prevail.

Gender discrimination is prohibited under the constitution, but women's rights were not a priority for government officials. In some settings, women face discrimination in employment, but there is little effective redress through existing antidiscrimination mechanisms. The sexual trafficking of women abroad for the purpose of prostitution remains a major problem and a threat to women's rights and security.