Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Ukraine's political rights rating improved from 4 to 3, its civil liberties rating from 3 to 2, and its status from Partly Free to Free, due to the annulment of fraudulent presidential elections and the subsequent free and fair revote in December 2004, as well as the removal of restrictions on independent political and social activities and free speech following the Orange Revolution.
The triumph of the "Orange Revolution," a series of massive, nonviolent public protests against voter fraud in the second round of Ukraine's November 2004 presidential election, led to the Supreme Court's annulment of the rigged ballot. The rerun of the elections on December 26, 2004, resulted in victory for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who was installed as president in January 2005. However, disputes among elements of the Orange Revolution's political alliance, particularly over a series of economic issues, led to its fracturing; Yushchenko dismissed his entire government-including then-Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko-in September.
In December 1991, Ukraine's voters ratified a declaration of independence from the USSR and elected Leonid Kravchuk president. Communists won a plurality in parliamentary elections in 1994, and Leonid Kuchma, a former director of the USSR's largest missile production facility, defeated Kravchuk in the presidential poll. Over time, Kuchma's 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.
The 1999 presidential election-won in the second round by Kuchma with 56.21 percent of the vote over Communist Party challenger Petro Symonenko's 37.5 per-cent-was marred by 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 scandalous revelations contained in secretly recorded conversations of the president's conversations all contributed to mass public demonstrations and calls for the president's dismissal.
In the March 2002 parliamentary elections, Our Ukraine, the bloc headed by reformist former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko, 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 propresidential For a United Ukraine bloc received enough postelection support from the United Social Democratic Party of Ukraine, as well as from 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. 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.
As the 2004 presidential election approached, Kuchma's entourage became increasingly concerned about preserving its power, wealth, and influence after Kuchma's second term in office expired. Although the Constitutional Court ruled in 2004 that Kuchma was eligible to run for a third term, his extremely low popularity induced the ruling elite to search for alternatives. One possibility was amending the constitution to shift the balance of power towards the parliament and, by extension, the oligarchic groups that controlled the major pro-regime parties. This "constitutional reform," however, had been stalled in the parliament for years, prompting a search for Kuchma's presidential successor. The choice eventually fell on 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.
Opposition candidates were virtually banished from the airwaves, while major independent print and electronic media outlets were either shut down or persecuted by the courts and tax inspectors. Once the election campaign moved into high gear in July, opposition front-runner Yushchenko encountered harassment and obstacles to campaigning; in September, he 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 that the candidate had been poisoned with a large dose of dioxin in what was deemed an assassination attempt.
In the first-round vote on October 31, 2004, which included significant evidence of voting irregularities, Yushchenko came in first among 24 candidates with 39.7 percent of the vote; Yanukovych, who enjoyed strong official backing from Russian president Vladimir Putin, won 39.3 percent. In the November 21 runoff, Yushchenko faced off with Yanukovych. Independent exit polls found Yushchenko had won comfortably by a 10 percent margin. However, the 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. Domestic opposition and international monitors denounced the results as tainted and the putative winner, Yanukovych, as "not legitimate."
In what became known as the "Orange Revolution," millions amassed peacefully in Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities to protest evidence of fraud in the second-round vote. Although the forceful dispersal of protests was apparently contemplated, major confrontation was averted. The attempts of pro-Yanukovych regional leaders in the east, with the support of some Russian officials, to confront the revolution by staging a separatist movement in the east quickly fizzled. The Supreme Court agreed to reexamine the results on Yushchenko's appeal, and on December 4, it struck down the second round and ordered it rerun on December 26, thus acknowledging the claims of the opposition. In the middle of the crisis, the parliament ratified the constitutional reform that will turn Ukraine into a parliamentary republic as of January 1, 2006.
The rerun of the second round of presidential elections was carried out in a new political and social atmosphere devoid of fear of political repression. The growing independence of the media, the parliament, the judiciary, and local governments allowed for a fair and properly monitored ballot. As a result, Yushchenko won easily with 52 percent of the vote to Yanukovych's 44 percent, with 75 percent of the votes cast. After several weeks of unsuccessful appeals by Yanukovych (who by that time had resigned the office of prime minister), Yushchenko was duly inaugurated as president on January 23, 2005. Yuliya Tymoshenko, a former deputy prime minister briefly imprisoned in 2001 and Yushchenko's chief aide in the Orange Revolution, was approved as prime minister in February.
Yushchenko was inaugurated as president amid high expectations in Ukrainian society of a new beginning with a clean, responsible, and efficient government. His administration took bold steps in areas including reestablishing good relations with Western governments and institutions, fighting corruption, improving media freedom, and introducing reform of the state administration. Progress in the investigation of the Gongadze murder led to the suicide of Kuchma's interior minister, Yury Kravchenko, who emerged as the primary suspect in the investigation. An independent parliamentary commission found Kuchma complicit in Gongadze's murder, and a criminal investigation against the former president began. The new authorities also began inquiries into the dealings of Kuchma's top associates, including his chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk.
Yushchenko's honeymoon ended quickly, however, as the new administration was forced to deal with the legacies inherited from the previous administration, such as mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and the unreformed institutional structure of the state. The government was particularly divided over how to deal with its promises of revising the last-minute privatization of Ukraine's most lucrative assets, such as the Kryvorizhstal metallurgy works, which had been sold to Kuchma's cronies just months before his rule ended, as well as more than 3,000 privatizations conducted under Kuchma where the law was allegedly violated.
The Orange Revolution brought to power a motley and hardly manageable alliance of political parties, movements, and individuals divided by ideologies, ambitions, and personal interests that was primed to disintegrate once the change of power was accomplished. Within months of Yushchenko's ascendancy to the presidency, two groups emerged: the populists of Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and the Socialist Party of Ukraine on the one hand, and the alleged free-market proponents grouped around Petro Poroshenko, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, on the other hand. Tymoshenko was accused of ruining the economy for the benefit of her own popularity, as economic growth was virtually stalled in the middle of 2005 owing to populist spending on social programs and wages administered by her government. Both sides, however, were motivated by more than ideologies in their internal fights. The feuding sides began to resort to the old methods of behind-the-scenes fighting over economic control and lucrative assets, such as Ukraine's natural monopolies and energy transportation networks.
Consequently, the Orange alliance was set to break apart in the run-up to the March 2006 parliamentary elections, whose importance had increased enormously since constitutional reform had shifted much of the power from the president to the parliament and prime minister. The conflict inside the Yushchenko team thus de facto turned into the early start of the parliamentary campaign. Meanwhile, political wars of words and the agonizingly slow progress of the economy took a toll on the popularity of the leaders of the revolution, including Yushchenko, as public dissatisfaction with failed expectations and unfulfilled promises replaced the initial enthusiasm and hopes.
The exchanges of accusations and recriminations between the two camps developed into a major political crisis. On September 2, Chief of Presidential Staff Oleksandr Zinchenko tendered his resignation, citing increasing corruption in the presidential inner circle and singling out Poroshenko as the principal culprit. Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko tendered his resignation on September 8, saying that Poroshenko had created a parallel, "oligarchic" cabinet in Ukraine, obstructing the work of the lawful one. On September 8, Yushchenko got rid of both sides of the squabble, dismissing the entire government-including Prime Minister Tymoshenko -and Poroshenko.
In his statement to the nation, Yushchenko accused his allies of betraying the ideals of the Orange Revolution and resorting to the old politics of the government it had ousted. He also promised a return to clean government and honest politics. His choice of a new prime minister, governor of Dnipropetrovsk region Yury Yekhanurov, however, marked more of a return to old-style, post-Soviet, personnel politics, as the new head of government was a purely technocratic figure dominated by the president. Yekhanurov is expected to be a transitional figure in the run-up to the 2006 parliamentary elections that will redefine the composition of power that has emerged after the Orange Revolution. Although both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko vowed unity during the celebration of the first anniversary of the revolution on November 22, 2005, their parties failed to unite, giving Yanukovych's Party of Regions a good chance to stage a political comeback.
Russian gas monopoly Gazprom announced in November a drastic increase in the price of gas for Ukraine in a move perceived by most observers as a Kremlin-inspired, politically motivated reprisal for the Orange Revolution. The resulting price hikes may result in the public's increasing dissatisfaction with living standards and overall direction of the country following the democratic change and hurt the chances of the prodemocratic and pro-Western camp in the March 2006 parliamentary elections.
Citizens of Ukraine can change their government democratically, a right they gained following the massive nonviolent public protests of late 2004 now known as the Orange Revolution. The bitterly disputed 2004 presidential election did not offer a level playing field-in terms of legal protections, media access, and equal campaigning opportunities for opposition candidates-in the first two rounds of voting. The elections were monitored by more than 4,000 foreign observers, and 10,000 domestic monitors were deployed by the Committee of Voters of Ukraine. While some 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, massive citizen protests doomed the attempt at voter fraud and ensured that a democratically elected president, Viktor Yushchenko, would emerge from the process in the third round of the elections mandated by Ukraine's Supreme Court.
Citizens elect the president and delegates to the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), the 450-seat unicameral parliament. Under a 2001 election law, 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. The constitutional reform approved by the Verkhovna Rada in December 2004 shifted the balance of power toward the parliament. Starting January 1, 2006, the parliament will appoint the prime minister proposed by the president on recommendation of the parliamentary majority, while the president loses the right to dismiss the cabinet. The reform also changes the election of the parliament to a purely proportional electoral system.
Ukraine has a number of political parties and coalitions, the most important of which are the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine bloc (including the Ukrainian People's Party); the Yuliya Tymoshenko bloc; the Agrarian Party (linked to Speaker of Parliament Volodymyr Lytvyn); the Socialist Party of Ukraine; the Party of Regions (linked to Viktor Yanukovych); the Communist Party of Ukraine; and the United Social Democratic Party (headed by former president Leonid Kuchma's chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk).
Corruption was believed to be widespread at the highest levels of the Kuchma administration, and there is significant petty corruption at the lower levels of authority. The Yushchenko government aggressively introduced a series of anticorruption initiatives in 2005, including dismantling or reforming several of the most bribery-prone government agencies, such as the state road police and the customs office. Ukraine was ranked 107 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The 1996 constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, but the Kuchma government frequently violated these rights through direct and well-docu-mented interference in media content. In October and November 2004, 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 television 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 and Era-TV-were crucial independent sources of news and information. Independent and opposition newspapers were published throughout 2004 and appeared in enlarged editions during the weeks leading up to the presidential vote.
Journalists who report on corruption or criticize the government were particularly subject to harassment and violence under the Kuchma administration. Nearly 40 journalists have been murdered since 2000, 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 is no longer a criminal offense.
The press became increasingly free after the Orange Revolution. As the new government has abstained from direct political interference and does not use media outlets as tools for political propaganda and slander against its opponents, the media has grown increasingly independent, and a far broader range of opinions is available to the public. The media sharply criticized Yushchenko for the improper business dealings and flamboyant lifestyle of his son, for which the president was forced to apologize publicly. Nevertheless, the oligarchic control over the press remains in place, which means that media coverage often follows the will of an owner who might at the same time be an influential political figure. Offshoots of the old regime, such as Kuchma's son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk and Donetsk-based oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, remain in control of hundreds of broadcasting licenses. The use of the internet is growing rapidly in Ukraine: the number of internet users grew from 200,000 in 2000 to 3.9 million in 2003.
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. Religious affiliations in Ukraine often follow political and ethnic divides, particularly between Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking parts of the society. Many hierarchs and clerics from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) actively campaigned for the ruling elite's candidate for president, former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych. Muslims are occasionally subjected to document checks by local police, particularly in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Under Kuchma's presidency, the Ministry of Education failed to register a single Muslim school in the country.
Academic freedom is generally respected in most disciplines. The repression of students who engaged in opposition political activity during the Kuchma administration ended in 2005. 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. Civic groups-many of them led by young activists-became increasingly active in nonpartisan votereducation efforts and in preparations for election monitoring in 2004. The strength of civil society was demonstrated in the 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. The Supreme Court took an objective look at the massive array of evidence suggesting voting fraud and a stolen election in December 2004, and its ruling authorizing the repeat of the second round of presidential election marked a huge step forward in emancipating the judiciary from political control.
In 2002, the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture issued a report that criticized the Ukrainian police for using certain methods of interrogation, including electric shocks, cigarette burns, asphyxiation, and suspension by the arms or legs.
While the country's Roma population suffers from discrimination, the government has actively interceded to protect the rights of most ethnic and religious 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 oligarchic clans are involved. In such cases, cronyism and protection of insider interests prevail.
Gender discrimination is prohibited under the constitution, but women's rights have not been 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.