Ukraine | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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More than a year after the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine further consolidated its democracy with parliamentary elections in March 2006 that were universally declared free and fair. After months of political crisis caused by divisions within the alliance that had been victorious in 2004, Viktor Yanukovych won the prime minister’s seat. This position is now much more powerful thanks to the enactment of constitutional amendments at the beginning of 2006 that shifted power from the presidency to the cabinet and Parliament. Corruption continued to pervade the political and economic systems, with the murky energy-trading firm RosUkrEnergo holding a monopoly on supplying Russian and Central Asian natural gas to the country.

In December 1991, Ukraine’s voters ratified a declaration of independence from the Soviet Union and elected Leonid Kravchuk as president. Communists won a plurality in parliamentary elections in 1994, and Leonid Kuchma, a former director of the Soviet Union’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—which Kuchma won in the second round with 56.2 percent of the vote over Communist Party challenger Petro Symonenko’s 37.5 percent—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 still-unsolved 2000 murder of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and credible evidence that appeared to implicate Kuchma in the journalist’s abduction contributed to mass public demonstrations and calls for the president’s dismissal. The controversy prevented Kuchma from implementing his plans to consolidate more power.

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 portion of the 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 United Social Democratic Party of Ukraine, as well as from independent candidates and even some members of Our Ukraine, to create a parliamentary majority; half of the Parliament’s seats were filled through single-member district races at the time, reducing the impact of the party-list vote. Nevertheless, the strong showing by Yushchenko’s electoral bloc signaled the growing power of democratic forces in the country and galvanized thousands who took to the streets during the year to demonstrate against Kuchma’s increasing authoritarianism and corruption.

As the 2004 presidential election approached, members of Kuchma’s entourage became increasingly concerned about preserving their power, wealth, and influence after his second term in office expired. Ultimately, they threw their support behind Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, a convicted felon and representative of the eastern, Russian-speaking Donbas region, where economic oligarchs tightly controlled the local media and political life.

In the significantly tainted first-round vote pitting Yushchenko against Yanukovych on October 31, 2004, Yushchenko came in first among 24 candidates with 39.7 percent of the vote; Yanukovych, who enjoyed backing from Russian president Vladimir Putin, won 39.3 percent. In the November 21 runoff, the results from the Central Election Commission (CEC) showed Yanukovych to be the winner by less than 3 percentage points. The CEC’s results, moreover, showed a voter turnout of nearly 100 percent in Yanukovych’s home region (well above the national average of 78 percent) as well as massive last-minute infusions of absentee ballots in southern and eastern Ukraine. Domestic opposition and international monitors declared Yanukovych’s apparent victory “not legitimate.”

In what became known as the “Orange Revolution” because of Yushchenko’s ubiquitous campaign color, millions massed peacefully in Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities to protest fraud in the second-round vote. The Supreme Court agreed to reexamine the voting on Yushchenko’s appeal, and on December 4, it struck down the second-round results and ordered a rerun on December 26, thus acknowledging the claims of the opposition. In the middle of the crisis, the Parliament ratified constitutional reforms that shifted certain powers from the president to the Parliament, effective January 1, 2006. The compromise changes effectively lowered the stakes of the upcoming rerun, making it more palatable to Yushchenko’s opponents.

The rerun of the second round of presidential elections was carried out in a new political and social atmosphere, with significantly less 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 eligible voters participating. Former deputy prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who had been briefly imprisoned in 2001—and as head of her own eponymous party was Yushchenko’s chief ally in the Orange Revolution—was approved as prime minister in February 2005.

Yushchenko was inaugurated as president amid high expectations of a new beginning with a clean, responsible, and efficient government. His honeymoon period ended quickly, however, as the new administration was forced to deal with the legacies of its predecessor, 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 metal 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 in which the law was allegedly violated. No less important, many of the Orange elites were carry-overs from the past, with significant economic interests that shaped the way they made policy. Ultimately, some of the new ministers were implicated in a variety of scandals. Within months of Yushchenko’s ascension to the presidency, two rival groups emerged within the Orange alliance: followers of Tymoshenko and the Socialist Party of Ukraine on the one hand, and supporters of Petro Poroshenko, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, on the other hand. Both sides, however, were motivated by more than ideology in their internal fights. Tymoshenko was accused of ruining the economy for the benefit of her own popularity, as economic growth virtually halted in the middle of 2005 owing to spending on social programs and wages under her government. The feuding sides began to resort to the old methods of behind-the-scenes grappling over economic control and lucrative assets, such as Ukraine’s natural monopolies and energy transportation networks.

The deterioration of the Orange alliance continued over the course of 2005, culminating on September 8, when Yushchenko dismissed his entire government. The assertion of presidential power came shortly before the recent constitutional amendments took effect at the beginning of 2006 and the country prepared to elect a new, more powerful Parliament in March. The voting was conducted in a way that respected basic political and civil rights, provided voters with a choice among candidates, and allowed an active media discussion of the issues. Ultimately, five parties crossed the 3 percent barrier and entered the Parliament: Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions (32 percent of the vote, 186 seats), Bloc Yuliya Tymoshenko (22 percent, 129), Our Ukraine (14 percent, 81), the Socialist Party (6 percent, 33), and the Communist Party (4 percent, 21).

The outcome of the elections was a political stalemate in which neither the fractured Orange coalition nor Yanukovych’s group initially could form a majority. In July, Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz abandoned his erstwhile allies in the Orange alliance to join the Party of the Regions and the Communists in a coalition that made him speaker of parliament and Yanukovych prime minister. The result therefore left Yushchenko and Yanukovych, the main rivals in the 2004 presidential election, in the position of president and prime minister.

The new situation creates an uneasy balance in which neither Yushchenko nor Yanukovych has a monopoly on power. Although the president has less power under the new constitutional system, he still has the constitutional right to appoint the foreign and defense ministers directly and fills important law enforcement posts. Nevertheless, on December 1, the parliament fired Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, creating a direct conflict with Yushchenko, who assumed that he alone had the right to remove the foreign and defense ministers.

Although Yanukovych’s powers were growing, by the end of the year, his coalition lacked the votes necessary to override a presidential veto. Yanukovych, however, refused to implement seven presidential decrees, arguing that he had not countersigned them as the constitution required. Additionally, he challenged the president’s right to appoint regional governors without the cabinet’s approval. Yanukovych suggested to Yushchenko on September 28 that he remove five governors. According to the constitution, the president appoints and dismisses the governors at the request of the cabinet. Additionally, the president must dismiss governors if two-thirds of the regional legislators vote no-confidence in them, as happened in these cases. Yushchenko refrained from removing the governors, waiting for a Constitutional Court decision, which would decide who would prevail in the struggle for power. The conflict remained unresolved at year’s end.

These various tussles between the president and prime minister are due primarily, though not exclusively, to the fact that the constitutional reform that was hurriedly adopted during the Orange Revolution did not clarify precisely who does what and how conflicts are to be resolved. Thus, in the above cases, both Yushchenko and Yanukovich can legitimately claim to have authority, but the constitution does not specify who has the final authority. Many fear that Yanukovich has been promoting his Donetsk cronies to important positions of power in Kyiv, using his electoral victory to advance a variety of individuals with checkered backgrounds.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Ukraine is an electoral democracy. Despite the falsification of several million ballots in the first two rounds of the 2004 presidential election, 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, mandated by Ukraine’s Supreme Court. Parliamentary elections in March 2006 were deemed free and fair.

Citizens elect delegates to the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), the 450-seat unicameral Parliament, for five-year terms. All seats in the Parliament are chosen on the basis of party-list proportional representation, according to a new electoral law first used in the March 2006 elections. A related package of constitutional reforms shifted the balance of power from the president to the Parliament. The Parliament now approves the prime minister proposed by the president on the recommendation of the coalition representing the parliamentary majority. The president, who is elected to a maximum of two five-year terms, no longer has the right to dismiss the cabinet. Unfortunately, the 2004 amendments to the constitution created a lot of ambiguity in the division of power between the president and prime minister, leading to an intense power struggle. The result has been a political stalemate, causing paralysis that led to a decline in the overall functioning of Ukraine’s elected representatives.

The Yushchenko government introduced a series of anticorruption initiatives in 2005, including the dismantling or reform of several of the most bribery-prone government agencies, such as the state road police and the customs office. However, the fact that Ukraine must buy its Russian and Central Asian natural gas from the secretive trading company RosUkrEnergo, set up in 2004 to take over from the discredited EuralTransGaz provides evidence that there is still extensive corruption at the highest level of the economy and political system in Ukraine. Both EuralTransGaz and RosUkrEnergo are creatures of the opaque Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom. There is no apparent reason for RosUkrEnergo to serve as a middleman beyond facilitating corruption, and Yushchenko has come under attack for allowing it to play such a prominent role. RosUkrEnergo’s position was confirmed in early 2006 as part of a deal between Ukraine and Gazprom, which held a 50 percent stake in the energy trader. The agreement ended a pricing dispute in which Gazprom had briefly cut off Ukraine’s gas supplies in January. Nevertheless, Ukraine now has a strong and active opposition in the form of the Tymoshenko bloc, whose leader is an ardent critic of the RosUkrEnergo deal. Ukraine was ranked 99 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The 1996 constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, and under changes adopted in 2001, libel is no longer a criminal offense. Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, the government has abstained from direct political interference and has not used media outlets as vehicles for political propaganda and slander against its opponents. Accordingly, the media have grown increasingly independent, and a far broader range of opinions is available to the public.

Nevertheless, there has been little progress in turning state television into a public broadcaster. Opaque economic control over the press remains in place, which means that media coverage often follows the will of a wealthy owner who might at the same time be an influential political figure. For example, offshoots of the old regime, such as former president Leonid Kuchma’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk and Donetsk-based business magnate Rinat Akhmetov, control hundreds of broadcasting licenses. Journalists who investigate wrongdoing at the local level still face physical intimidation, and local police and prosecutors do not energetically pursue such cases. Igor Mosiichuk, editor in chief of the newspaper Vecherny Vasilkov , was beaten in August 2006 after publishing stories on local officials who benefited from the privatization of land and sought to reopen an oil depot that had been closed for environmental reasons. Arsonists torched journalist Sergei Yanovsky’s apartment in Kherson in June 2006 after he wrote about local corruption and campaign irregularities. Use of the internet is growing rapidly in Ukraine; the number of users increased from 200,000 in 2000 to more than 5 million in March 2005. However, murky ownership of internet media sites remains a problem.

The constitution and the 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion define religious rights in Ukraine, and these are generally well respected. 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. Acts of anti-Semitism are consistently investigated and condemned by state authorities. Muslims are occasionally subjected to document checks by local police, particularly in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Local officials sometimes block the attempts of nontraditional religious groups to register and buy property. The courts frequently side with the dominant local religious group.

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 now augment state-supported higher education. Nevertheless, despite the changing atmosphere, bribes for entrance exams and grades remain a problem.

The constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly but requires advance notification of government authorities. Ukraine has several thousand nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and an increasingly vibrant civil society. Observers consistently note the growing importance of social organizations in the country, and such organizations have not faced the crackdowns that have become common in other post-Soviet states. Trade unions function in Ukraine, but strikes and worker protests are infrequent. Factory owners are still able to pressure their workers to vote according to the owners’ preferences.

The judiciary consists of the Supreme Court, specialized high courts, appeals courts and local courts of general jurisdiction, 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. During the Kuchma era, the judiciary was inefficient and subject to corruption. Problems remain, but to a lesser degree than in the past. Given the novelty of the constitutional amendments that took effect at the beginning of 2006, the Constitutional Court will play a large role in defining the new balance of power between the president and the Parliament. From late October 2005 until August 2006, the Constitutional Court was not operating because the outgoing Parliament refused to make the required appointments to the bench. Once the Parliament fulfilled its duty, both the Constitutional and Supreme Courts had new chairmen. Among other innovations, a law approved in December 2005 gives the public access to court decisions and requires that a register of all decisions be published on the internet, a decision that is being partially implemented. Despite this progress, Ukraine has a long way to go before it meets European Union standards for the judiciary.

Police often subject drug users and sex workers to physical and psychological intimidation, according to Human Rights Watch. Law enforcement officers often harass these vulnerable members of the population as a way of fulfilling their arrest quotas.

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. However, the government remains insensitive to requests by Russians to be acknowledged as a separate nationality

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. Yanukovych’s government has agreed to respect existing property rights and is not considering major reviews of past privatization deals. When the interests of oligarchic clans are involved, cronyism and the protection of insider interests prevail. While not forgoing the advantages of insider connections, big business interests are also helping to push Ukraine forward by working to open the economy to greater global influence, as in the case of magnate Rinat Akhmetov, a member of parliament with extensive influence on the government. 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.

Gender discrimination is prohibited under the constitution, but women’s rights have not been a priority for government officials. There are few women in legislative or executive posts. Human rights groups have complained that employers advertising for jobs often specify the gender of the desired candidate. The trafficking of women abroad for the purpose of prostitution remains a major problem and a threat to women’s rights and security.