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President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko continued their political infighting in 2008, and after Tymoshenko joined the opposition in trying to reduce the president’s powers, Yushchenko in October sought to disband the parliament and hold new elections. The parliament refused to fund the voting, however, forcing Yushchenko to postpone the elections indefinitely. Yushchenko and Tymoshenko reached a new coalition agreement in December, forestalling the push for early elections, but relations between the two remained hostile at year’s end. The sharp deterioration of the economy in the fall highlighted the politically divided state’s inability to carry out fundamental reform. Also during the year, the president continued to interfere with the courts, and corruption remained a severe problem. Even as the domestic media operated with relative freedom, regulators suggested that broadcasts from Russia be taken off the air, leading some local stations to do so.
In December 1991, Ukraine’s voters approved independence from the Soviet Union in a referendum 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, high-level corruption and the erosion of political rights and civil liberties.
The 1999 presidential election—in which Kuchma defeated Communist Party challenger Petro Symonenko—was marred by media manipulation, intimidation, and the abuse of state resources. The 2000 murder of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and credible evidence that appeared to implicate Kuchma contributed to mass demonstrations and calls for the president’s dismissal. The controversy prevented Kuchma from implementing his plans to consolidate more power.
Reformist former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc led the party-list portion of the March 2002 parliamentary elections, marking the first electoral success for the democratic opposition since independence. However, pro-presidential factions were able to create a parliamentary majority, partly through successes in the half of the chamber that was filled through single-member district races at the time. Nevertheless, the reformists’ strong showing 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 and Kuchma’s final term drew to a close, members of his entourage threw their support behind Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, a convicted felon (in his youth) 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 in October, 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 runoff, the results from the Central Election Commission (CEC) showed Yanukovych to be the winner by less than three 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 cities to protest fraud in the second-round vote. The Supreme Court on December 4 struck down the results and ordered a rerun on December 26. 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 repeat of the second round was carried out in a new political and social atmosphere. 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 eligible voters participating. Former deputy prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been briefly imprisoned in 2001, was approved as prime minister in February 2005. As the head of her own eponymous party, she had been Yushchenko’s chief ally in the Orange Revolution.
Although he was inaugurated amid high expectations of a clean, responsible, and efficient government, Yushchenko was soon forced to deal with the legacies of his predecessor, such as mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and unreformed state institutions. Yushchenko and Tymoshenko failed to establish themselves as effective leaders, and members of the government fought over privatization issues, with many implicated in a variety of scandals.
The Orange alliance collapsed in September 2005, when Yushchenko dismissed his key allies: Tymoshenko and Petro Poroshenko, the head of the National Security and Defense Council. The March 2006 parliamentary elections only prolonged the political stalemate, in which neither the fractured Orange coalition nor Yanukovych’s group could initially form a majority. In July, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz abandoned the Orange alliance to join Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions and the Communist Party in a coalition that made him speaker of parliament and Yanukovych prime minister. That left Yushchenko and Yanukovych, the main rivals in the 2004 presidential election, in the positions of president and prime minister.
Back in office, Yanukovych sought to limit Yushchenko’s power, targeting his ability to control foreign and national security policies. Under the new constitutional arrangement, the president had the right to appoint the foreign and defense ministers directly and also filled important law enforcement posts, while parliament was supposed to approve his appointments. Power had never been shared between the president and prime minister in this way, and Yanukovych claimed that approval should not be automatic. In January 2007, the parliament, with the support of the Tymoshenko Bloc, passed a law taking the power to appoint the prime minister, foreign minister, and defense minister if the president does not do so within 15 days of the period defined in the constitution. It also limited the president’s power to appoint governors and other regional officials. At the same time, deputies from various opposition parties began defecting to Yanukovych’s party. To stop the erosion of his authority, Yushchenko dissolved parliament in April and set new legislative elections for May. He claimed that the ruling coalition had illegally convinced opposition deputies to switch parties. The Party of the Regions initially resisted Yushchenko’s move, but the president, Yanukovych, and Speaker Moroz in May agreed to hold the elections on September 30. The agreement followed a confrontation one day earlier, in which Yushchenko summoned Interior Ministry riot police to the capital, but they were blocked by police loyal to Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko.
The Party of the Regions won 175 seats in the elections, followed by the Tymoshenko Bloc with 156 seats and the Our Ukraine–People’s Self-Defense bloc with 72. The Communist Party won 27 seats, and the Lytvyn Bloc secured 20. Voter participation was 62 percent. Tymoshenko returned to the premiership in December, thanks to a restoration of the Orange alliance.
Despite the removal of Yanukovych and the return of Tymoshenko, the power struggle between president and prime minister continued unabated in 2008, as both eyed the presidential election set for 2010. Yushchenko issued more than 800 decrees over 100 days in the spring, blocking the majority of Tymoshenko’s decisions. When the prime minister sided with the opposition on September 2 to pass a bill limiting the president’s power, their fragile alliance collapsed. On October 9, Yushchenko tried to disband parliament for the second time in two years, and set legislative elections for December 7. When the Kyiv District Administrative Court ruled his decree illegal, Yushchenko disbanded the court. A higher court ultimately overturned the Kyiv court’s ruling. However, at the end of October, the parliament refused to provide the funding (about $80 million) to hold the elections, forcing Yushchenko to postpone them for an undetermined time.
Simultaneously, the global economic crisis placed additional strain on the country. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) only approved a crucial $16.5 billion loan to prop up the economy after the fractious parliament organized enough votes on November 1 to pass enabling legislation. Yushchenko’s attempts to attach election funding to the crisis legislation almost scuttled its passage, and he eventually had to remove it.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko announced a new coalition pact in early December, canceling the president’s drive for parliamentary elections, but the relationship between the two leaders did not improve. By year’s end, Tymoshenko was calling for the president’s resignation, citing the continued economic slide and alleged currency speculation by Yushchenko’s associates. The disputes came as the country faced a looming January 1 deadline to reach a new natural gas price agreement with Russia, which had cut off supplies at the beginning of 2006.
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, which was mandated by Ukraine’s Supreme Court. Parliamentary elections in March 2006 and September 2007 were deemed free and fair, with only minor polling-place violations.
Citizens elect delegates to the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), the 450-seat unicameral parliament, for four-year terms. All seats are chosen on the basis of party-list proportional representation, according to a new electoral law first used in the March 2006 elections. Parties must gain at least 3 percent of the vote to win representation. A related package of constitutional reforms shifted the balance of power from the president to the parliament, which now approves the prime minister proposed by the president on the recommendation of the majority coalition. The president, who is elected to a maximum of two five-year terms, no longer has the right to dismiss the cabinet. However, the president still issues decrees, is responsible for defending the constitution, and exercises power over the courts, military, and law enforcement agencies. Political parties are typically little more than vehicles for their leaders and financial backers, and generally lack coherent ideologies or policy platforms.
Corruption remains one of the country’s most serious problems. The fact that Ukraine in 2008 continued to buy Russian and Central Asian natural gas from the secretive trading company RosUkrEnergo, set up in 2004 to take over from the discredited EuralTransGaz, demonstrates the lack of transparency at the highest level of the economy and political system. There is no apparent reason for RosUkrEnergo, a creature of the Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom, to serve as a middleman other than to facilitate corruption, and Yushchenko has come under attack for allowing it to play a prominent role. In addition, many fear that the country’s economic oligarchs benefit financially from their close association with top politicians. Ukraine was ranked 134 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, with its absolute score dropping from 2.8 in 2006 to 2.5 in 2008.
The constitution guarantees freedoms 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 pluralistic, and a far broader range of opinions is available to the public. However, beginning in November 2008, the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting instituted a local broadcast ban on Russia’s most influential television networks. Almost all information in Ukraine, especially in the South, East, and Center, is distributed in Russian.
There has been little progress in turning state television into a public broadcaster. Opaque economic control over the press remains in place, meaning media coverage frequently follows the will of a wealthy owner who might at the same time be an influential political figure. Local governments often control the local media, and journalists who investigate wrongdoing at the local level still face physical intimidation; local police and prosecutors do not energetically pursue such cases. The courts convicted three former police officers for the 2000 murder of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2008, but the high-level organizers of the crime have not been conclusively identified and remain at large. Internet access is not restricted and is generally affordable; lack of foreign language skills is the main barrier.
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. There was a spike in anti-Semitic acts in the fall of 2007, and Jewish leaders blamed the government for failing to mount a strong response. 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 and typically side with the dominant local religious group. Religious leaders complain about the slow restoration of religious buildings confiscated by the Soviet authorities.
Academic freedom is generally respected in most disciplines. New, private universities now augment state-supported higher education. 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 one of the most vibrant civil societies in the region. Citizens are increasingly taking issues into their own hands, protesting against unwanted construction, and exposing corruption. There are no limits on NGO activities. Trade unions function, but strikes and worker protests are infrequent, even though dissatisfaction with the state of economic affairs was pervasive in the fall of 2008. 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 the parliament consents. Before the Orange Revolution, the judiciary was inefficient and subject to corruption. These problems remain, but to a marginally lesser degree than in the past. Given the battles between the president and prime minister, the courts have become important arbiters. However, there is little respect for the division of power, and all political factions have attempted to manipulate courts, judges, and legal procedures. President Yushchenko in 2007 fired three Constitutional Court judges for procedural and ethics violations while the court was determining the legality of his decree to disband parliament before its term ended. He closed a Kyiv court in October 2008 for trying to block another of his efforts to disband parliament. The Constitutional Court has largely remained silent in the face of politicians’ attempts to grab power, lowering its legitimacy in the eyes of the public and facilitating elite interference.
Police torture, overcrowded prisons, and poor conditions continued to be a problem in 2008, according to Human Rights Watch. However, the Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Authorities reform, signed by Yushchenko on April 8, sought to bring Ukraine’s system up to international standards; it particularly focuses on improving pretrial detention procedures and strengthening victim’s rights.
While the country’s Romany population suffers from discrimination, the government has actively interceded to protect the rights of most ethnic and religious minorities, including the Crimean Tatar community. Nevertheless, Tatars continue to suffer discrimination in terms of land ownership, access to employment, and educational opportunities.
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. When the interests of economic oligarchs are involved, cronyism and the protection of insider interests prevail.
Gender discrimination is prohibited under the constitution, but women’s rights have not been a priority for government officials. While there are a relatively large number of women in prominent executive and legislative posts, including the prime minister, women still do not enjoy equal opportunities with men. Human rights groups have complained that employers advertising for jobs often specify the gender of the desired candidate and discriminate on the basis of physical appearance and age. The trafficking of women abroad for the purpose of prostitution remains a major problem and a threat to women’s rights and security.