Freedom in the World
Ukraine’s civil liberties rating declined from 2 to 3 and its status from Free to Partly Free due to deteriorating media freedom, secret service pressure on universities to keep students from participating in protests, government hostility toward opposition gatherings and foreign nongovernmental organizations, and an increase in presidential influence over the judiciary.
After winning the generally free and fair presidential runoff election in February 2010, Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions quickly redefined the rules of the Ukrainian political system. They rewrote the law on forming a governing coalition, postponed local elections from May to October, and stacked local electoral commissions with party loyalists. Yanukovych also benefited from a Constitutional Court decision that annulled the 2004 amendments to the constitution, shifting power back from the prime minister and parliament to the presidency. Also during the year, the security services exerted increased pressure on academic freedom, journalists complained of greater censorship, the administration began selective prosecutions against its political opponents, and corruption remained a major concern.
In December 1991, Ukraine’s voters approved independence from the Soviet Union in a referendum and elected Leonid Kravchuk as president. Leonid Kuchma defeated Kravchuk in the 1994 presidential poll, and won reelection in 1999 amid media manipulation, intimidation, and the abuse of state resources. Kuchma faced growing criticism for high-level corruption and the erosion of political rights and civil liberties, and evidence implicating him in the 2000 murder of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze fueled mass demonstrations and calls for the president’s ouster. The democratic opposition made important gains in the 2002 parliamentary elections, but pro-presidential factions retained a majority.
In the significantly tainted first round of the October 2004 presidential election, reformist former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko led a field of 24 candidates, followed by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, a representative of the eastern, Russian-speaking Donbas region who enjoyed backing from Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the November runoff, the official results showed Yanukovych to be the winner by less than three percentage points, but voting irregularities in Yanukovych’s home region led the domestic opposition and international monitors to declare his apparent victory “not legitimate.”
In what became known as the Orange Revolution because of Yushchenko’s ubiquitous campaign color, millions of people 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 crucial powers from the president to the parliament, effective January 1, 2006. Although technically adopted in an unconstitutional manner, the compromise changes effectively lowered the stakes of the upcoming rerun, making it more palatable to Yushchenko’s opponents. However, they also created an unclear division of power, which later led to constant conflict between the president and prime minister.
The repeat of the second round was held 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, and his chief ally, former deputy prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, became prime minister. However, their alliance quickly broke down, leading to stalemate.
The March 2006 parliamentary elections prolonged a political stalemate in which neither the feuding Orange factions led by Tymoshenko and Yushchenko nor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions could form a majority. In July, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz abandoned the Orange alliance to join the Party of the Regions and the Communist Party in a coalition that made him speaker of parliament and Yanukovych prime minister.
After a period of considerable infighting, Yushchenko dissolved the parliament in April 2007 and was ultimately able to schedule new legislative elections in September. Tymoshenko returned to the premiership in December, thanks to a restoration of the Orange alliance. Nevertheless, the power struggle between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko continued unabated in 2008 and 2009.
In the 2010 presidential election, which met most international standards, Yanukovych defeated Tymoshenko in the second round of voting in February, 49 percent to 46 percent. He quickly reversed many of the changes adopted in the wake of the Orange Revolution. After allying himself with parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, who gave him enough votes to replace Tymoshenko as prime minister, Yanukovych installed Mykola Azarov in the post in March. To build the necessary majority, the parliament abruptly changed the law on parliamentary procedure to allow individual deputies to defect from their factions and join the governing coalition. Although the Constitutional Court had rejected such a procedure two years earlier, it approved the change on April 8. Also in April, Yanukovych signed a deal that extended Russia’s lease on its Crimean naval base for 25 years, even though the constitution does not permit the basing of foreign troops on Ukrainian soil.
In July Yanukovych tried to amend the law on referendums so that he could ask voters to overturn the 2004 constitutional amendments, but he lacked the votes in the parliament. However, after replacing a number of critical Constitutional Court justices in September, he secured an October ruling that annulled the 2004 compromise, restoring the 1996 constitution and returning considerable power to the presidency.
Separately, in another move that went beyond constitutional provisions, the parliament postponed local elections set for May. It then hastily adopted a new electoral law in July that favored Yanukovych’s party by prohibiting multiparty electoral blocs—such as the Tymoshenko Bloc and Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense—and allowing the ruling parties to dominate the electoral commissions. The European Union criticized Ukraine before the elections over numerous credible reports that the secret services were cracking down on independent media and the opposition, particularly Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party. Ultimately, the October voting was less democratic than the presidential poll, according to the Opora watchdog group, which cited an atmosphere of mistrust and numerous technical violations. The state used its resources to remove candidates from the ballot and to block observers from doing their jobs. There were vote falsifications in the Kharkiv and Odessa mayoral elections, where the number of votes recorded exceeded the number of ballots distributed, and Tymoshenko candidates were barred from the Lviv and Kyiv polls.
Ukraine is an electoral democracy at the national level, with the opposition winning in the four most recent presidential and parliamentary elections. However, the October 31, 2010, local elections showed serious flaws under newly elected president Viktor Yanukovych’s leadership.