Sounding the Alarm Round 2: Protecting Democracy in Ukraine

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A little more than a year ago, Freedom House released its first special report on Ukraine, Sounding the Alarm: Protecting Democracy in Ukraine. That report,[1] as the title suggested, warned that Ukraine was heading in the wrong direction on a number of fronts: consolidation of power in the executive branch at the expense of democratic development, a more restrictive environment for the media, selective prosecution of opposition figures, worrisome instances of intrusiveness by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), widely criticized local elections in October 2010, a pliant Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament), an erosion of basic freedoms of assembly and speech, and widening corruption. “Ukraine under President Yanukovych,” last year’s report warned, “has become less democratic and, if current trends are left unchecked, may head down a path toward autocracy and kleptocracy.”

A year later, most of those key concerns remain, and in some cases the problems have grown considerably worse, especially in the area of selective prosecution of opposition figures and corruption. The mayoral election in Obukhiv in March was widely criticized for its alleged rigging and fraud and bodes badly for the upcoming Verkhovna Rada elections. The term “familyization” was commonly used by interlocutors, implying that President Yanukovych’s family has not only benefitted personally from his presidency (see the section below on corruption) but is increasingly at the center of power and governance. Freedom House’s ranking of Ukraine in its Freedom in the World 2012 report remained in the Partly Free category with a negative trend; the same assessment can be found in Freedom House’s just-released Nations in Transit. [2]

Against this backdrop, Freedom House, with support from the Open Society Foundations’ Ukrainian arm, the International Renaissance Foundation, undertook a follow-up special report on Ukraine and sent the same American assessment team – David J. Kramer and two independent analysts, Robert Nurick and Damon Wilson[3] – back to Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Lviv this past April to have another look at the situation. This year, two highly respected Ukrainian experts joined in the assessment mission – Victoria Syumar and Olexander Sushko. Their participation provided invaluable Ukrainian insight into developments in their country and removed the sense that this year’s report is simply an outsider’s look into Ukraine. During the mission, the American-Ukrainian team met with a wide range of government officials, Verkhovna Rada deputies, political opposition figures, civil society actors, and journalists;[4] unlike last year, their meetings included President Yanukovych himself.

All members of the assessment team share a common commitment to Ukraine’s success. We embrace the vision of an independent, sovereign Ukraine with strong democratic institutions, a prosperous free market, and consistent rule of law, embedded in Europe and a partner of the United States as well as Russia. It is in the context of this vision for Ukraine, a vision shared by government and opposition leaders alike, that we offer this report and register our concerns. The trajectory of policy and events in Ukraine today regrettably threatens to lead the nation away from, rather than toward, this vision.

The assessment team concluded that, whereas most areas we considered in last year’s report have worsened, as noted above and in this year’s report, civil society appeared more animated and less dispirited this year compared to last. The Verkhovna Rada elections scheduled for October offer a critical test for the government to demonstrate its commitment to democratic principles. The media situation is not as bleak as the trajectory a year ago would have suggested, though still cause for concern. Moreover, the government has supported useful legislation and approaches dealing with the non-governmental (NGO) community, access to information, and open government.



[1] For last year’s report, Sounding the Alarm: Protecting Democracy in Ukraine, see //www.freedomhouse.org/report/special-reports/sounding-alarm-protecting-democracy-ukraine.

[2] For key findings from Freedom in the World 2012, see //www.freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-world and for Nations in Transit 2012, see: //www.freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/nations-transit-2012.

[3] The views of Nurick and Wilson reflected in this report are their own and not those of their institutions.

[4] See Appendix I for a full listing of the interlocutors with whom the team met in Ukraine. All conversations were conducted under Chatham House rules, meaning that none of the comments reflected in this report are attributed.



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