PRAGUE – Since the election of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010, Ukraine has experienced a significant and alarming deterioration in its democratic framework. Fundamental tenets of a democratic society, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press are increasingly coming under pressure. And the prosecution of opposition members, which has now culminated in the arrest and detention of former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko – during an ongoing trial that most of the West has deemed political – seems to confirm that the rule of law is being brushed aside.
Given Ukraine’s strategic importance, the country’s fate has become an urgent matter of concern not only for Europe, but for the entire international community. Among the most worrying factors underlying Ukraine’s anti-democratic turn are the following:
Consolidation of power. After Viktor Yanukovych’s election last year, the Constitutional Court rescinded constitutional changes made in 2004 as part of the settlement that brought about a peaceful end to the Orange Revolution. By doing so, a consensus was reversed that aimed to reduce the presidency’s powers and move toward a more parliamentary system. Instead, Ukraine’s president is now increasingly consolidating his total control over the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.
Endemic corruption. Corruption is widely believed to be endemic in the country’s police, secret service, administration, government, and Prosecutor’s Office. On Transparency International´s Corruption Perceptions Index 2010, Ukraine scored 2.4 on a scale from zero (highly corrupt) to 10 (very clean). Efforts to combat corruption are at best half-hearted and are not bringing any apparent results. Corruption cripples the country´s institutions and the government´s inaction on this problem is also having an economic impact.
Increased Security Service (SBU) activity. Evidence of increased SBU activity with political motives was presented in various human rights groups´ reports. Individuals, NGOs, and journalists have been either overtly threatened or placed under surveillance. For example, in July 2010, Nico Lange, the head of the Ukrainian office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, was detained at the Kyiv airport after publishing a critical report on the process of Ukrainian regional elections (the incident was subsequently presented as a “misunderstanding”). In September, SBU searched the offices of organizations funded by philanthropist George Soros; in October 2010, the offices of the Vinnitsa Human Rights Group were also searched by police without a court order.
Harassment of opposition parties and independent media. Theongoing criminal proceedings against opposition politicians, including Tymoshenko, together with the impact of changes in the electoral law to favor the president and his supporters, are weakening opposition forces.
Harassment of the independent media ranges from administrative obstruction to much worse. The disappearance of Vasyl Klymentyev, the editor-in-chief of Novyi Styl, a newspaper which focuses heavily on corruption in the Kharkiv region, has never been fully investigated. Most television channels are in the hands of four groups, most of which have close links to the ruling Party of Regions. Valery Khoroshkovsky’s continued ownership of Inter Media Group, in addition to his roles as head of the country’s security service and as a Council Member of the National Bank of Ukraine, is an obvious conflict of interest. Overall, there is clear evidence of a decline in media pluralism since President Yanukovych came to power.
A weak civil society. While observers believe that further harassment of NGOs is constrained by the administration’s wariness of international reaction, particularly from the EU, the operating environment for civil-society organizations remains extremely difficult, and they have no opportunities for genuine inclusion in policymaking.
Ukraine has reached a crossroads. One signpost points towards democracy; the other towards autocracy. The former path leads to membership in the European Union; the latter would take Ukraine to a darker and more dangerous destination. Millions of Ukraine’s citizens favor EU membership, but their enthusiasm is tempered by the absence of a clear EU policy towards Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the administration of President Yanukovych proclaims its willingness to join the EU, but has failed to introduce the changes needed to meet the qualifying criteria. As a result, Ukraine is unlikely to be invited to start membership negotiations anytime soon.
It is in the EU’s vital interest to strive for a far more active policy towards Ukraine than it has so far. The current Polish EU presidency should hark back to the origins of Poland’s thriving democracy, and recall the essential support that it received from the West a generation ago. A similar effort is needed for Ukraine today, and that effort should not be set aside for reasons of political expedience, or, for that matter, pursued for reasons of simple economic self-interest. We urge the EU and its member states to insist that the rule of law is respected. At the very least, the EU should demand that Tymoshenko and the other opposition leaders are set free on bail so that they can more vigorously defend themselves in court.