A prognosis for Ukraine's ebbing democracy

Six months into office, Yanukovych has moved swiftly to strengthen government. Indications are mounting that his intention is comprehensively to curtail the freedoms won by Ukraine since the fall of communism. But there is reason to hope that civil society may prove robust enough to withstand the pressure
Alexa Chopivsky
1 September 2010

After the Orange Revolution five years ago, Ukraine enjoyed more freedoms than its ex-Soviet neighbors, with the exception of the Baltic states. Just six months into office, the government of President Viktor Yanukovych is restricting free speech, breaking up peaceful protests, and manipulating election laws. This restraint on basic freedoms poses a test for the resiliency of Ukraine's civil society. The West should do more to encourage Ukraine to safeguard the new liberties.

Constraints on free speech follow several years of improvement.  For 2009, when Viktor Yushchenko was president, Freedom House ranked press freedom in Ukraine at 108 out of 196 countries.  This was the best score for any ex-Soviet state except the Baltic republics.  By comparison, Russia ranked 175.


Ukrainian President Yanukovych enjoys the cover of a number of friendly TV networks

In May, three months after Viktor Yanukovych became president, journalists from Channel 1+1 released an open letter complaining of censorship.  In July, after a Ukrainian blogger criticized Yanukovych, the State Security Service (SBU) interrogated him for allegedly threatening the president’s life and insulting him. 

Most TV networks are now owned by oligarchs friendly to Yanukovych.  The most-watched Inter channel belongs to the head of the SBU, Valery Khoroshkovsky. Following a Presidential Decree in May, Khoroshkovsky also serves on the High Council of Justice, the body which appoints judges. Both are conflicts of interest incompatible with democracy. Khoroshkovsky has been maneuvering to expand his media empire through court actions and journalistic pressure against his competitors, the independent outlets Channel 5 and TVi, which in June were stripped of their broadcast frequencies.

On Monday, the Kyiv Administrative Court of Appeal upheld the cancellation of frequencies -- a move opposition leaders called "especially cynical" given the fact that the verdict was handed down as Yanukovych was in Berlin promising German leaders to uphold media freedoms. During the court proceedings, journalists from "Stop Censorship" and other groups staged demonstrations which received no coverage on central TV channels.

Earlier this month, the International Press Institute wrote to Yanukovych "to express its concern at (a) significant deterioration” in press freedom.  Reporters without Borders has warned of disturbing recent trends in censorship, political pressure, and physical attacks on journalists in Ukraine. Most recently, on August 11, newspaper editor Vasyl Klymentyev, a well-known critic of the authorities, disappeared. Last week the Interior Minister admitted that local law enforcement officials may have been involved in the Kharkiv journalist's disappearance, which is being investigated as a possible murder.   

"Earlier this month, the International Press Institute  wrote to Yanukovych "to express its concern at (a) significant deterioration” in press freedom"

Free speech intimidation is not limited to Ukrainian nationals.  In June, Nico Lange, Kyiv Director of Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation -- who the previous month published a report criticizing the Yanukovych government’s “authoritarian tendencies and rapprochement with Russia" -- was detained at the Kyiv airport for ten hours.  Only after intervention by the German embassy was he allowed entry into Ukraine. 

For his part, Yanukovych chalks up censorship claims to political point scoring. "Tell me who prevents you from writing the truth? I think that this is just one of the methods of playing politics," he recently told journalists. 

Clampdowns on freedom of assembly are another emerging trend.  In May, protests were banned in central Kyiv during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit.  They were also off-limits during Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill's trip to Ukraine in July.  When thirty activists challenged the ban in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, they were detained.  On July 31, during the Strategy 31 opposition rally in Moscow, the police broke up a Kyiv gathering peacefully supporting the Russian group. Yesterday, at least two activists were arrested at a small Kyiv protest outside the Russian Embassy in support of the latest Strategy 31 demonstrations in Russia.

Demonstrations outside the Russian embassy resulted in at least two arrests

In May, an SBU agent visited the rector of Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and instructed him to warn his students against protesting. As Father Borys Gudziak later recounted in a memorandum, the agent stated that "students are allowed to protest” but “those involved in any illegal activities will be prosecuted.”  Illegal activities, said the agent, "include not only violent acts but also, for example, pickets blocking access to the work place of government officials (or any protests that are not sanctioned by authorities)."

According to Yevhen Zakharov, Chairman of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, during the first 100 days of the Yanukovych government, "regional and national media published more than 350 critical articles regarding how the police handled peaceful gatherings such as protests.  This [number] was more than in 2007-2009 combined."

A new law on local elections restricted participation by independent candidates and newer political parties, including many with established popular bases.  Adopted hastily with virtually no public debate, it also prohibited electoral blocs at the local level.  The legislation appeared to be a grab by Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions to influence nationwide local elections in October. 

The law and circumstances surrounding its adoption were so suspect that the US International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute, which have promoted democracy in Ukraine since 1992, joined efforts for the first time in Ukraine to draw attention to the legislation.  They said the law appeared "to contradict principles established by the Ukrainian Constitution, as well as international obligations and commitments undertaken by Ukraine." 

Amidst international pressure, Yanukovych last week conceded that "some of [the law's] provisions caused much criticism and controversy." On Monday, the parliament voted to amend several aspects of the legislation. Still in place, however, are certain provisions which some say are likely to dilute support for Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych's main opponent. 

Yanukovych has moved to consolidate control in other ways. This spring his parliamentary majority was formed in a way that many argue violates a Constitutional limitation on the rights of political blocs, although the Constitutional Court subsequently approved it.

Last week, Yanukovych announced plans for Constitutional reform that would strengthen his powers. He professes to favor "a strong president who has real powers to coordinate and control the implementation of key reform issues and the country's strategic course." How Yanukovych does this bears a close watch. 

In perspective

While Ukraine’s backward democratic steps are serious, it is important to keep them in perspective.  For example, according to the International Press Institute, Russia is the most dangerous European country for journalists.  Five journalists have been killed in the country over the past two years. Freedom of assembly in Russia is consistently curtailed by authorities, who often use excessive force.  At a Strategy 31 protest in March, Lyudmila Alexeeva, the 83-year old prominent human rights champion, received a severe blow to the head.  Just this week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told Kommersant that protesters who fail to obtain permission from local authorities for public demonstrations "will take a cudgel to the head." Russia's regional elections, too, re under tightening Kremlin control.  Not only are governors no longer elected, but now the Kremlin is aborting mayoral elections.   

Is civil society in Ukraine pushing back at these new infringements on democratic standards?  Preliminary signals are mixed.  As one Ukrainian friend put it when asked why more people were not speaking up, “For what?  We did this already (in the Orange revolution) and where did it get us?"  

Political apathy in Ukraine is worrisome, but most experts believe civil society should be strong enough to resist a sharp U-turn in democratic freedoms.  Even in Russia, where civil society is weaker, concerns are growing about authoritarian rule.  Recent polls indicate that Russians are becoming more disenchanted.   According to the Levada Center, 59 percent of Russians want a return to direct elections for governors, 85 percent believe authorities are obliged to listen to protests of its citizens and, in a poll taken before the country's wildfire emergency, just 47 percent believe "things in the country today are going in the right direction on the whole."

Some of those in Ukraine who speak up seem annoyed by what they perceive as the West's inattention to the country’s political fortunes.  Commenting on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's July Ukraine visit, journalist Dmytro Hubenko lamented, "that the government is pushing the country in the opposite direction” from democratization “seemed to go unnoticed by the US Secretary of State, who in general demonstrated somewhat unjustified optimism, to put it mildly." 


The reopened investigation into the death of journalist Georgiy Gongadze — allegedly on the orders of former President Kuchma — is a test of Yanukovych’s administration

Does Yanukovych want more power to strengthen a government weakened under his predecessor, as some suggest, or to enable a repressive power grab?  It is too soon to be sure but signs to date are not comforting.

One important test for Yanukovych, for sure, will be the ongoing investigation of journalist Georgiy Gongadze's death. Ten years ago, his decapitated corpse was found in a forest outside Kyiv two months after his disappearance. His death allegedly came on the orders of then-President Leonid Kuchma's  government. Thus far the murder has not been solved, but Yanukovych should ensure a fair trial open to journalists.

The West should take more careful notice of developments in Ukraine which could compromise hard-won freedoms and continue to actively support the growth of civil society, a vital long-term force for democratic progress.  A political reversal, especially if combined with more supplication to Russia, could undermine reform and confidence in other ex-Soviet states.  It could also abet Moscow’s persistent efforts to strong-arm Ukraine into joining Russia’s ill-conceived customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a tool for advancing Moscow’s declared “privileged interests” in neighboring countries.  Thus far Yanukovych, to his credit, has resisted the entreaties.

On the other hand, perhaps democracy and democratic rights may just mean different things to different people. In a terse exchange last May, now viewable on YouTube, Putin told Russian rock star Yuri Shevchuk that protesters should respect the rights of others who may be disturbed by their gathering.

Hopefully, Ukraine’s new rulers better understand the value of peaceful expression in a democracy.

Alexa Chopivsky, formerly with NBC News, is a freelance journalist based in Kyiv, Ukraine


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