US Information Service, Kyiv

Ukraine’s slide into authoritarianism “not yet irreversible”


An address given by Orest Deychakiwsky, Policy Advisor, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) to the Washington Group Leadership Conference

February 19, 2011

 …I’ve been asked to speak about human rights/fundamental freedoms and democracy trends.  It’s no secret that Ukraine is undergoing some trying times.  It’s creeping towards authoritarianism, and many say it’s already semi-authoritarian, but I want to state at the outset that while the situation is discouraging, it is not yet irreversible. It is not hopeless.

All of us, including the Helsinki Commission are deeply concerned by the backsliding that we’ve witnessed over the last year with respect to freedom of expression, assembly, pressures on the media, including the growth of censorship and political pressure on some independent media, and attacks against journalists; attempts to curtail academic freedom and that of institutions and activists who peacefully promote the Ukrainian national identity; the flawed October local elections which did not meet standards for openness and fairness; the lack of rule of law; the further politicization of the judiciary, corruption, selective prosecutions, SBU harassment of NGOs,   and the list can go on.

Freedom House has downgraded Ukraine from its pedestal of being the only “Free” country among the non-Baltic former Soviet states to “Partly Free”, and Ukraine has moved down in other indexes as well (e.g. Reporters Without Borders – Ukraine is now 131st out of 178 countries, 42 places down from 2009, Index of Economic Freedoms, Transparency International). All one has to do is read articles just over the course of the last few weeks in serious Western publications. As WSJ said in its recent editorial called Orange Crushed:  “Yanukovych’s government is now busily trying to reverse democratic rights, putting pressure on the press, ramming constitutional changes into law to increase his power and extending parliament’s term by a year.”   Also, according to new research from civil society, policy advocates and academics in Ukraine, the levels of democracy in Ukraine are almost as low as they were in the final year of the Kuchma administration, 2004.

Among the recent troubling developments are the apparently politically motivated, selective prosecutions - the increased pressure on the opposition which focus on charges of corruption of senior members of the previous Tymoshenko government – some are in jail, one, former Economics Minister Danylyshyn, received political asylum in the Czech Republic last month, or lower level officials who reportedly had already fallen out of favor with the Regions establishment.  At the same time, the Prosecutor General’s Office has so far has remained quiet with respect to those with ties to the current government.  It’s important to go after lower level corruption, but if Yanukovych is serious about battling corrosive and massive corruption – which continues to haunt Ukraine and remains at the top of threats to Ukraine’s democracy, prosperity and national security -- he might want to look a bit closer to home.

The Yanukovych government  -- including the SBU and other so called siloviki - has also engaged in harassment, arrests and pressure against less well-known Ukrainians, including nationally-oriented activists, bloggers, historians, academics…

…So, Ukraine has been moving in an authoritarian direction, although I would again caution against concluding that it is fully there yet– certainly not on the level of Russia or Belarus.  In large part this is due to Ukraine’s political pluralism, diversity, and the vital role of civil society.

Let’s take Belarus, where the Lukashenka regime engaged in a brutal December 19th post-election crackdown, which continues to this day.  Ukraine still has a considerably stronger civil society, greater pluralism and freer media than Belarus (or Russia), despite the very real pressures.  In Belarus, for instance, the parliament, the entire government, the state media and other institutions have been completely dominated by Lukashenka now for 15 years – he is essentially a dictator.  Political opposition and civil society operate in a far more constrained environment.  There is far greater resistance by the regime than in Ukraine to both domestic and external, (specifically Western) criticism.

In Ukraine, the Rada opposition has not yet become completely eviscerated, even if the opposition has been weakened and some of its members have gone over to the Stability and Order majority.  But there are some potentially cautiously encouraging signs that you wouldn’t see in Belarus or Russia – e.g. tax code demonstrations which forced the Yanukovych regime to compromise on the new tax law, notwithstanding there’s a lot of debate as to how much improvement there is, given that it seems to favor the oligarchs over small business; the new information access law; overturning of  Education Minister Tabachnyk’s restrictive education law which attempted to limit the autonomy of universities, defeat of an attempt to make Russian the second official language, and even firing of an Odesa cop for denigrating Ukrainian language…

… So, while we’re all deeply concerned about the trajectory of democracy and human rights in Ukraine, I do not yet think that “propalo vse”, or “all is lost”, as Yuliya Tymoshenko once famously said. Perhaps Western reaction, coupled with internal, civil society/political opposition push-back, may serve to put the brakes on the downward slide. With respect to the internal: let’s not forget that more than half the country, according to recent polls, is not supportive of the Yanukovych government or his Regions party. And their popularity is diminishing; not that the opposition’s is growing, however, but that’s the subject of a whole difference discussion.  Instead of being a unifier, Yanukovych has acted to further divide Ukrainian society, especially the more nationally-conscious part of the population.  At the same time, he doesn’t seem to be getting more popular with his own base.  Maybe he and the people around him will realize that they’re not getting anywhere by further alienating voters.

With respect to the West, Ukrainian officials keep trying to convey to the West how they’re for democracy, human rights, etc., but, clearly, there is a gap between the rhetoric and the reality.  The West’s reaction to the human rights and democracy deficit has been growing.  Just take last week as an example, here in US where Ukrainian officials heard over and over US concerns (State, Congress, including Helsinki Commission, the Ukrainian-American community), and there are indications that at least some high ranking Ukrainian officials are bothered by the criticism and don’t want to be perceived as human rights violators. They even sometimes admit that they need to improve. To their credit, and Larry Silverman will speak more to this, both sides under the auspices of the US-UA Strategic Partnership Commission will undertake concrete steps to improve the rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights in Ukraine, and this is all to the good, assuming the Ukrainian side takes it seriously.  A senior US official involved with Ukraine recently told me the situation in Ukraine reminds one of the game of whack-a-mole – that is, the West and civil society in Ukraine raise one human rights/democracy problem, it may get ameliorated or put on hold, but then some other problem pops up (e.g. SBU harassment/intimidation of NGOs, which seems to ebb and flow). Still, this is in sharp contrast to Russia, Belarus and other post-Soviet states, who largely ignore both domestic and foreign criticism/expressions of concern.

Now, some red lines to watch for in the future:  if Ukraine has a further significant deterioration in human rights and democracy AND fraudulent October 2012 Rada elections then, I think, all bets off in terms of Western support or any remote chance of moving forward with respect to European integration, which, after all, remains the country’s most important stated goal.  And Ukraine is scheduled to take over the OSCE Chairmanship in 2013, so hopefully it will want to set a good example.

The Yanukovych government clearly has been moving to consolidate and expand power and has prided itself on the ability to provide stability, contrasting it with the political chaos of the previous years.  But a stability based on authoritarianism or even semi-authoritarianism, is an illusory one, and if the Yanukovych regime thinks that rolling back democratic freedoms is the way to achieve stability, I frankly think this is a shortsighted and counterproductive approach.  Ongoing dramatic events in North Africa and the Middle East, or even the situations in Belarus and Russia (which are perhaps less stable than they might appear), should remind one of the superficiality of the so-called stability of authoritarianism.


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