Five years ago, Europe rejoiced over the democratic and peaceful change of government in Ukraine. The Orange Revolution’s main achievements were free and fair elections, freedom of speech and media, and freedom of assembly. The list of failures is however much longer: weak governance, no accountability of politicians, and worsening living conditions for Ukrainians. In short, “playing with the rules instead of by the rules” is still the habit of most Ukrainian politicians.
I recently returned from Ukraine, where I learned that even these scant achievements are under threat left and right. A closer look reveals a country still struggling to come to terms with its new democratic identity.
On October 31, Ukrainians will vote in local elections. The Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, introduced a new system of elections to city councils. The law reduced the possibility of new candidates, thereby limiting the choice of voters.
But Ukraine’s struggles go beyond the electoral scene. Freedom of expression and media is also under attack, particularly evidence by the worrying rise of censorship.
The largest part of the media market is divided among four oligarchs. A big share of the market is owned by one of the richest businessman in the country, Valeriy Khoroshkovsky. Surprisingly (or not), in March 2010, he was appointed head of Ukraine's Security Service (SBU).
As if that was not enough to keep Khoroshkovsky busy, he has since taken a seat on the National Bank’s board of governors and a seat in the Supreme Council of Justice, a body that appoints and dismisses judges. This was possible since Ukraine still does not have a law on conflict of interests, or one on political party financing. (The Verkhovna Rada also recently postponed again the entry into force of anticorruption laws.)
One way to restrict media freedom is by allocating fewer broadcasting licenses. The Inter Media Group, the company owned by the SBU chief, recently obtained a court decision canceling national broadcasting licenses for its two main competitors, TVi and Channel Five (also the two most outspoken outlets against the government, although still quite marginal in their audience).
Despite legislation allowing for public demonstrations, police in Ukraine have recently been unlawfully restricting demonstrations in public spaces. The most recent case is the limitation of a rally on the 10th anniversary of the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongagdze. Restrictions on any public demonstrations of opposition close to places visited by President Yanukovych reveal a growing level of paranoia.
Other fundamental rights are also being violated. In March the new minister for home affairs closed down the human rights department. Its staff was carrying out unannounced visits of police detention facilities where most of the torture cases usually happen.
Since its closure, 11 cases of suspicious deaths in police custody have been reported, at least a doubling from last year’s total. Five years ago, Ukraine committed towards the UN and EU to establish an independent torture prevention mechanism. No actions have followed since towards this aim.
Despite these numerous shortcomings, Ukraine still aspires to become a member of the EU. Through the European Neighbourhood Policy, created in 2003, the EU committed to help Ukraine improve its economic performance and governance in order to ensure stability and security for EU member states.
However the main objective of the plan was to keep Ukraine out of the EU for as long as possible. This approach ultimately allows for the Ukrainian political cabal to cherry-pick reforms prescribed by the EU (needless to say, building transparent governance and respecting human rights have not been their favorite fruits).
The EU should take up the democratic shortage with Ukrainian authorities directly and not delegate it to a toothless Council of Europe. Instead, the EU prefers not to insist on governance problems as long as Ukraine does not insist on its EU membership.