1991 was a memorable year, as it witnessed the total collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, which was part of the communist block for many years, was finally emancipated from the Soviet Union. Since then, Ukraine has been striving for democratic reforms. Has the country been successful in its pursuit of democracy? Let’s examine the democratic status of Ukraine and its constancy in light of the recent protests.
A stepping stone in the consolidation of democracy in Ukraine was the Orange Revolution in 2004, thirteen years after Ukraine’s independence. The Orange Revolution was characterized by a series of protests and demonstrations, which spread into Kiev and other major cities between November 2004 and January 2005. The chief factor for its success was the results of the second-turn of the presidential elections in November 2004, which opposed the pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko and the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. The elections were thought to be scarred with electoral fraud and heavy corruption. Elections were held once again, and the victor turned out to be Viktor Yushchenko. The re-elections were judged fairly and freely, and it since been so in Ukraine , despite some remaining flaws in the electoral process.
However, the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko was very controversial and rather unstable. He fired his government and dismissed several Orange Revolution members in 2005. Moreover, he tried to dissolve the Parliament twice (in 2007 and 2008), despite the fact that he did not have the constitutional right to do so; these actions led to two political crises. Yushchenko was even suspended from the presidency for several months. He finally returned to office in November 2009. However, after the elections of January 2010, Yushchenko had to leave the position for Yanukovych.
Democratic advancements during Yanukovych’s incumbency were mixedbecause when some improvements were implemented in certain sectors, there would be regressions on others . (can you please give examples? Which sectors?) Certain features of democracy in Ukraine have been endangered by Yanukovych’s policies. For example, Freedom House sounded the alarm twice since the beginning of his mandate in an attempt to pressure him to respect democracy. More specifically, their reports notified a deterioration of basic civil rights such as freedoms of assembly and speech and expanding corruption in the government. Furthermore, has been acknowledged that Ukraine now holds political prisoners. The rule of law has hence been neglected.
On the other hand, Ukraine has been part of the Eastern Partnership since November 2009. The Eastern Partnership is a propitious program launched by the European Union targeting eastern European countries such as Ukraine, Belarus or Georgia. The fundamental principle of the Eastern Partnership is to offer these states cooperation, free trade and financial support on the condition that the governments introduce democratic reforms. Unexpectedly, Yanukovych capitulated to several demands of the EU. For instance, a program was implemented on the Belarus-Ukraine border to train the borders’ authorities, so that issues surrounding drug smuggling or the disrespect of intellectual property rights could be overcome.
Nevertheless, despite the promising progress observed, Yanukovych ultimately withdrew from the Partnership as Moscow bestowed a more auspicious loan to the government in November 2013. This action provoked a continual uproar throughout Ukraine, which some consider as a second Orange Revolution. Protesters first asked for Ukraine to return to the Eastern Partnership, but lately demands have moved towards removing Yanukovych from presidency. Will protests come to achieve their demands? Or will it be like the Orange Revolution, when no real progress was made? The recent events enable us to study the current Ukrainian democratic situation in more detail.
Firstly, Yanukovych’s actions demonstrate the powerful influence Russia still holds on the Ukraine. Indeed Ukraine and Russia share close historical and cultural bonds. Besides, there is a strong minority of ‘ethnic Russians’ throughout Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine’s energy resources rest heavily upon Russian gas imports (two-third of the total gas imports in 2012). Geographically, Ukraine is situated in an intermediary position between Russia and the EU, and Ukrainian identity has been swinging between Russia and Western Europe. Despite the inclination of the Ukrainian citizens towards the preferred EU, the government is still highly dependent on Russia in many aspects.
Secondly, as stated beforehand, the government does not respect the rule of law. The police have participated in violent suppressions of the protest. Five dead protestors have been found so far, and many were beaten or even tortured. This highlights a grassroots issue in Ukraine, where even the public authorities do not respect fundamental human rights, and no punitive sanctions are undertaken either.
Thirdly, a few oligarchs have amassed a colossal amount of wealth since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They are extremely powerful in Ukraine, since they control most of the media. In addition, as they sometimes provide financial support during notably electoral campaigns, they retain a great influence on political parties. As demonstrated by the protests, civil society seems to be thriving in Ukraine. However, citizens’ demands will not be fulfilled unless they are endorsed by the oligarchs. The middle-class and working class ought to be more empowered.
Recently, Yanukovych has started new negotiations with some key European public figures. Financial aid to help Ukraine escape from its indebted situation and promote economic development is being discussed, in exchange for a new government constituted of competent officials from varied political parties. Despite the protests, Ukraine is sliding towards authoritarianism, escorted by Russia. The West should take some more decisive and offensive actions. Financial aid is insufficient, and should be steered by proper guidance. In addition, the EU should suggest membership for Ukraine, an option which was lacking in the Eastern Partnership offer, and which could enhance the incentives for the government to comply. In the end, the fate of Ukrainian democracy rests upon the EU’s willingness to support and foster it.