Democracy in Ukraine: Are We There Yet?

March 22, 2010 // 12:00pm1:00pm

After the most recent presidential elections in Ukraine, which were assessed as generally free and fair by the international community, there has been much talk of Ukraine moving closer to becoming an established democracy. At a 22 March 2010 Kennan Institute talk, Nadia Diuk, Vice President, Programs – Africa, Central Europe and Eurasia, Latin America and Caribbean, National Endowment for Democracy, used four criteria to assess the progress of democracy in Ukraine and argued that it has not yet advanced as far as people would like to believe.

"One of the ironies of history," said Diuk, "was that when Yanukovych tried to rig the presidential elections in 2004, he lost." This past election, however, was considered free and fair by international monitors, and it won him the presidency. The 2010 election once again showed the value of the exit poll, which in 2004 was used to determine that the election had been stolen from pro-Western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. Diuk noted that negative campaigning had become much more widely used since 2004 – as opposed to trying to falsify votes – and that this time it was mostly conducted against Yulia Tymoshenko. It might have caused her to lose the 4.3 percent of votes that went to the "Against All" party, and giving Yanukovych just enough of a lead to win. Diuk stated that the effort to gain the "hearts and minds" of the voters in a vigorous campaign was a positive development but the next step towards democracy would be for politicians to continue upholding their responsibilities to voters long after elections are over.

Media coverage has come a long way since the early 2000s, when the Ukrainian government sent out directives to media organizations listing what they could and could not cover. After the Orange Revolution in 2004, the media became much more pluralistic. However, Diuk noted that the structure of media ownership has changed little since 2004: media oligarchs still slant the viewpoints of their television stations or newspapers, and many journalists do not consider it unethical to receive payment for including certain political messages in their articles. Although many views are represented on Ukrainian television, Diuk argued that it is difficult to understand them in the overall political context. Political debate has entered the realm of entertainment television rather than serious political commentary and debate.

Democratic Governance
The most recent appointments in Yanukovych's government have gone to members of his party. There has been no attempt to present various parts of the country or those who voted for Tymoshenko; indeed, Diuk stated there was a striking absence of women in the executive branch. "If a Ukrainian Rip Van Winckle had fallen asleep in 2004 and woken up last week, I'm not sure he would have realized the Orange Revolution had taken place," quipped Diuk. The government lineup consists of many of the same people who held positions under former President Kuchma, and new laws about forming majorities confirms the potential strengthening of presidential power.

Political Culture
According to Diuk, a reorientation of civil society groups has occurred over the past five years, with an increased emphasis on citizens helping themselves rather than relying on the government to implement changes for them. Civil society organizations active in election monitoring have particularly flourished, making Ukraine somewhat of a "pioneer" in this field. There is also "in-built pluralism" said Diuk, exemplified by multiple cultures, parties, regions, religions, and financial groups. One area that remains weak, however, is how well political parties represent their constituents. Many parties are vehicles for various business interests, and their unaccountability is evident in parliament, where most officials do not have to report back to voters.

Are We There Yet?
While Ukraine is slowly moving toward democracy, Diuk advises against excess enthusiasm, pointing out that the new administration under Yanukovych does not seem interested in introducing democratic reforms. However, there is hope in the new generation of Ukrainian youth, who are slowly becoming accustomed to taking responsibility for their own quality of life rather than demanding it from the government. "We are not there yet," said Diuk, "but we are definitely on the way."

By Larissa Eltsefon
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

Event Speakers List: 
  • Vice President, Programs for Europe and Eurasia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, National Endowment for Democracy
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