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December 08, 2017

Democracy in Danger

The 2013-14 Euromaidan protests brought down the corrupt government of President Viktor Yanukovych and offered Ukrainians the prospect a brighter and freer future. Four years later, however, momentum toward the creation of a new politics has stalled. Russian aggression, entrenched resistance to change, and weak democratic institutions have severely hindered the ability of President Petro Poroshenko’s government to make essential reforms.

While volatility has marked the new era in Ukraine, the country appears to be entering a particularly perilous stretch, as oligarchs—who still in large part run the country—push back against reform efforts that threaten their power. Local civil society leaders, foreign diplomats, and senior international observers say that major reform is urgently required if the country is to avoid endangering gains made to date.

To its credit, Ukraine’s current government has enacted the most significant package of reforms in the country’s post-Soviet history. These include an effort to combat corruption by giving more authority over government spending to local leaders, who are often seen as more responsive and accountable to citizens. The government has also implemented new protections for the rights of LGBT people, as well reforms to the country’s judiciary, banking sector, and healthcare system. In September 2017, a new Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area fully came into effect as part of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, a deal aimed at opening markets and harmonizing laws between the two entities.

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Despite this progress, Ukraine has yet to make a clean break with the past, and public trust in state institutions remains dangerously low. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) needs radical reform, and comparisons with conditions in Russia are still too easy to draw. The World Justice Project’s 2016 Rule of Law Index ranked Ukraine at 78th and Russia at 96th out of 113 surveyed countries, while the 2017 Index of Public Integrity, a new EU-funded anti-corruption body, ranked Ukraine at 68th and Russia 72nd out of 109 analyzed. The World Bank’s 2017 Worldwide Governance Indicators put Ukraine on the same level as Russia for quality of governance, while Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index lists Ukraine as tied with Russia at 131rd of 176 countries around the world. Ukraine’s corruption problem threatens to undermine progress made over the last two decades. 

The damage that Russia continues to wreak on Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and democratic prospects cannot be overlooked. The United Nations and international NGOs have extensively documented large-scale human rights violations, denial of due process, and expropriation of public and private property in annexed Crimea. Through its support for separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Russia has fueled a war that, according to the UN, has killed 10,225 men, women, and children, and injured over 24,000 more through mid-August 2017. At the same time, a steady stream of Russian propaganda and disinformation seeks to discredit and damage the Ukrainian government’s image both domestically and internationally. Officials say Russia is also behind acts of terrorism, including a string of recent assassination attempts.

The country’s problems, however, cannot be solely attributed to Russia. The stakes remain enormous for both Ukrainians and all invested in a Ukraine firmly aligned with good governance, human rights, and the rule of law, including the United States.

This report describes the ways in which the post-Maidan Ukrainian government has and has not made progress on fighting corruption, how far it allows space for civil society, permits dissenting and critical voices in the media, and accounts for human rights abuses within its security services.  

As we approach the four-year anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity, Human Rights First seeks to document the many ways that Washington can continue to bolster respect for human rights and democratic institutions in Ukraine. Most notably, the U.S. government should provide greater support to Ukraine’s civil society as it faces new threats to its existence, and push for the creation of an anti-corruption court, which activists say is essential. It should also:

  • Consider using existing mechanisms to impose visa bans and asset freezes on government officials and their cronies credibly linked to acts of significant corruption.
  • Publicly call for the repeal of legislation targeting civil society, and for the immediate dismissal of all politically-motivated cases against anti-corruption activists and NGOs.
  • Visit anti-corruption activists in their offices, and send observers to any court hearings, speaking publicly as necessary.
  • Publicly condemn all abuse and torture by the SBU and other Ukrainian security forces, and call for access to all places of detention by national and international human rights groups, and urge that the SBU be reformed in line with NATO standards.
  • Publicly and consistently speak out against limits on Ukrainians’ freedom of speech.
  • Insist on greater reforms within the Ukrainian the military, including the successful prosecution of those guilty of corruption in military procurements.

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