Is Ukraine a Democracy? Separating Fact From Fiction

During his prime-time show Wednesday, Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed Ukraine is not a democracy and cited the Ukrainian government’s decision to suspend 11 political parties with links to Russia.

Carlson said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “took the opportunity to turn Ukraine into effectively a one-party state, which it now is.”

“So having banned all opposition, he then seized control of the country’s media outlets. Zelensky signed a decree that combines all national television channels into a single platform that he controls. He described this as a ‘unified information policy,’ and it certainly is unified,” he went on.

That policy has been implemented as part of the martial law now in place in Ukraine.

Carlson said that Americans should admit “this is authoritarianism, it’s not democracy.”

However, the political situation in Ukraine is complex as the former Soviet republic has grappled with its move away from the Russian sphere of influence and its desire to embrace the West.

Ukraine is also at war and governments often implement emergency policies during armed conflicts that curtail political and personal freedoms.

Groups that assess countries’ democratic standing have rated Ukraine as a “flawed democracy” or a “hybrid regime” and the country continues to struggle with corruption. However, those assessments may not take into account actions Ukraine has taken during the ongoing conflict.

Free and Fair Elections

Ukraine’s president is directly elected by the people, while the country’s lawmakers are elected in both single-seat constituencies and through proportional representation.

The legislature chooses the prime minister by majority vote, and the president appoints members of the supreme court after they have been nominated by the Supreme Council of Justice.

The US State Department found in its 2020 report on human rights practice in Ukraine that the 2019 election was fair.

“In April 2019 Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in an election considered free and fair by international and domestic observers,” that report said.

The State Department noted that in the same year, Ukraine held parliamentary elections “that observers also considered free and fair.”

On Monday, Carlson focused on the decision to ban the Opposition Platform for Life, which came second in the most recent elections and won 44 seats out of 450 in the Ukrainian parliament.

Zelensky said in a video address on Sunday: “The activities of those politicians aimed at division or collusion will not succeed, but will receive a harsh response.”

“Therefore, the national security and defense council decided, given the full-scale war unleashed by Russia, and the political ties that a number of political structures have with this state, to suspend any activity of a number of political parties for the period of martial law,” he said.

Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of the Opposition Platform for Life, is a pro-Russia oligarch who was last year charged with treason and placed under house arrest last year. He reportedly escaped house arrest on February 24 and his whereabouts of him are unknown.

The other banned parties were largely smaller organizations.

A Flawed Democracy

The Economist Intelligence Unit assesses nations’ democratic status in its annual Democracy Index. The 2021 index concluded that Ukraine was a “flawed democracy” and also described it as a “hybrid regime.”

Ukraine’s position in that index declined in the 2021 report and this was “in part as a result of increased tensions with Russia.”

“Government functioning under a direct military threat usually restricts democratic processes in favor of the centralization of power in the hands of the executive and the security or military apparatus with the aim of guaranteeing public safety,” the report said.

“In Ukraine, the military played a more prominent role in 2021 and exerted more influence over political decision-making; government policy also became less transparent,” the report added.

That same report ranked the US as a “flawed democracy.”

Similarly, nonpartisan think tank Freedom House described Ukraine as a “hybrid or transitional regime” in its 2021 Nations in Transit report and gave the country a democracy percentage of 39.2 percent.

Freedom House also noted that judicial independence in Ukraine had declined, highlighting “court rulings that suspended laws necessary for reforms, discredited progressive public officials, and overturned corruption verdicts.”

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has also claimed that charges of treason and supporting terrorism brought against him are politically motivated charges. He was defeated by Zelensky in 2019.

The Media

The Freedom House Nations in Transit report also described Ukraine’s media as “pluralistic and free from state pressure in 2020” but said that media organizations are “significantly influenced by the financial support and political agendas of their owners.”

Freedom House described Ukraine as “partly free” in its 2021 Freedom in the World Report and highlighted ongoing problems with corruption.

On Sunday, Zelensky signed a decree about a “unified information policy” under martial law that aimed to bring all the country’s TV channels together as one platform. However, it is not clear how quickly this will be implemented.

corruption

The Freedom House Freedom in the World report said that “corruption remains endemic, and initiatives to combat it are only partially implemented. Attacks against journalists, civil society activists, and members of minority groups are frequent, and police responses are often inadequate.”

Transparency International ranked Ukraine as the third most corrupt country in Europe in 2021, behind Russia and Azerbaijan.

Ukraine appears to be a country in transition and is still a flawed democracy with serious problems, particularly with corruption. However, elections are free and fair and the media is pluralist, though influenced by political considerations.

The country is also continuing to put up fierce resistance to the Russian invasion and has implemented policies in reaction to the war that may be subject to criticism.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a statement during the 58th Munich Security Conference (MSC) on February 19, 2022 in Munich, Germany. Ukraine is considered a “flawed democracy” where corruption is still a major problem.
Ronald Wittek-Pool/Getty Images

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