Freedom in Ukraine: Moving in the right direction?

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Freedom in Ukraine: Moving in the right direction?

Originally published in The Ukrainian Weekly. Written by Orest Deychakiwsky, a Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and a Senior Advisor at the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council.

Not all readers may be aware of the comprehensive and detailed U.S. government and NGO reports issued annually that assess the status of human rights and democracy, or religious freedoms, in countries around the world, including Ukraine. Several have been issued in the last few months. They include the State Depart­ment’s Annual Human Rights Country Reports and its report on International Religious Freedom, as well as those from respected NGOs such as Freedom House. There is also a flow of information from other U.S. and international NGOs, the United Nations and other international bodies, and, of course, from Ukrainian NGOs, notably the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.

These reports accurately address and assess the absolutely appalling state of human rights and elementary freedoms, democracy and the rule of law in the Russian-occupied territories – a subject that this columnist has often written or spoken about in recent years. In these territories, human rights abuses, the severe repression of those who dare peacefully oppose the puppet regimes, suppression of civil and political liberties, and the persecution of religious groups – with the notable exception of the Russian Orthodox – constitute the norm.

However, this week, I will focus on human rights and freedoms for the roughly 85 percent of Ukrainians living under Kyiv’s authority. In doing so, I will mention a disconcerting trend that is causing growing concern in Washington and among Ukraine’s international partners.

Ukrainians enjoy basic human rights and freedoms and a vibrant civil society, and the government largely respects civil and political rights of all kinds – including rights of national minorities and religious freedoms. Elections are democratic. But it is, as Human Rights Watch calls it, a “mixed picture,” and democratic Ukraine is not without human rights and democracy deficits.

These include torture and other abuse of detainees by law enforcement personnel, harsh prison conditions, and arbitrary arrest and detention – albeit nowhere on the scale of what we see in the occupied territories. Ukraine also faces some restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, and serious weaknesses in the rule of law. Ukraine is still plagued by widespread government corruption – although considerably less than the astronomical levels of the Viktor Yanukovych era.

In 2019, Freedom House’s authoritative Freedom in the World Index again ranked Ukraine as “partly free” – the three designations being “free,” “partly free,” and “not free.” That score decreased slightly over 2018 because of increased attacks on anti-corruption activists and journalists, and on vulnerable communities such as the Roma.

With respect to democracy, Freedom House also recently issued its Nations in Transit report, where Ukraine’s democracy score in 2019 improved marginally over that of 2018. Some progress was made, for instance, with whistleblower protections or a law lifting parliamentary immunity, and the two free and fair national elections.

But the way things have been looking lately, I am not sure we’ll see improvement this year, and I even fear backsliding.

In recent months, we have seen a growing pattern of questionable, seemingly politically motivated investigations or prosecutions of political opponents – most notably former President Petro Poro­shenko. Others, such as former Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka, who was dismissed in the unfortunate March government shake-up, and other reformers have faced investigations that appear to be politically motivated. There are ongoing attempts to undermine the head of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) Artem Sytnyk. Civil society activists such as Euro-Maidan activist Tatyana Chornovol and Odesa activist Serhiy Sternenko seem to be targeted. We also see what appears to be a shaky case against the alleged killers of journalist Pavel Sheremet.

The plethora of politically motivated, often frivolous, at times patently ridiculous charges being leveled against Mr. Poroshenko and others looks like political score-settling and is starting to remind many people of the Yanukovych era of “selective justice.” I would think – and hope – that Ukraine’s leadership will be smart enough not to invite these kinds of comparisons. If there really is sufficient credible evidence in any of these cases, then Ukrainian authorities need to go about prosecuting them in a manner consistent with the rule of law, with a presumption of innocence and a fair process. Selective justice most assuredly does not serve Ukraine’s interests – it divides society and harms its democracy and national security, which of course plays into Moscow’s hands. And it will not, to put it mildly, engender confidence from Ukraine’s many staunch supporters in Congress and elsewhere in the U.S. government, as well as Ukraine’s other international partners, or the international business community. It is also raising serious concerns in the diaspora, with statements from the Ukrainian World Congress, Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Ukrainian Canadian Congress and Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organizations and others issued in recent weeks. [Editor’s note: See these statements on page 8.]

To add insult to injury, at the same time that we have these questionable cases, the truly bad actors, such as killers of Euro-Maidan activists, other human rights abusers, corrupt oligarchs and officials from the Yanukovych era go free or are protected. The recent State Department Annual Human Rights Country Report on Ukraine sums it up well: “The government generally failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.”

Clearly, there is still much work to do in cleaning up law enforcement entities, notably the Ministry of Internal Affairs under Minister Arsen Avakov, who has been criticized by many as blocking police reforms, and the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), which is in need of serious changes, including separating its state security functions from its law enforcement powers – thereby helping to eliminate its corruption. And the Prosecutor General’s Office, which had shown some promise in reducing corruption and other ills during Mr. Riaboshapka’s brief tenure, has instead become involved in questionable, selective justice.

With respect to the judiciary, some progress has been made since the launch in the fall of 2019 of the Anti-Corruption Court. However, judicial reforms appear to have stalled, especially with respect to the process of the selection of judges. But the bottom line is that all too many judges are still not trusted.

Despite these concerns, perhaps one can take some comfort in the fact that Ukraine, while not really moving forward, at least has not significantly slipped backward. Or take solace in the fact that substantial progress has been made since the Maidan. Or that Ukraine has not regressed in recent years as have some of Ukraine’s European Union neighbors, notably Hungary and to a lesser extent Poland, who have been moving in the wrong direction.

Or one can be consoled that Ukraine’s human rights and democracy record is dramatically superior to that of Ukraine’s neighbors Russia and Belarus, which are decidedly “not free” countries. Indeed, for all of Ukraine’s shortcomings, Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression and persistent attempts to undermine Ukraine have not succeeded in knocking Ukraine from its path to democracy and moving it towards authoritarianism.

But Ukraine can do better, and has in the past. It was “free” for few years under Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency. But this rating will not happen unless Ukraine’s leadership reforms its law enforcement and judicial system, and stops engaging in its wrong, foolish and self-destructive behavior by trying to settle political scores and unjustly pursuing political opponents.