- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
Since its emergence as an independent state in 1991, Ukraine has made little progress in consolidating democratic rule. A powerful oligarchy has dominated the country’s politics and economy. Corruption has been rife, property rights circumscribed, media independence restricted, and rule of law impaired. Popular uprisings against corrupt leaders in 2004 and 2013–2014 raised hopes of significant reforms that faded as oligarchic rule reasserted itself. To be sure, Ukraine performs much better on all these measures than Russia does. Nevertheless, Freedom House has consistently rated Ukraine as “partly free” (while rating Russia as “not free”).
Russia’s massive invasion last February changed Ukraine’s image in the West overnight; it became seen as the brave defender of its, and the West’s, freedom against a Russian authoritarian and imperialist onslaught. In June, the European Union accorded Ukraine candidate status, although it was generally recognized it would take years for it to qualify for membership. But the problems that have plagued Ukraine’s democratic trajectory have not disappeared, and they will attract greater attention whenever the war dies down.
Wartime conditions always put pressure on democratic rights, as the exigencies of national security and, in Ukraine’s case, survival take precedence over other concerns. That is true for any country. Americans have to think back no further than to the Patriot Act passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that gave the government enhanced surveillance rights domestically. The stakes are immeasurably higher in a country like Ukraine, where democracy is far from consolidated. Martial law is clearly justifiable in the face of Russia’s invasion, but the temptation to abuse it for purposes that go beyond evicting the invader is great.
The challenges facing Ukraine are complicated by its demography, pattern of settlement, and deep historical ties to Russia. Some twelve million ethnic Russians and many more Russian speakers are Ukrainian citizens, with high concentrations in the south and east of the country, where the fighting is most intense. Voters in those regions were the base of the political support for the pre-war pro-Russian opposition parties, which claimed dozens of seats in the national parliament, not to speak of regional legislative and executive bodies. Before the invasion, polls revealed substantial support for close political and economic ties with Russia, even after its seizure of Crimea and instigation of rebellion in the Donbas. That support was one reason why the Kremlin erroneously expected its troops to be welcomed with flowers on its march into Kyiv.
At the same time, Russian influence was entrenched in government, business, and cultural circles. The Russian special services, it was widely believed, had penetrated key national security agencies including the military and intelligence services. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which was part of the larger Russian Orthodox Church based in Moscow, was the largest church in Ukraine, substantially larger than the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Ukrainian oligarchs and their Russian counterparts cut corrupt deals, especially in the energy sector.
It is imperative for Kyiv to shut down Moscow’s influence operations and intelligence assets; the challenge is to do so without encroaching too heavily on political and civil rights or alienating ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking citizens. Three matters illustrate the conundrum: the media, political parties, and church affairs.
Since Ukraine regained its independence in 1991, the media have been free but not independent. They could express a wide variety of opinions, but they were generally controlled by oligarchs, who used them to advance their own political and economic agendas. Among them was Viktor Medvedchuk, a leading political figure reputedly with close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. His media had long presented views that aligned with the Kremlin’s. In February 2021—a year before Russia’s invasion—the National Security and Defense Council shut down three of his TV stations on the grounds that they threatened Ukraine’s national security interests. The Council did not go through the courts, which is the standard procedure, out of concern that it would take too long. That move, many Western observers contended, sent a worrying sign to other media.
And indeed, political pressure on media critical of the government has increa in the months after Russia’s invasion. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy consolidated all TV platforms in Ukraine into one state channel in July. Then, last December, the parliament passed a law osed, especiallyn media regulation that the European Federation of Journalists claimed contradicted European press freedom standards as the independence of the state regulator could not be guaranteed.
As concerns about media freedom mounted, Zelenskyy’s government banned the activities of eleven Ukrainian political parties because of alleged links to Russia for as long as Ukraine was under martial law. Most of them were small, but the Opposition Platform for Life held 44 of the 450 seats in the national parliament. Not coincidently, this party is associated with Medvedchuk. The oligarch is, to be sure, an unsavory figure, but the party represented views on minority rights, Ukraine’s neutrality, and commercial ties with Russia that were popular with voters in Ukraine’s south and east, at least until Russia invaded.
The invasion alone was probably sufficient to preclude the survival of any “pro-Russian” party in Ukraine’s south and east, as popular sentiment shifted dramatically almost overnight. By May of last year, less than 5 percent of the population held positive views of Russia; support for joining NATO had soared to record highs. More than half identified Ukrainian as their native language. In this light, the ban did not so much change the political situation as confirm the reality on the ground. That said, Kyiv still needs to find a way to bring the people of the south and east back into the political process, now that the previous political network has been demolished. That will be critical to cementing the loyalty of those regions to Ukraine as a whole.
The church issue has proved to be the most delicate. After the invasion, the UOC declared independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, and many priests stopped mentioning Russian Patriarch Kirill in their public prayers. Yet many clergymen have provided intelligence, propaganda, and other support for the invaders. Some have collaborated with the Russian occupiers, and many fled to Russia as Russian forces withdrew from Kharkiv and Kherson last fall. Those actions cast suspicion on the church as a whole.
In response, Kyiv has launched investigations of UOC churches and monasteries across the country. It is considering a draft law that would ban “religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation.” Kyiv is rightfully concerned about the activities of some clergy affiliated with the UOC, but it should tread carefully. The UOC has shown considerable resilience in the face of this pressure. Only 10 percent of the UOC parishes have shifted their affiliation to the OCU since the invasion. A crackdown on the UOC as an institution will likely meet stiff resistance from its congregants and raise alarms about religious freedoms.
Finding the right balance between striking out against Russian influence and respecting fundamental freedoms will test the Ukrainian government for the duration of the war and likely beyond. But it is critical that it find that balance. Winning the war—bringing it to an end on acceptable terms—is rightfully the immediate focus, and that calls for a concerted struggle against pernicious Russian influence operations. But winning the peace, consolidating democracy in post-conflict Ukraine and anchoring the country in the West, is the greater victory. Kyiv needs to take care that it does not jeopardize the latter with the steps it is now taking to combat Russian influence.