: 16-08-2002

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Not Belarus yet

The news that a trio of Belarusian dissidents had arrived in Kyiv seeking political asylum was met with some bafflement by Ukrainian and international observers. After all, Ukraine has long been better known as a source of fugitives from oppression than as a haven for them. Despite Ukraines dismal record on virtually all measures of democratic development, it is worth recalling that there are plenty of spots across the former Soviet Union where democracy is even more of a sham, and where human rights abuses are graver.

In fact, among the former Soviet republics apart from the Baltics, Ukraine is probably one of the most democratic. This somewhat unaccustomed conclusion is substantiated by the recently published Nations in Transit 2002 study of the post‑Communist countries prepared by Freedom House, a U.S. non‑profit organization. On the studys measure of democratic development, Ukraine placed toward the bottom of the category of transitional governments below such consolidated democracies as Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltics, but well above such consolidated autocracies as Belarus, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In fact, the only other non‑Baltic CIS states to score higher than Ukraine were Armenia and Georgia somewhat surprisingly, given their record of civil disorder. Of course, the comfort Ukraine can draw from this status is minimal given the standard of the competition, and there are alarming signs that things may be about to get a lot worse. The Freedom House study also reveals that Ukraines democracy rating has been steadily regressing in its democratic development since 1998, with an especially large deterioration from 2001 to 2002.

The March parliament elections were illustrative of how Ukraines imperfect democracy works. Despite widespread administrative abuses and biased coverage by the state and oligarch controlled media, the vast majority of Ukrainians went ahead and cast their votes for parties that represented an alternative to the current authorities. In the party proportional race, well under 20 percent of the vote went to parties that openly backed President Kuchma. The results were, in effect, a massive vote of no confidence in the countrys leaders. Were it not for the flawed election law that allotted half the parliamentary seats to majoritarian constituencies, the parliament would have been dominated by opposition forces.

Still, in the March election Ukrainian citizens showed that they are less easily manipulated than their leaders expect, and that they are capable of making informed and forward‑looking choices even in the most challenging circumstances. The work of civil society organizations, such as the Committee of Ukrainian Voters and the organizations that clubbed together to hold a parallel vote count, certainly helped matters. These groups highlighted the more egregious abuses, and may even have prevented wholesale falsification of the result. Those aspects of Ukraines fledgling democracy need to be encouraged while they still exist.

In two years time, Ukrainians will have a chance to vote for their president. Opinion polls suggest that they will overwhelmingly favor a reformist candidate proposing a break with the corruption and stagnation of the Kuchma era. But that will only be possible if Ukrainians themselves are ready to build on the gains seen in the parliament election.

If Ukraine succeeds in preserving the fragile roots of democracy and civil society, then its just possible that one day the Belarusians statements that Ukraine is a paradise where they can breathe the air of freedom will not sound such a bad joke as they do today. Then Ukraine may then become a beacon of democracy and human rights in an area of the world that seems set to slide relentlessly back into authoritarianism.

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