How to Promote Ukraine’s Democracy


This blueprint is based on research conducted in Ukraine by Human Rights First staff, and on discussions with Ukrainian government and civil society representatives, with United States government officials, with independent experts, analysts and others. It draws on the experience too of previous Human Rights First work in the region, including a 2008 analysis of hate crime in Ukraine.

Ukraine faces a series of major challenges, including conflict in the east, economic fragility, deep-rooted corruption, the takeover of Crimea, and ensuring energy supplies as winter fast approaches. A truce deal struck in early September has not ended hostilities in Ukraine’s east. The Ukraine government must also prove to its own people and internationally that it is quickly and effectively establishing a culture of human rights and democracy in the country. A common analysis heard from government officials, human rights activists, and academics in Ukraine, as well as from foreign diplomats, is that the current political transition offers the country’s best (and maybe last) chance to get things right, especially in the fight for good governance and against corruption. Parliamentary elections, set for October 26, offer a chance to break with the past. The United States government cannot determine the outcome of what happens in Ukraine or how the new government tackles its many problems, but it can encourage and support a new politics that confronts corruption, stabilizes the economy, and establishes effective human rights protections.

The crisis in Ukraine presents the greatest threat to European stability since the end of the Cold War, and ranks as a major foreign policy priority for the United States. The country sits at the new fault line between the political east and west, and represents a key and stark test in the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, between human rights and repression.

As the Putin government cracks down on human rights and the rule of law at home, the United States is confronted with fundamental challenges to its national interests. These include: regional stability; the protection of its allies in NATO, the European Union and beyond; and defense against Russian military and political aggression. The threats to Ukraine from the Putin government are many outright invasion or the pursuit of a proxy war, acts of terrorism in Ukraine’s major financial and political centers by Kremlin-inspired terrorists, attacks on Ukraine’s economy and the undermining of Ukraine’s political and democratic progress. A highly effective propaganda campaign on Russian state media has damaged Ukraine’s messaging at home and abroad.

A new Ukrainian political landscape will be a strong defense against the Kremlin’s political attacks. The values encouraged by the Kremlin within Russia and by extension in Ukraine represent the ways of oligarchs, corruption, a lack of transparency, ethnic chauvinism, attacks on minorities, and the suffocation of civil society. The new Ukrainian politics must offer the opposite–a Ukraine whose stability is built on openness, a powerful civil society, and the rule of law.

After false starts in 1989 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the 2004 Orange Revolution, the new momentum generated by the Maidan protests can be steered towards a fresh start for Ukraine, despite efforts from the Kremlin to disrupt and sabotage political progress. Unless Ukraine can show it is a vibrant, strong democracy, it will be inviting political unrest and instability which could, in turn, result in an escalation and expansion of warfare in its east.

The shooting down of the Malaysian airliner on July 17 in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, and the subsequent struggle over an adequate investigation, helped expose the international dimension of the Ukraine war, but ending the unrest and establishing the rule of law were already key interests of the European Union and the U.S. A failure to adequately address the democracy- building dimension of the Ukrainian conflict is likely to result in the near future in a deeper political and possible military crisis for the U.S. The European Union and the U.S. should avoid making Ukraine a “Cold War battlefield” but rather help Ukraine become a strong vibrant economy and democracy.

Those hoping to promote human rights in Ukraine are likely to face a series of challenges, including persuading policymakers in Ukraine, the U.S., and elsewhere to focus on democracy and the rule of law while there remain the not-insignificant competing priorities of war, a shaky economy, and an energy dependence on a hostile Russia—these challenges must be faced simultaneously.

There is a danger that human rights issues will be designated as merely “Urgent” rather than as “Emergency.” Although the overthrow of the old regime by the Maidan protests offers opportunities for many fresh starts, there is a “deep state” mentality in Ukrainian government bureaucracies, with strong traditions of petty and larger-scale corruption. There is also little indication that there will be a fundamentally different political landscape in the near future, with few signs that a new politics is about to emerge, leaving the old political forces in power after this year’s parliamentary elections. The old anti-democratic mindset is so ingrained that new opportunities for political engagement by citizens need to be created, and existing institutions need to be reformed or even rebuilt. Hard steps also need to be taken to hold corrupt officials and rights abusers accountable under the current as well as previous governments.

The pain of lifting fuel subsidies and other austerity measures will cost the Ukrainian government popularity, hampering its ability to harness public support for change. The economy shrank 4.7 percent in the second quarter of 2014 compared to 2013. The Ukrainian government predicts a decline in GDP of around 6 percent or 7 percent this year, and the unemployment rate has risen from 7.7 percent last year to 9.3 percent in the first quarter of 2014.

Charges of fascism and antisemitism enthusiastically pushed by the Russian media are largely unfounded distractions from the main problems—incidents of antisemitism are mostly the work of provocateurs, say local Jewish groups, but the incidents are used as weapons in the propaganda war. There is also a danger that some of the more challenging human rights issues, notably homophobia, hate crime, and threats of the re- emergence of the extreme right in politics, will not be addressed or put off “until the time is right.


  • As part of its bilateral and multilateral diplomatic engagement on Ukraine, the State Department and USAID should implement the following recommendations. Congress should support their implementation through its funding and oversight functions.
  • Support the fight against corruption in Ukraine by vigorously implementing Presidential Proclamation 7750, which would deny entry to the United States to
  • corrupt Ukrainian officials who solicit or accept bribes, as well as their family members and dependents who benefit from the corruption, thus refusing to enable foreign corrupt officials to benefit from U.S. resources or find a safe haven in the United States.
  • Encourage the government of Ukraine to fully utilize asset recovery proceedings in the United States through the U.S. Department of Justice Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative to recover assets earned through corruption that have previously been hidden in U.S. financial institutions and to deter future hiding of corrupt assets in the United States.
  • Support—financially and politically—efforts to tackle local corruption. The education and health sectors should be prime targets. Efforts could include the establishment of parent or citizen groups to act as watchdogs on local and school budgets, or fund community organizing projects based on patients’ rights issues to counter corruption in the health sector. Citizenship watchdog projects on local government—such as public hearings or online forums—should also be encouraged.
  • Offer technical support to law enforcement agencies in investigating the Maidan and other protest-related killings to ensure a competent, thorough investigation which has the confidence of the public and that results in credible prosecutions or other means of holding accountable those responsible.
  • Offer technical support to law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and education officials on monitoring, preventing, investigating and prosecuting violent hate crime and combating hate speech.
  • Encourage Ukraine to re-establish its governmental interagency body to fight hate crime, and to utilize fully avenues of technical cooperation with the OSCE, the Council of Europe and other intergovernmental bodies.
  • Offer financial support to NGOs working to monitor hate crime incidents and assist victims.
  • Publicly urge campaign finance reform and transparency in the electoral process.
  • Offer support in the demobilizing of far-right elements in militias when they are no longer needed for the war effort.
  • Push for access of international monitors to Crimea to document human rights violations, and for those who are responsible for human rights violations in Crimea to be brought to account.
  • Explore ways to advance international support for civil society in Crimea, and for the protection of Tatars in Crimea.
  • Publicly criticize the refusal to protect the 2014 Kiev Pride march in the 2014 State Department Human Rights Report and remind the new Ukrainian government that LGBT rights are human rights.
  • Urge senior Ukrainian officials to make public statements endorsing the rights and protection of LGBT and other minorities in Ukraine.
  • Support civil society initiatives to ensure that new legislation is human rights-compliant, and help ensure that the inclusive nature of the Maidan movement is reflected in new political and civil society activity.
  • Publish on the U.S. Embassy website, translated into Ukrainian, Russian and other languages as appropriate, the 2013 U.S. Guidelines for Supporting Human Rights Defenders. This will help bring clarity to civil society’s expectations of what assistance it can and cannot expect from the U.S. embassy and government.

Published on October 16, 2014


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