How Democratic is Ukraine?
The media has framed the war between Russia and Ukraine as a conflict between democracy and autocracy. However, some skeptics question whether Ukraine is truly a democracy. Some criticisms simply refer to Ukraine as corrupt without much reflection. But others look to measures of democracy from Freedom House and others where Ukraine frequently falls into a gray zone somewhere between democracy and autocracy. It’s not uncommon to hear political scientists refer to Ukraine as a hybrid regime. Still this term says little about the regime’s trajectory or its political values. Moreover, hybrid regimes are often a catchall for a range of regime types each with distinct challenges.
Ukrainian democracy faces three main obstacles. Its corruption is well documented. The other problems are less well-known. Its judiciary has complex problems. On the one hand, it lacks real independence. But on the other hand, corruption has infiltrated the judicial branch as well. In October 2020, the Constitutional Court declared many anticorruption reform efforts unconstitutional. Many viewed its ruling skeptically. Some justices on the court face charges for corruption themselves. Zelensky responded with a few different attempts to reform the judiciary. However, his efforts sparked a constitutional crisis over the court’s independence.
The other obstacle involves limitations on Pro-Russian political parties and journalists. It’s difficult to justify limitations on free speech as consistent with democracy, however Ukraine faces an existential crisis in its armed conflict with Russia. Still it’s a fine line that can easily lead toward authoritarianism. Nonetheless, it is yet another example where the problems facing Ukrainian democracy are not easily resolved. They involve complex interwoven problems. In this way Ukraine is no different from most democracies. The test is whether democratic inconsistencies serve as an excuse for opportunistic leaders. But so far in my mind Ukraine is democratic.