As the Impeachment Inquiry against President Trump rumbles on, Ukraine dominates the headlines. But in this moment when Western analysis of Ukraine is obscured by U.S. political squabbles, it is more important than ever to hone in on the lives of the Ukrainian population themselves – and human rights offers an ideal lens with which to do so. In its 2018 report, Freedom House classed Ukraine as ‘partly free’. Since then, the Ukrainian political landscape has undergone a seismic shift with Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s election as President on the 26 April 2019. The erstwhile comedian rose to power on the tantalising but vague promise of change, and the status of human rights in Ukraine is as unclear as his platform.
What human rights mechanisms does Ukraine have?
Let’s start by taking stock of Ukraine’s Human Rights mechanisms. The 1996 Constitution of Ukraine states that ‘Human rights and freedoms are inalienable and inviolable.’ The country also has a Human Rights Ombudsman to ensure these constitutional rights. These are Ukraine’s formal institutions; however, scholarship on the Post-Soviet space has shown that these are often hampered by informal institutions such as clans. Clans can be understood as adopted political families that revolve around a powerful patron – in Ukraine’s case, usually an oligarch or politician.
Ukraine’s Human Rights Ombudsman is a prime example of this: After the election of Ludmila Denisova as the new Ombudsperson in March, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHRPG) claimed the candidate was chosen based on clan groupings in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament), rather than merit. KHRPG also claimed that the decision to make the vote open was rigged.
According to the group, the open voting system – in which voters vote openly, in contrast to a secret ballot, where a voter’s choices are confidential – means Rada deputies can more easily be subjected to coercion in their voting by more powerful members of their particular clan because of the open voting system. One such clan-cum-political bloc is that of former President Petro Poroshenko. Six months into Zelenskiy’s presidency, Denisova remains in the position and the open voting system has not been overturned.
While this is likely to be an oversight rather than an active decision, the failure to strengthen this oversight mechanism suggests that human rights are not at the top of the current administration’s agenda.
Ukraine’s media landscape is much freer than that of its Post-Soviet neighbours. In its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Ukraine at 102, and its neighbours – Russia and Belarus – at 149 and 153. Yet, despite a high degree of pluralism, it is notoriously dominated by oligarchic interests which makes the safety of journalists uncertain at best. The most harrowing examples of this are the assassinations of the journalists Pavlo Sheremet, Kateryna Handziuk, and Vadym Komarov in 2016, 2018, and 2019 respectively.
Zelenskiy promised that ‘all the perpetrators will be punished.’
He seemed to further boost his media freedom credentials by establishing the Council on Free Speech and the Protection of Journalists. Behind these gestures, however, is a more unsettling reality. Most concerning is the recent decree on Urgent Measures to Defend and Strengthen the State ordering the development of a bill to ‘regulate media activity […] stipulating, inter alia: provisions on news requirements and standards.’ The decree followed a raid on the Kyiv home of Volodymyr Makeyenko – the owner of the Priamy television channel – about which the OSCE expressed ‘concern’, urging the authorities to respect media freedom. While the purpose the bill – to prevent Russian influence in the Ukrainian media – is certainly legitimate, it also creates a framework that could be used to hinder the work of journalists.
The LGBTQ+ community
As with media freedom, the status of LGBTQ+ rights in Ukraine remains ambiguous under Zelenskiy. In an interview with the author, the Kennan Institute’s Senior Advisor on Ukraine Mykhailo Minkakov stated that there were ‘hints that Zelenskiy’s approach to human rights is more positive than that of Poroshenko. For example, on the issue of gay rights, the current administration does not follow the same socially conservative agenda.’ Indeed, Zelenskiy made waves last month when he vocally defended the rights of the LGBTQ+ community when confronted by a homophobic heckler.
‘Regarding LGBT: I don’t want to say anything negative because we all live in an open society where each one can choose their […] sexual orientation’, he said.
This outburst, however, has been the exception rather than the rule in Zelenskiy’s defence of the LGBTQ+ rights. His statement on Kyiv’s Pride March was muted, and notably made no direct reference to the LGBTQ+ Community. In 2018, the Ministry of Justice refused to draft a law allowing same sex partnerships. The Zelenskiy Administration has so far made no noises about resuscitating this legalisation.
Donbas & Crimea
Compared to the spheres of media freedom and sexuality, the current administration’s approach to human rights in occupied Crimea has been decidedly more vocal. In October, Ukraine’s MFA recently issued a statement condemning Russia’s arrest of five Tatar activists.
Permanent Representative of the President for Crimea Anton Korynevych stressed that ‘we communicate very closely with […] human rights activists, lawyers, and our ordinary citizens’ who oppose the Russian occupation.
Meanwhile the Prosecutor’s Office of Crimea – a government agency based in Kyiv – has been submitting data on Russia’s illegal conscription of Crimean residents to the International Criminal Court. It is, however, unlikely that these gestures are based on a coherent Human Rights Strategy rather than a short-term desire to ‘stand up’ to Russian aggression.
‘For the Zelenskiy administration’, says Minakov, ‘human rights in the Donbas may be important, but they are not a priority.’
This is evident in the promising but lacklustre approach to pension rights for residents of occupied territories: In September, Foreign Minister Prystaiko claimed that Ukraine would resume the payment of pensions to residents of occupied territories, but no announcements of implementation have been made.
What to make of this subtle and often contradictory evidence? Clearly, President Zelenskiy and his team are not indifferent to human rights, but there is a troubling lack of long-term strategy for defending them.
Whatever his personal beliefs, Zelenskiy has inherited a political system that is still ‘Post-Soviet’ in its attitudes to issues such as press freedom, and a society that remains relatively conservative, and these factors have so far prevented any substantive progress in bolstering Human Rights in these spheres.
Moreover, the war in Eastern Ukraine almost certainly deprives the administration of the political will and financial resources to improve this situation. Ultimately, the picture we see is one of an immensely popular President trying to maintain the social and political consensus crucial to his survival – and that means making no bold moves in any policy sector, human rights included. It is too soon to tell whether Zelenskiy will be able to develop the power base necessary to move beyond this cautious balancing act but, given that he has promised to be a one-term President, the clock is already ticking.