IRI Eurasia Director Testifies on the Political Situation in Ukraine

May 17, 2012
Washington, DCStephen B. Nix, Director of Eurasia programs at the International Republican Institute (IRI), today testified before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, chaired by Congressman Christopher H. Smith (NJ) and co-chaired by Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (MD), on the political situation in Ukraine as the country prepares for parliamentary elections in October 2012. 

In his testimony (PDF), Nix highlighted the backsliding of democracy that Ukraine has witnessed under President Victor Yanukovych, including the consolidation of power in the hands of family and friends, changes to the Parliamentary Election Law, pressure of Ukraine’s independent media, threats against civil society and the selective prosecution of political opponents.  Quoting a Freedom House report (PDF), Nix said, “If left unchecked, the trends set by Ukraine’s current leadership will move the country toward greater centralization and consolidation of power—that is, toward authoritarianism.”

Discussing Yanukovych’s move to consolidate power appointing family and friends to key government positions Nix said, “This reshuffling suggests a consolidation of power in the Yanukovych ‘family’, as many of these new ministers and officials can trace their rise to their connection the President and his sons.”

Nix went on to cite IRI polling that show 82 percent of Ukrainians support the international community freezing the international assets of and suspending visas for Ukrainian officials engaged in corrupt practices.  Nix said, “As a result of the consolidation of power in the hands of a small group, closely connected to the President and the continuing democratic regression, there is a growing public discontent with the authorities.”

Nix outlined efforts by the Yanukovych administration to intimidate media.  “Very soon after assuming the presidency in 2010, the current government directly and indirectly pressured the media to limit critical coverage and report more positively on the government… For example, recently the State Television- and Radio-Company of Ukraine, in a move reminiscent of the Soviet propaganda, sent letters to local state TV channels demanding that they ‘popularize’ the President’s social initiatives.”

Of the threats against civil society Nix highlighted the national security doctrine of Ukraine which was updated in March 2011 to declare as a national security threat “any international or domestic organization which provides financial or moral support to political parties or non-governmental organizations whose goal it is to discredit the government of Ukraine.”

Perhaps of greatest concern is the selective prosecution of Yanukovych’s political opponents most notable among them being former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, who have been sentenced to a seven-year and five-year prison terms respectively.  Nix said, “Many of the most viable figures in the democratic Ukrainian opposition are currently under investigation or imprisoned.  In spite of numerous European and U.S. government statements of concern about the application of selective justice in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government continues to prosecute and incarcerate the leading opposition figures.”

In closing Nix encouraged the United States Congress to make clear to the Ukrainian government that free and fair elections will determine the course of the future relationship between our two countries, stating, “Elections are critical for Ukraine’s continued integration into Euro-Atlantic structures.  Failure to conduct elections which meet international standards will cause Ukraine to be further isolated from the West.”