“I wear this wristband in solidarity with the people of Belarus. I sincerely hope that we will not be wearing similar bracelets in support of Ukraine.” This was the dramatic declaration by Freedom House Executive Director David Kramer at a recent Washington D.C. panel in which I also took part.
The sense of alarm in Kramer’s comparison of Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych with Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko underscored the nervousness with which Ukraine’s ruling elite is viewed by many in the human rights community.

At the root of this nervousness is the ongoing prosecution of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which has cast a pall on Ukraine’s not inconsiderable institutional flaws.

Last year, when I spoke at a similar Ukraine conference organized by leading U.S. think tanks, a controversial deal ceding long-term basing rights in Ukraine to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was met with elevated rhetoric and dire predictions.

Then, as now, I was in the minority arguing Ukraine was not veering dangerously in the wrong direction. Ukraine was not tilting toward Russia, I argued, predicting that the coming year would see a differentiated foreign policy that would maintain good relations with Russia and the U.S., expand Ukraine’s trade and political links with Asia, and press toward integration into the European Union.

This year, no criticisms were voiced about Ukraine’s foreign policy.

Instead, Washington’s leading experts declared that Kyiv has seriously pursued security cooperation with the EU and NATO, has made the most progress of any Ukrainian government toward deeper relations with the EU, and is moving impressively toward a comprehensive trade pact with Europe.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the conference keynote speaker, joined in praising Yanukovych’s defense of Ukraine’s national and foreign policy interests.

Today’s talk about Ukraine’s drift toward authoritarianism is exaggerated and colored preponderantly by the prosecution of Ms. Tymoshenko.

Indeed, just a few days before Kramer was sounding the alarm on Ukraine, Freedom House released its long-term study of trends in the post-communist world, Nations in Transit (NIT). I happen to know something about the survey and its uses, as I conceived and developed it in 1996.

The survey is a crucial and respected indicator of trends in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Its findings merit a closer look. According to Freedom House’s own data, there are numerous reasons why we should not believe that Ukraine is falling off the democratic precipice.

According to the 2011 NIT report, Ukraine’s rating for electoral processes stands at 3.50 and is identical to the rating it had in 2005, the first year of Orange rule, and the same as in 2009, the last year of President Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency.

Moreover, the 2011 survey’s assessment of the strength and independence of civil society shows Ukraine at 2.75 (the same rating as in the Yushchenko years 2006-2010) and a better rating that the 3.00 registered in 2005 – the year of the Orange Revolution. Media independence declined from a rating of 3.5 to 3.75, a judgement justified by the increasingly uncritical tone of television news (though balanced by the freewheeling discourse on popular political talk shows).

However, even this decline means Ukraine’s media freedoms are on a par with EU members Bulgaria and Romania, and incipient EU member Croatia.

Moreover, Ukraine’s electoral processes are sounder than in Georgia, Moldova, and Kosovo. And Ukrainian civil society operates with greater freedom and vitality than Georgia’s.

In the end, according to Freedom House, Ukraine remains the most open of the non-Baltic Soviet states with an overall democracy score significantly better than that of Georgia. But few people in Washington or Brussels would assert that Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is dangerously close to becoming another Lukashenko.

Few also would disagree that there has not been modest deterioration in the state of democracy in Ukraine, in large measure due to the excessive presence of an over-staffed and over-active Ukrainian security service, which numbers over 25,000 personnel (the comparable figure for Britain’s MI-5 is around 5,000).

It is also due to the introduction of a stronger “law and order” approach that is being implemented by a procuracy and militia inclined to prosecute and rigorously enforce even the pettiest provisions of the law, frequently against political opponents.

This brings me back to the three unmistakable facts on which most everyone in Europe and Washington agrees: First, Ukraine’s elite is seriously committed to closer relations with the EU and eventual membership; second, Ukraine’s justice system lacks independence and is suspected of political bias; third, Tymoshenko’s prosecution has seriously damaged Ukraine’s reputation, and if it results in her imprisonment, can derail or delay Ukraine’s free trade agreement with Europe and its EU integration hopes.

As the leader of the largest and best financed opposition political force in Ukraine, Tymoshenko has the resources and the charisma to mount a spirited defense at home and abroad. Her guilt or innocence is not the issue.

No one in the West trusts the objectivity of Ukraine’s justice system to render a fair verdict and few in the West believe policy decisions, even when harmful to national interest, should be subjected to criminal prosecution.

On the day of our Washington conference, Ukraine’s parliament adopted a land titling law that points the way to private ownership of land and voted for a far-reaching – if imperfect – pension reform legislation that will improve the economic viability of Ukraine’s retirement system.

But these tangible accomplishments were obscured by the attention garnered by the Tymoshenko trial.

Ukraine’s President and ruling elite have made the strategic choice of European integration and they well understand that this aim cannot be achieved without adherence to fundamental democratic practices.

Warnings by many of Europe’s and North America’s key leaders about the dangers to Ukraine’s European integration posed by the appearance of politically motivated prosecutions are without question reaching Ukraine’s leaders.

Moreover, I am convinced that the current leadership team understands that national cohesiveness and political stability should be preserved. These two factors are more likely than not to lead to some sort of soft landing in the Tymoshenko case.

If that happens, Brussels and Washington will refocus their attention on the serious reforms Ukraine has undertaken, and dire talk about Ukraine’s authoritarian path will be banished from the political discourse.

Adrian Karatnycky is Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council of the US and coordinator of its Ukraine-North America Dialogue. For over a decade, he was president and executive director of Freedom House, a pro-democracy watchdog based in Washington, D.C., where he originated the Nations in Transit survey and presided over the annual Survey of Freedom. This essay was originally published by Kyiv Post.

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