The Ukrainian people have been through a lot. According to a 2019 Pew Poll, 81% of Ukrainians see a fair judicial system as one of the most important priorities, nevertheless, promises of judicial system overhauls and anti-corruption efforts never seem to come to fruition.
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, beat Petro Poroshenko to become President of Ukraine. Presidents have continuously promised Ukrainians wide democratic reforms, but have seldom delivered on their promises. Will Zelenskiy succeed in delivering on his campaign platform, or will he also run into problems and delays? If he strays from his campaign platform and goals, the Ukrainian people won’t be forgiving.
Thus far, his progress has been mixed. He managed to pass banking reform, prohibiting the return of nationalized banks to their previous owners, and agricultural land reform, allowing Ukrainians to buy farmland and ending a 20-year prohibition. This isn’t nothing; the former Minister of Economic Development, Trade, and Agriculture, Tymofiy Mylovanov, described it as one of the most controversial developments in recent years. However, Zelenskiy recently fired his cabinet of ministers, explaining that they had become “overly solicitous of Western nations that financially support Ukraine by appointing foreigners to the boards of state companies.” He also replaced a prosecutor general that had begun to purge the judicial system of corruption and the head of Ukraine’s National Bank who had taken an independent course, applauded by many. These changes by the Zelenskiy administration recall similar patterns of democratic backsliding seen in other Eastern European nations, such as Hungary. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán has worked within his country’s constitution to eliminate balances of power in the Hungarian democratic system, lowering the retirement age of Supreme Court judges to eliminate potential reformers and influential members of political opposition.  Although not as extreme of an erosion process as Orbán’s, Zelenskiy’s replacement of reform-oriented members of the administration can be perceived as the beginning of a means to diminish checks on executive power.
What’s important to understand is that this is nothing new for Ukraine, and the results have been the same with each iteration of democratic erosion. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko ran against the previous President, Leonid Kuchma’s, Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych. A national exit poll of highly reputable pollsters had placed Yushchenko 11 points ahead of Yanukovych, but when the Central Elections Commission (CEC) announced the results three days later, Yanukovych was declared the winner. As Kuchma’s Prime Minister, his election was favored by the administration, leading to the questionable result. This is reminiscent of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s concept of disregard for institutional forbearance, in which a would-be autocrat attempts to disregard institutional norms—in this case fair voting procedures—to lock down power when they feel it is being lost.  Yanukovych’s and Kuchma’s attempt to consolidate power was then ill-received by international bodies, who questioned the legitimacy of the election, causing the public to take to the streets, in the so-called “Orange Revolution.” Finally, the Ukrainian Supreme Court mandated new elections, and Yushchenko was declared the winner in January 2005, bringing with him promises of reform, anti-corruption, and a brighter future. But soon, these promises began to falter, as Oleksandr Zinchenko, Yushchenko’s chief of staff, resigned and explained, “now corruption and bribery are gaining strength again. In many cases they are outdoing the old scale, expanding deep and eating into the pores of regional and central [government] structures. This phenomenon is becoming systemic.”
Corruption allegations grew as did infighting, and the reforms seemed to get lost in the mix. In fact, Ukrainians became so dissatisfied with Yushchenko that in the 2010 election, he placed 5th with only about 5% of the vote. This demonstrates an incredible responsiveness of the Ukrainian people to the performance of their President and to the cycles of democratic erosion.
This story was repeated in 2014 after the EuroMaidan revolution, a pro-European revolution that promised change and cleanup for Ukraine. Petro Poroshenko was elected and began to instate reforms and changes in Ukraine, cleaning up the state-owned gas company and securing funding from the IMF. But in 2016, this progress slowed, and Poroshenko fired many of his ministers, demonstrating yet again an inability to actually reform, and eventually losing 73.5% of the vote to Zelenskiy.
Contrary to the situation in Hungary, Zelenskiy’s changes
are not in and of themselves proof of any evident democratic backsliding, but
they lay the potential groundwork for erosion to occur. Given the history of
Ukraine regarding corrupt and ineffective political leaders, one has to wonder
if Zelenskiy will continue down the unfortunate path of his predecessors. If he
does, I don’t expect the Ukrainian people to be any more forgiving of him than
Yushchenko, Yanukovych, or Poroshenko.
 Varol, Ozan. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100 (n.d.): 1673–1742.
 Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. United States: CROWN, 2018.
Hi Hugo – this was a really interesting blog post to read about Ukraine! I think what stands out to me the most is just how receptive the Ukrainian people are to leaders that fail to accomplish their promises of reform and anti-corruption. With first demanding a new election after suspecting fraud when Yanukovych was declared the winner; then, Yushchenko receiving only 5% of the vote; and finally dissatisfaction with Poroshenko which is why Zelenskiy is now in charge. This evidence of the Ukrainian people holding tight to their ideals of anti-corruption and clean up in Ukraine stands out as a sign of hope for democracy for them as they do not seem to be tied to any one leader or party and are fast to elect a new leader if the incumbent is ineffective. I wish we could say this for other democracies in the world – a lot of voters, especially in the U.S., seem more content continuing to support their preferred party candidates rather than holding them accountable as the Ukrainian people have proven to do. I think all democracies would be strengthened immensely if democracy was an actual priority as it seems to be in Ukraine.