When I first got the task to write about Ukrainian authoritarianism compared to that of Russia and Belarus, I first hesitated. And this was mainly due to three reasons or caveats, if you so like. Firstly, I really don't think it is fair to speak of Ukraine as particularly authoritarian in the first place. Of course you can always relativize and some like to do this ad nauseam but for me Ukraine is a democracy. Maybe a flawed one, but still a democracy, whereas Russia and Belarus certainly aren't democracies, they are in fact not even particularly close to be called that.
My second point is that I am an outsider with a purely outside perspective on this issue. I am not a regular traveller to Ukraine nor do I visit Russia and Belarus particularly often but I do follow developments in this trio of countries and I believe that I do have a decent overview of the political situation, but again, it is a western view and it is an outsider's view.
Thirdly and finally, and very much related to the two previous points, I don't think that Ukraine should be compared with Russia and Belarus in the first place, tempting though it is. Ukraine should be compared to other democratic countries in the EU and the rest of Europe. Those are the countries that Kyiv should aim at competing with, not other former Soviet Union countries that politically is heading in opposite direction.
With these three points in mind, I would like to compare Ukraine with its two neighbors in five key areas mainly to rebut some of the accusations coming from some sections in the West but also from Russia that Ukrainian is as authoritarian as other countries in its region.
The first and most obvious start is elections and to see if they are free and fair. Let's take the parliamentary elections in Ukraine in October 2014 as a starting point. According to observers, the Central Election Commission was impartial and efficient, voters had "a real choice" and the voting and counting were viewed as transparent. What also was important was that there was a high number of international observers and that there wasn't "a misuse of administrative resources", which was a major concern in previous elections. There were of course problems such as contestants reporting cases of intimidation and even violence and a number of allegations of vote-buying that international observers deem credible.
Contrast that with the parliamentary elections in Russia and Belarus in the autumn of 2016. The OSCE report on Belarus states that the “composition of election commissions was not pluralistic” and that the "legal framework restricts political rights and fundamental freedoms and was interpreted in an overly restrictive manner". It also noted that media regulations were strict and that state media focused on the activities of the President and that the candidate registration allowed for selective implementation. In Russia, the conclusions were also sinister with the key statement outlining that "democratic commitments continue to be challenged and the electoral environment was negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society."
Secondly, and somewhat related to the first, is the way opposition is treated in the three countries. Once again looking at the 2014 parliamentary election in Ukraine, we can see that there were a total of 29 diverse parties contesting the elections nationwide. Eight political groups were formed as well as a number of non-affiliated MPs and currently two parties form a coalition in government. There is a clear opposition. There are incidents such as fights that makes people question the political maturity of the chamber but it works as a proper parliament with real debates and processes, not a compliant organ that rubber-stamp what the executive says. Take Belarus as an example here. In the national parliament in Minsk you have five parties plus a majority of independents. But at least four parties openly support President Lukashenka and out of the 110 deputies only two opposition candidates won seats in 2016. In Russia, Putin's party United Russia has a super-majority in the State Duma and the three other parties in the chamber provide some sort of fig-leaf opposition whereas the real opposition either is in jail, murdered or poisoned. Since the turn of the this millennia, Ukraine has had four different presidents with very different ideas of how to run the country. In the same period Belarus has had one and Russia two even though it in reality has been ruled by one single person for the last 17 years and counting.
The third area I would like to highlight is the media. If I had to describe the Ukrainian media landscape, I would probably call it pluralistic but oligarchical. It is diverse and lively with lots of different options but I do question the autonomy of many media from political and corporate interests. The move to ban certain websites such as VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki looks both clumsy and ill-founded even if I can have some sympathy with the claims that Ukraine has been the target of both disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks recently. In the end I feel that they can be counterproductive and that the move is made to boost both the patriotism and the standing of President Poroshenko ahead of the presidential election. Still, this environment is not comparable to Minsk and Moscow. In the latter, independent news outlets have been either silenced or ceased to exists, state propaganda is widespread and more and more bloggers are receiving prisoner sentences. In the former you can pretty much copy-paste the previous sentence.
It is in the fourth area, civil society, where I see the biggest difference between Ukraine on the one hand and Russia and Belarus on the other. I have through my work met a number of representatives from Ukrainian civil society and I must say that I am impressed by them. They are the crown jewel in Ukraine's democratic development and I hope that they will continue to play a crucial role in the country's reform process. I have also met several brilliant Belarusian and Russian civil society representatives. But the main difference is that they are not shaping their governments' agenda. They are instead "foreign agents", exiled or treated like pariahs at home.
The fifth and final point I would like to make concerns treatment of people belonging to the LGBTI community. This is for many people the ultimate litmus test of how tolerant a state can be. None of the three countries aren't exactly covering themselves in glory in this area but there are developments in Ukraine that seem promising. Odessa held its first gay pride march recently and the Kyiv march was the biggest to date even though it was heavily policed. Contrast that with Moscow where marches and parades have been banned for a hundred years and in Minsk were such marches are very rare and where laws that bans “gay propaganda” for minors have been enacted in both countries.
All five examples above might not show that Ukraine is free from authoritarianism. But it does paint quite a contrasting picture of developments in Ukrainian society at large in recent years compared to that of Russia and Belarus."