Imagine the world’s sick democracies in an intensive care unit. Afghanistan has just been wheeled out to the morgue. Never in the best of health, it did once have regular elections. Now the doctors are hovering around Ukraine‘s bedside - a case of organ shutdown as corruption endemicus rips through the body politic.
There had been signs of improvement. Since the Maidan revolution, successive governments had taken steps to tackle Ukraine’s notorious oligarch culture and normalise the rule of law. Ukraine even started to climb up Transparency International’s anti-corruption index.
But nothing in Ukraine is straightforward. Seasoned observers describe a ‘multiverse’ of competing cultural loyalties and business interests that Ukraine’s leaders have to navigate to retain both domestic and international support.
Reform in these circumstances is far from easy. All political leaders struggle to escape the iron grip of oligarchs who wield enormous political as well as economic power. The most powerful even control large factions of MPs, giving them near-total leverage over what the Government can do.
Sadly, President Zelensky seems to be as captive of the oligarchs as his predecessors. He is after all largely the creation of one. Zelensky made his name as a comedian on a TV station owned by Igor Kolomoisky, currently on the US sanctions list for “undermining Ukraine’s democratic processes and institutions”. The programme, “Servant of the People”, even became the name of the President’s party.
So, with sliding poll ratings and nothing to show from his peace initiatives with Vladimir Putin, it is perhaps not surprising that Zelensky’s reformist zeal should give way to fealty to his oligarch client. Rhetorical commitments to rule-of-law and media freedom are being replaced by media shut-downs and rigged court hearings.
Days later, Zelensky visited President Biden in the White House. Details of the summit are scant but one imagines that ‘media freedom’ will have been a topic that both parties were content to overlook.
The reasons being that the progressive alliance that put Biden in the White House may inadvertently be responsible for another potentially fatal illness for Ukraine’s democracy – the closure of critical media outlets. Back in January, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube shut down then-President Trump’s principal means of communication. The following month President Zelensky felt emboldened to shut down three TV stations that were critical of his regime (112, ZIK, NewsOne).
Significant voices ranging from the UN’s Special Rapporteur, Irene Khan, to the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, have raised concerns about the retreat from a free media, despite the obvious argument from President Zelensky that these outlets sided with the views of Ukraine’s ethnic Russian minority - kith and kin to Ukraine’s disruptive neighbour.
Putting 1,500 journalists and their colleagues out of work hardly helps Ukraine’s economy, but it could prove fatal to Ukraine's ailing democracy. As the Washington Post’s masthead says “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. Corruption of all types flourishes without sunlight.
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