Ukraine’s Democratic Institutions During the War: A Check-List

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  • While there has been some discussion about the nature of Ukrainian democracy after the war, little is being said about democracy during the war. What happens now will, however, influence what happens after the war. A major war is a serious stress test for any democratising country.
  • Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine did not end Ukrainian democracy. While, democratic rights have been curtailed under martial law, as is justifiable under international law in the context of a massive emergency, Ukraine’s democratic institutions continue to function.
  • Somewhat paradoxically, some longer-term reforms may now be accelerated, despite the war, with a view towards EU accession. While this is positive, there is a risk of little public discussion of and buy-in for reforms, which could weaken their acceptance later on.
  • While this paper only covers selected democratic institutions, the best hope for democracy in Ukraine lies in the groundswell of support for democracy in Ukrainian society. Democracy, as a political system diametrically opposed to Russian autocracy, which has been devastating Ukraine since 2014, is seen as the system of choice for most Ukrainians.

As far as key democratic institutions are concerned, these are our findings:         

  • The presidency: President Volodymyr Zelensky has been an inspirational figure. His decision to stay in Kyiv after 24 February, despite the direct threat to his life, was essential to Ukraine´s resistance. As a wartime commander-in-chief, his powers are significant and, while there have been no red flags, it will be important that the stability of Ukrainian institutions does not become reliant on one person. There are some concerns in relation to the Presidential Office. It is an institution without constitutional anchor, but it is extremely powerful. This situation deserves review after the war.
  • Parliament: Very positively, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) never stopped functioning, despite the war – even when it raged around Kyiv. Committees and the plenary continue to meet, vote and make decisions. The parliament has, however, stopped publishing its agenda and broadcasts of plenary and committee sessions. This is legitimate, given the direct security risks of disclosing locations and of Russian psychological influence operations seeking to divide Ukrainian society. That said, publishing the agenda in some form would increase transparency and public involvement. If legislation is published after its adoption by parliament, civil society can only engage or intervene in the small window of time before the president signs a draft into law. While this has worked in the past, it is not an ideal process.
  • Elections: According to the electoral calendar, the next parliamentary elections are due in the autumn. Currently, it is impossible to plan for the elections, in view of the ongoing war (the constitution bars the holding of elections under a state of martial law). As such, it is possible that this parliament’s term will continue past this autumn. Even if the fighting has ceased by then, there would be significant practical challenges to holding elections, with much of the necessary infrastructure destroyed and many Ukrainian citizens having become internally displaced or refugees abroad. These challenges have triggered discussions about changing the electoral systems to facilitate voting by those who have been displaced, including through e-voting, which raises security. It would be positive to reach a cross-party consensus on key changes to the electoral framework for post-war elections, to avoid the perception of partisanship.
  • Political Parties: Ukraine’s political system is multi-party and requires fair competition among parties. In May 2022, a new process for banning pro-Russian parties engaged in hostile activities was introduced through bill 2243-IX, resulting in court decisions to ban such parties. The main pro-Russian party, Opposition Platform – “For Life,” had representatives on US sanctions lists and had a member who openly called for the use of weapons of mass destruction against Ukraine. The Communist Party and its symbols were similarly banned in 2015 and confirmed by the court decision in 2022. Concerns remain over political campaigning provisions in Ukraine, such as the omission of media regulation provisions in the bill “On Media,” which could impact fair competition in the next election. 
  • The Judiciary: The reform of the judiciary has been one of the most difficult areas for change in Ukraine over the years. The war brought a massive new challenge to the judiciary, well beyond what any judicial system is usually designed for – the investigation of alleged wide-spread Russian war crimes. (The International Criminal Court is also investigating these, based on referrals by some 40 states and Ukrainian acceptance of the Court’s jurisdiction.) The Ukrainian authorities have continued some judicial reforms, including in relation to prospective accession to the EU. There has also been some progress in anti-corruption efforts, an essential issue to ensure defence efforts are not weakened by graft.
  • The Media and Civil Society: Martial law imposed limits on the freedom of the media, mostly related to the sharing of information that might threaten the security of the army and civilians. Since Russia launched its full-fledged war, all television stations have been broadcasting the same programme (the so-called “united news marathon”), at the expense of presenting a plurality of opinions. During this period, the influence of alternative internet media platforms has grown. Ukrainian civil society has been facing the challenges of the full-scale war but continues its work, while volunteers and charitable organisations gather sizable donations for military and humanitarian aid.