Last Saturday morning, a Ukrainian television journalist, Oleh Kryshtopa, awoke to find that his car had been set on fire overnight. Witnesses reported seeing three men who they think were the arsonists. Kryshtopa says the terrifying act of vandalism is a warning—and payback—because he has been actively reporting on the “EuroMaidan” protests that have been underway non-stop in Ukraine since last November.
Suspicious car fires are becoming commonplace in Ukraine these days. Many protesters are still missing or detained and remain at risk of police harassment and politically motivated prosecutions.
One thing is clear: The current and delicate cease-fire—one that is being violated repeatedly by the police and hired thugs—is not going to solve the political crisis in Ukraine. The country must address deep-seated and long-term structural problems with its system of governance. It must also restore transparency and fairness to its judicial system and greatly improve its human rights record.
Four years ago, when Viktor Yanukovych assumed the presidency, Ukraine’s rankings for political rights and civil liberties, as scored by Freedom House, had already declined from “free” to “partly free.” They have not improved in the years since. In the category “Freedom of Expression and Belief,” Ukraine scored only nine out of 16 points. Given the recent government crackdown, that score is sure to fall further.
Protesters are being detained and kidnapped; journalists are being shot and beaten. A recent report by the Institute of Mass Information, a press freedom watchdog group in Ukraine, claims that 136 journalists have been victimized by violent attacks or government persecution since the protests began in late November 2013. And, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a Christian denomination that has provided spiritual services to demonstrators in Kyiv faces threats of prohibition.
The Freedom House report for 2014 awards Ukraine only seven out of 16 points in “the rule of law” area. Justice in the country suffers due to corruption both in the courts—such as those that are issuing arrest warrants for peaceful protesters—and also in Ukraine’s parliament, where unconstitutional laws that limit journalistic freedom and outlaw political activism have been passed in violation of normal legislative procedures.
The Freedom House report illustrates vividly why Ukrainians have taken to the streets to protest the Yanukovych government. And none of the stop-gap measures—such as Yanukovych’s “calling in sick” or the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet or the unlawful “amnesty” law—will solve the political crisis. While the government’s reluctance to sign a trade agreement with the European Union was enough to spark the protests, the problems go much deeper. Only profound changes to Ukraine’s political system will restore public confidence.