January 14, 2010

Ukraine’s National Election – a Problem of Democracy?

Economy, Poor Leadership, Corruption Key

By Erin Carriere-Kretschmer, Senior Researcher, Pew Global Attitudes Project

The Orange Revolution in Ukraine helped to usher pro-Western liberal Viktor Yushchenko into the president’s office in 2005. Yushchenko promised to fight corruption, reform the economy and seek better relations with the West. Five years later, on the eve of new elections, Ukraine’s economy is in free fall, corruption is still widespread and NATO membership remains elusive. Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych is circling with promises of a return to stability and a closer relationship with Russia.

Findings from a September 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project show that Ukrainians are not only disenchanted with their current leadership and economic situation; they are also broadly dissatisfied with the democratic and capitalist systems that evolved after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. In fact, of the former Eastern bloc publics surveyed, Ukrainians are the most unhappy with the transition to a democracy and free markets.

Dissatisfaction With General Country Direction, Economy and Leadership

Ukrainians are unhappy with the general direction of their country as well as their economic situation and national leadership. Roughly nine-in-ten (88%) Ukrainians are dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country. A roughly equal percentage (91%) describes the current economic situation in Ukraine as somewhat or very bad, with a majority (59%) saying very bad.

Also, as of September 2009, most Ukrainians disapproved (83%) of President Yushchenko’s handling of his job, with many (41%) saying they strongly disapprove. More recent findings show that President Yushchenko remains widely unpopular. A November 2009 survey conducted by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), found that most (83%) Ukrainians view Yushchenko negatively and few (3.5%) say they will vote for him in the first round of the presidential election in January 2010.

One key issue for the current and future administrations in Ukraine will likely be corruption — an issue Yushchenko promised to address during his successful bid for office. In fact, seven-in-ten (70%) in Ukraine consider corrupt political leaders a very big problem, up from 63% in 2002.

Corruption is far from the only issue Ukrainians consider important. Many also consider pollution (64%), crime (56%), the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases (56%), and illegal drugs (46%) to be very big problems.

Disaffection With Changes

Ukrainians are growing less enamored of the changes made to their political and economic systems since 1991. In a 1991 survey conducted just months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union,1 a large majority (72%) of Ukrainians approved of the change to a multiparty system, whereas only 30% do now. Also, while half (52%) of Ukrainians approved of the change to a capitalist economic system in the early 1990s, only 36% do now. In fact, Ukraine is the only former Eastern bloc country surveyed where more disapprove than approve of the changes to a multiparty system and market economy.

Men, the young and more educated are decidedly more supportive of the dramatic political and economic changes made in the early 1990s. Roughly four-in-ten Ukrainian men approve of the changes to a competitive election system (37%) and a free market economy (44%). Somewhat fewer women express the same views; 25% support the move to multiparty elections and 30% embrace capitalism.

Roughly one-third (34%) of Ukrainians ages 18-29 approve of the change to multiparty elections; only 20% of those 65 or older hold the same view. Nearly half (48%) of 18-29 year-olds in Ukraine also support the move to a free market; only 20% of people 65 or older voice the same opinion.

Ukrainians with at least some college education are also more likely to support the change to multiparty elections (41%) and capitalism (52%) than their less than educated counterparts (25% approve of multiparty system, 28% approve of free markets). By contrast, ethnic Russians in Ukraine are no less likely to approve of these changes than are their ethnic Ukrainian counterparts.

Many now believe a strong leader is better able to solve Ukraine’s problems than a democratic form of government. Slightly more than two-thirds of those in Ukraine (69%) say a strong leader is better, compared with 20% who say democratic government. In Ukraine, confidence in democracy has waned since 1991, when 57% said a democratic government could better solve the nation’s problems.

In addition, many in Ukraine sense that people were actually better off economically under communism than they are under the current system. When asked to consider whether the economic situation for most people today is better, worse or about the same as it was under communism, 62% in Ukraine say worse.

Few Think Ukraine Has Democratic Institutions

While many Ukrainians continue to embrace democratic values and institutions, few think their country has these values and institutions.

Large majorities in Ukraine consider it somewhat or very important to live in a country with a fair judiciary (90%), freedom of religion (86%), multiparty elections (85%), a free media (83%), freedom of speech (82%) and civilian control of the military (55%) with many saying very important.

More Ukrainians consider having a fair judicial system very important than any of the other democratic elements asked about. Nearly seven-in-ten (67%) consider it very important to have a judicial system that treats everyone the same way. Somewhat fewer say it is very important to have multiparty elections (53%), freedom to practice one’s religion (51%), and freedom of the media to report information without censorship (49%). Fewer highly value the freedom to speak openly and criticize the government (43%), and civilian control of the military (30%).

However, few in Ukraine feel that their country is doing a good job ensuring most of those rights and freedoms. For example, only about one-in-ten (11%) think the phrase “there is a judicial system that treats everyone in the same way” describes their country very well. Likewise, only 11% say the phrase “honest elections are held regularly with a choice of at least two political parties” characterizes their country very well, while (13%) feel the same about the media’s ability to report the news without government censorship.

More Ukrainians are convinced their country can be characterized as one in which people can practice their religion freely (31%) and openly say what they think and criticize the government (22%).

Relations With Russia

Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych’s preference for closer relations between Ukraine and Russia appears consistent with public sentiment. Roughly half (46%) of the respondents in Ukraine say Russia is having a good influence on their country. Only 25% feel that this influence is bad.

Views of Russian influence in Ukraine vary by ethnicity and region. Ethnic Russians (81%) are far more likely to view Russian influence positively than ethnic Ukrainians (52%). In addition more people living in Eastern (87%) and Southern (56%) Ukraine, which are the regions in which most Ethnic Russians live, view the influence of Russia as good than do those in the West (32%).

Ukrainians also view Russia as one of their most dependable allies. When asked to name the countries they can most rely on as a dependable ally in the future, a majority of Ukrainians (58%) think of Russia. Ukrainians were also asked to name the countries and organizations that pose the greatest threat. More than one-in-four (27%) in Ukraine see the U.S. as one of their top threats.

All is not rosy in terms of Ukrainian views of Russia; just as with other former Soviet and Eastern European publics, Ukrainians are worried about being too dependent on Russia for their energy resources. More than seven-in-ten (73%) in Ukraine express these concerns and, since 2007, worries about dependence on Russian energy resources have increased significantly (+10 percentage points).

Views of NATO

While current President Viktor Yushchenko is a proponent of Ukraine joining NATO, few Ukrainians hold this view. About half in Ukraine hold unfavorable opinions of NATO (51%) and oppose joining this security organization (51%).

Ethnic Russians are far more likely to hold an unfavorable view of NATO (74%) and oppose Ukrainian membership in the security organization (74%) than are ethnic Ukrainians (37% hold a favorable view of NATO, 46% oppose NATO membership).

  1. The Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press (the forerunner of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press) conducted the Pulse of Europe survey from April 15 to May 31, 1991. Interviews were conducted with 12,569 people in Britain, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Spain, as well as three republics of the Soviet Union: Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine.