Rebuilding democracy in Ukraine: taboos on criticism of the government and monopolization of the information space

The importance of restoring democracy in post-war Ukraine

When talking about rebuilding Ukraine after the war, very often the focus is on restoring the infrastructure destroyed by the Russian army, strengthening the weakened economy, rebuilding housing and social facilities, or returning displaced persons. However, there is almost no mention of the need to restore such an abstract and intangible concept as democracy. Meanwhile, the rebuilding of democracy and the restoration of a competitive political environment with freedom of speech, accountability, and separation of powers can have a decisive impact on the future of the country. This applies to economic recovery, the fight against corruption, as well as the movement towards NATO and the EU.

Ukrainian democracy has never been exemplary. Its source was primarily grassroots civic activism, rather than the perfect functioning of institutions or the principledness of ruling elites. Ukrainian society has never accepted authoritarian methods of governance or attempts to usurp power. Evidence of this can be seen in two revolutions after the restoration of independence in 1991 and the participation of Ukrainians in various civic protest actions.

The Ukrainian nation has truly demonstrated its commitment to freedom and democracy on multiple occasions. However, many representatives of Ukrainian authorities have occasionally felt an uncontrollable attraction to authoritarian practices. Additionally, there is intolerance towards political opponents, criticism, and a desire to hold on to power at any cost. Such behavior is evidence of the immaturity of Ukrainian political elites, the mistaken identification of oneself with the state, and a propensity to use official powers to achieve personal goals, resulting in kleptocracy, corruption, and other unpleasant phenomena.

Restrictions on rights and freedoms and consequences of hiding corruption and abuses during the war

Naturally, the war has caused restrictions on the rights and freedoms of citizens. This is a natural process that all countries forced to repel enemy aggression go through. There has also been a significant concentration of powers in the hands of the elected authorities and a significant restriction of freedom in the information space through the creation of a single television network. At the same time, the war has imposed a sort of taboo on criticism of the government and has removed an important element of accountability of officials to society. The negative consequences of this are already being felt.

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Public officials and deputies were given the opportunity not to file electronic declarations of their income and property. Competitions for appointments to public positions have also disappeared. Part of the state registries has become inaccessible. Officials have become much less willing to respond to information requests from journalists, including about the size of their income and salaries. Of course, this refusal was explained by the martial law. The permission for state structures to bypass the Prozorro system (hybrid electronic open source government e-procurement system created as the result of a partnership between business, government and civil society) in 2022 resulted in a significant increase in corrupt practices. The concealment of government procurement eventually resulted in a major scandal within the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. The war has become a convenient excuse for some officials to hide things that have no impact on national security but could reveal evidence of their corruption, greed, and abuses.

Criticism is good for any government. It allows to keep it in shape, respond to problems, work better, and improve. Or lose in the next election and pay for its ineffective work. This also serves the benefit of the entire state. This is a normal process of functioning in a country where self-sufficient institutions work, where there is a highly developed political culture and traditions, and a sense of personal responsibility of politicians to their own nation and country. The problem is that the Ukrainian government often forgets these simple truths. It begin to believe that they are perfect, infallible, and indispensable. Political opponents then start to be seen as real enemies, and criticism of the government is perceived not as a stimulus to improve, but as a reason for offense and possible retaliation.

In conditions where political culture is at a low level, institutions and laws are treated as tools for individual use. There is a temptation to hold onto power at any cost, monopolize the information field, and use the state apparatus and law enforcement agencies against competitors. However, such power-hungry intentions pave the way for authoritarianism and hybrid democracy.

After the end of the war, the reconstruction of democracy and political competition will become an important task for Ukraine. Ukrainians generally know that their government is not perfect, and that is generally a good thing. However, government officials often forget this truth, and the issue is not so much about specific personalities as it is about general trends.

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War and its effects on Ukrainian information space

During the war, it’s not entirely appropriate to criticize the government. But let’s be honest: our government has never voluntarily acknowledged its own mistakes and has always disliked inconvenient questions. It’s enough to remember how painfully Zelenskyy or Poroshenko reacted to them. The end of the war means that many restrictions that were in place during the war should disappear. But how smoothly will all of this happen? Will the government be tempted, under various pretexts, to try to build a limited form of hybrid democracy? There is a risk that many from the current ruling mono majority will be reluctant to return to the realities of open political competition with opposition media and TV channels. The realities where you have to submit electronic declarations, be accountable to voters, or answer inconvenient questions. And where your electoral ratings can drop sharply.

During the full-scale war, the single telethon played a positive role in consolidating society and protecting it from Russian propaganda. However, its usefulness now seems questionable. And the shutdown of pro-Ukrainian opposition channels from the digital ether looks more like censorship. The single telethon also created a warm information bubble for representatives of the ruling majority, officials from the Office of the President, and officials of the Servant of the People party. Many have become too accustomed to living in an information bubble and will try to maintain control over the Ukrainian television media space even after the war ends. This is necessary to show good results in future elections and maintain power. However, such selfish desires are not quite consistent with democratic principles.

The risks of prolonged restrictions on freedom of information

Prolonged artificial restrictions on the freedom of the information space in Ukraine also carry significant risks for social stability in the future. Obviously, after the war, there will be many different, including difficult, questions for the government. Hiding or ignoring existing problems within the state means that they will only accumulate, but not be solved. This threatens a social explosion of unpredictable consequences and scales.

The restoration of democracy in Ukraine after the end of the war is no less important than the rebuilding of destroyed cities and the economy. Imperfect Ukrainian democracy is still better than externally perfect authoritarianism. Because it introduces elements of political competition and accountability. It gives a chance for peaceful change of power through elections and reforms, even if a large part of the political elites resist them.

Can post-war reconstruction of a country be successful without freedom of speech? Where officials and deputies can hide their wealth. Where civil servants are appointed without competition. Where corruption goes unpunished and mutual responsibility and selective justice prevail. Where the government is only praised and lauded, but never criticized for mistakes and shortcomings. It is highly doubtful.

Originally posted on Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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