The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tucker Carlson says Ukraine is not a democracy. Here are the facts.

In late February, Fox News host Tucker Carlson openly questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine’s political system, openly dismissing its status as a democracy. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

“You can’t say it enough, Ukraine is not a democracy. … In American terms, you would call Ukraine a tyranny.”

— Fox News host Tucker Carlson, on his show, Feb. 22

Carlson has been channeling many of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arguments for invading Ukraine, including that Ukraine is not a democracy. Putin has asserted that the 2014 ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych — what Putin labels a coup d’etat — “did not bring Ukraine any closer to democracy and progress.” He stressed the role of oligarchs and attacks on political opponents and media outlets.

On Wednesday’s show, Carlson expanded on these themes, tossing in another Putin nostrum — that Ukraine is a “client state” of the United States.

“Ukraine, to be technical, is not a democracy,” Carlson said. “Democracies don’t arrest political opponents, and they don’t shut down opposition media, both of which Ukraine has done. And by the way, Ukraine is a pure client state of the United States State Department — again, that’s fine. We are not mad about that, go ahead and run Ukraine if you want, if you think you can do a better job than Ukrainians. Just don’t tell us it’s a democracy.”

To some extent, whether Ukraine is a democracy is a matter of opinion, so we will not offer a Pinocchio rating. But Carlson — who has expressed admiration for Hungarian President Viktor Orbán and his crackdown on civil liberties — is stacking the deck against Ukraine. It is a fledgling democracy, with significant growing pains, largely the result of Russian pressure and interference in its affairs. It is certainly not “a tyranny.”

The Facts

Ukraine has many aspects of a democracy. The president, who is head of state and commander in chief, is chosen by a popular election. The legislature has a mix of single-seat and proportional representation. The prime minister is chosen through a legislative majority and is head of government. The Supreme Court is appointed by the president upon nomination by the Supreme Council of Justice.

“In April 2019 Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in an election considered free and fair by international and domestic observers,” the State Department said in its 2021 Human Rights report. “In July 2019 the country held early parliamentary elections that observers also considered free and fair.”

But what’s on paper is not necessarily the same as what happens in practice. Ukraine’s constitution, for instance, guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, but there is no law that specifically provides for freedom of assembly.

The country has struggled to build up a lasting democratic infrastructure as it has veered between leaders who lean toward Russia or toward the West. Corruption remains a serious problem that government officials have only halfheartedly addressed.

Zelensky has been engaged in a bitter political feud with the man he defeated in a landslide 2019 election, Petro Poroshenko. Prosecutors have sought to arrest Poroshenko on charges of treason and supporting terrorism, but a court in January said he could await trial while released on his own recognizance. Poroshenko had been accused of facilitating coal purchases for government enterprises from mines under the control of Moscow-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine, helping finance the militants. He says the charges are politically motivated.

Freedom House, a nonpartisan think tank that ranks democracies, has labeled Ukraine “a transitional or hybrid regime” in one recent report and “partly free” in a second report.

Hungary, Carlson’s fave, is also listed as a “transitional or hybrid regime” and does not rank much higher than Ukraine. Ukraine’s overall Freedom House score, moreover, is higher than that of Mexico and Indonesia, two countries often labeled democracies.

The Economist Intelligence Unit, which in its 2021 Democracy Index listed the United States as a “flawed democracy,” also pegged Ukraine as a “hybrid regime.” Other Eastern European countries in that category included Armenia, Georgia and Bosnia.

Essentially, Ukraine is in the middle of the pack of former Soviet republics. It ranks much higher on the Democracy Index than Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan — all considered authoritarian regimes. But it is much lower than Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — now members of the European Union that are considered full democracies.

“Ukraine has enacted a number of positive reforms since the protest-driven ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014,” said Freedom House in its 2021 report on worldwide freedoms. “However, corruption remains endemic, and initiatives to combat it are only partially implemented. Attacks against journalists, civil society activists, and members of minority groups are frequent, and police responses are often inadequate.”

Ukraine earned a score of 60 out of 100, down from 62 the year before. “Corruption remains a serious problem, and even the little remaining political will to fight it is eroding, despite strong pressure from civil society,” the report said. (According to Transparency International, Ukraine is the third-most-corrupt country in Europe, after Russia and Azerbaijan.)

In Freedom House’s 2021 report on Nations in Transit, Ukraine’s score was also reduced because of backsliding on the judiciary in the previous year.

“Judicial Framework and Independence rating declined from 2.50 to 2.25 due to court rulings that suspended laws necessary for reforms, discredited progressive public officials, and overturned corruption verdicts; additionally, a constitutional crisis was caused by the judges of the constitutional Court, who abolished asset declarations of public officials while acting with conflicts of interest,” the report said. “As a result, Ukraine’s Democracy Score declined from 3.39 to 3.36” out of a possible score of 7.

“Media in Ukraine remained pluralistic and free from state pressure in 2020. Media outlets are, however, significantly influenced by the financial support and political agendas of their owners,” the report added. “There are positive tendencies in Ukraine’s fight against grand corruption, but also increasing resistance from the judicial branch.”

The State Department human rights report especially faulted unlawful or arbitrary killing by internal security forces. “The government generally failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity,” the report said. “Human rights groups and the United Nations noted significant deficiencies in investigations into alleged human rights abuses committed by government security forces.”

The report noted the problem of extrajudicial killings was even worse “in the Russia-instigated and -fueled conflict in the Donbas region” and in Russia-occupied Crimea.

It often takes time for a country to build up democratic institutions, especially if there has not been a long history of rule of law. A key aspect of U.S. foreign policy has been to assist Ukraine in its transition toward a more Western-oriented democracy. In 2020, according to ForeignAssistance.gov, the U.S. government gave Ukraine $160 million to improve governance, including $47 million for judicial development, $25 million for civil society, $18 million for media freedom and $16 million to anti-corruption organizations.

The Bottom Line

Carlson is too quick to dismiss Ukraine as not a democracy, especially given his embrace of Hungary. It is especially rich of Carlson to mimic Putin’s complaints about the state of Ukraine’s democracy, given that Putin runs an authoritarian regime. Putin does not care about democracy; his main complaint is that the current Ukrainian government refuses to be a Russian puppet.

Ukraine is a flawed democracy — though one with aspirations to improve its standing if it is allowed to break free of Russian meddling in its affairs.

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