Ukraine

Last update: 1 month ago

On 24 February 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine after months of high tension at the border. Russia commenced an attack from the North, South and East. Ukraine successfully mobilized its resistance and prevented Russia from reaching Kyiv and quickly overthrowing the government. The Russian offensive since then has focused on the Eastern Donbas region. Ukrainian troops have launched several counteroffensives, hoping to regain territory in the East. The war is not likely to end soon.

Since the invasion some 660,000 people have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries. The humanitarian situation seems to be grave, especially as Russian forces shell and bombard city centres, violating international humanitarian law. Atrocities committed by Russian forces have led to accusations of war crimes, with the Ukrainian government calling the Bucha massacre a genocide. Many of the refugees are now in doubt whether to return to Ukraine, as the situation has become seemingly more stable.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine shocked the world. Events have continued to unfold quickly since this then, marked by many as a turning point in history. The war has had major negative implications on Ukrainian citizens, but also altered its political trajectory. The invasion has united the country’s politics, which had traditionally been split between pro-European and pro-Russian forces. Anti-Russian sentiment has never been so high. On 28 February 2022, Ukraine officially applied for EU membership.

The European Council approved its candidacy on 23 June 2022, alongside with its neighbour Moldova. Although it will likely take years before Ukraine meets the needed EU criteria with regards to democratic procedures, rule of law, free-market economy and corruption, an important hurdle has been taken: EU countries have welcomed Ukraine’s bid for membership. The country’s main priority remains winning the war, whilst the country awaits more heavy military equipment from NATO and EU allies.

The war poses both a threat and oppurtunity to Ukraine's democracy. Martial law was introduced by parliament, as decisions need to be taken quickly. The challange now is to not let the war lead to illiberal shortcuts. Meanwhile, the current situation provides for oppurtunities to rebuild the country and break with "old habits". There is willingness amongst Western allies to support the country, be it through investments or by providing a pathway for reform through its EU-membership candidacy.

Download Country Update

Want to get notified by mail when Ukraine gets updated?

Map of Ukraine

Short facts

Population:
44,134,693 (World Bank 2020 est.)
Governmental Type:
Republic
Ruling Coalition:
One party: Servant of the People
Last Elections:
25 October 2020 (Parliamentary elections)
Next Elections:
October 2023 (Parliamentary elections)
Sister Parties:
Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (SDPU)
Image of Volodymyr Zelensky (Source: https://www.president.gov.ua/photos/urochisti-zahodi-z-nagodi-skladennya-prisyagi-prezidentom-uk-2905)

Volodymyr Zelensky

President

Read biography
Image of Denys Shmyhal

Denys Shmyhal

Prime Minister

Read biography

Political Situation

Political system

Ukraine has a parliamentary presidential system, which means that on a national level the country elects a head of state, the president, and a legislature. The president is directly elected by the people for a five-year term. The president needs a majority of the votes in the first round to be elected. Otherwise, a second round is held, in which the two candidates with the highest number of votes in the first round can compete.

The parliament (Verkhovna Rada) has 450 members, elected for a four-year term. Since 2014 the effective number of parliamentarians dropped to 424 due to the occupation of Crimea and war in the Donbas. In the most recent elections of 2014 and 2019 members half of members were elected through proportional representation and the other half by single-mandate constituencies. In 2006 and 2007 elections were held under a proportional system only, which in January of 2020 was decided would be re-introduced for the 2023 upcoming election.

The constitution prescribes that the governmental parties must have a majority in parliament. Thus, minority coalitions are formally not an option for government coalitions. Representative bodies and heads of local government throughout Ukraine are elected simultaneously with the Verkhovna Rada. The current ruling Servants of the People (SoP) party is the first to single handedly form a government in Ukraine's political history.

Political situation

Volodymyr Zelensky has been at the centre of Ukrain's politics since some years. On 21 April 2019 the presidential runoff was won by the former comedian and actor. He defeated incumbent President Petro Poroshenko with a landslide, gaining 73 percent of the votes. Zelensky’s role in the popular television series “Servant of the People” became reality, as he used to play a teacher-turned-president that goes on to wipe out corruption and fight against oligarchs. For a majority of the people, this refers to the political establishment personified, in that election, by Poroshenko, and the government’s failure to end corruption over the years.

Zelensky dissolved the parliament on 21 May 2019 to bring forward the parliamentary elections. He did so in an attempt to gain a majority in parliament which would be needed to pass legislation. With approximately 43.14 percent of the votes, Zelensky’s SoP party was the winner of the election. The party, only founded in 2018, is pro-European and pro-NATO but is other than that quite broad and undefined in its ideology. President Zelensky became Ukraine’s first president since the fall of the Soviet-Union, to rule the parliament with a single majority. However, the low voting turn-out is also historic: only 49.9 percent of the population cast a vote.

When Zelensky ran for president, one of his campaign promises was to tackle the widespread corruption and influence of oligarchs. In this respect, the election results were seen as a victory over the old elites ruling the country alongside oligarchs. But as OSCE and other reports show, oligarchs were heavily involved in the campaigns. Most notably as media coverage is particularly unfairly distributed: it was largely dictated by business and political interests. This did not ensure equal coverage for all the candidates. President Zelensky himself has business ties to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, owner of 1+1, one of Ukraine’s most popular TV channels, which had always broadcasted his shows and has given Zelensky a powerful platform.

On 25 October 2020, Ukraine held local elections, viewed by some as a mid-term referendum for Zelensky’s political party. These were held under a new electoral code that decentralized power from Kyiv to local governing bodies. Major changes included a four-time decrease in the number of local councils, the introduction of a proportional system in communities with more than 10,000 voters and a 40 percent gender quota on candidate lists. The gender quota caused quite a stir among the political parties, as they quickly had to look for more women candidates. Old politicians often regrouped into new local parties in preparation for the elections.

Zelensky’s Servant of the People party did not manage to integrate local politicians, and the results showed it. The president’s party performed particularly poorly, while the pro-Kremlin Opposition Platform-For Life party did comparatively well. Across the country, national parties proved themselves incapable of overcoming the local parties of individual city mayors. These results showed a welcome to the decentralization of politics and a slow weakening of the centre.

In 2021 Zelenksy and his SoP were also struggling to implement their ambitious agenda, specifically with regards to its anti-corruption measures. He faced pressures from inside his party and increasingly surrounded himself with the "familiar faces" to Ukrainian politics that he promised to break with. As a results his aproval ratings had reduced drastically, from a whopping 70 percent in 2019 down to only 23 percent in January of 2021. Something needed to be done. With the backing of the new Biden-led government Zelenksy took a stronger stance against Russia and Russian influence in the country. Out of the blue, the administrations announced it would impose sanctions on individuals and corporations that had close ties to Russia.

There were many others ways in which the administration sought to make progress in the year before the Russian invasion. To improve political neutrality a new law was adopted to limit the influence of oligarchs on national politics in September 2021. The legislation will prevent wealthy individuals from funding political parties or taking part in the privatization of state assets and major companies. Implementing further such reforms will remain difficult so long the war lingers on. Priority one is to liberate more of the Russian-occupied terrirotires in the East. In the years after the country's newly aprovded EU membership candidady might prove an important incentive for further reform, certainly if the newly emerged political unity lasts.

Ukrainian-Russian relations leading up to the invasion

In November 2013 a small protest broke out after President Yanukovych abandoned a trade agreement with the European Union, favouring closer ties with Russia. Online videos of police beating protesters later at night sparked a much larger outrage throughout the country, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets within days, dubbed as the Maidan protest. The Maidan protests resulted in pro-EU protesters occupying the Maidan square and taking control of government buildings for months. Eventually, clashes between pro-EU protesters and the police resulted in an apogee on 18 February 2014, when over 70 protesters were killed. In the political turmoil that followed, President Yanukovich fled the country to Russia.

In the weeks that followed, pro-Russian protests broke out in eastern Ukraine and the southern province of Crimea. Pro-Russian and Russian forces took control of government buildings and strategic military complexes in the Crimea, increasing tensions between Ukraine and Russia. On 16 March 2014 Crimea joined Russia through a referendum in which an suspiciously overwhelming majority voted in favour of Russia. The result of the referendum was not recognized internationally. Both the EU and US governments argue that the referendum violates both the Ukrainian constitution and international law.

In the months following the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, the conflict escalated further. Malaysia Airlines plane MH17 was shot down above eastern Ukrainian territory, killing all 298 passengers on board. The event sparked international outrage and triggered the close involvement of the international community. The EU, US and other countries intensified sanctions on pro-Russian separatists and Russia. Meanwhile, the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk declared themselves independent from Ukraine. Finally in September of 2014, the parties agreed on a ceasefire in Minsk, Belarus.

This so-called Minsk I ceasefire was violated continuously and got out of control in January 2015. In February, Ukraine, Lugansk, Donetsk and Russia agreed to the Minsk II accords, and a new ceasefire was born. This ceasefire was violated intensively in the first week too, when pro-Russian separatists opened an offensive on the strategic city of Debaltseve. After this offensive though, both parties seemed to abide by the Minsk II accords fairly well.

Western sanctions on eastern Ukraine and Russia remained in place, not acknowledging Russia's annexation of Crimea. Ukrainian-Russian relations were cold, but seemingly stable. This all changed by late 2021, when Zelenksy's stance towards Russia hardened and Russian forces gathering around Ukraine's border for "miliatary practice operations". Although Biden and Zelenksy had been warning for a full-scale Russian invasion for some time, the unthinkable happening in February 2022. With the violation of the Minks accords, the West agrees that Putin has thereby declared war against democracy, the rule of law, and the possibility for a country to decide its own future.

Political rights and civil liberties

According to the NGO Freedom House, Ukraine is viewed as ‘partly free’, though this status does not reflect the conditions in the occupied Ukrainian territories. Corruption is still widespread in the country, and efforts to combat it have met resistance. In Ukraine distrust remains high regarding the judiciary. The country has long suffered from corrupt and politicized courts. Individuals with financial resources and political influence can often escape wrongdoing, and a disproportionate number of those facing trial are in pretrial detention. Efforts to reform the judiciary have so far met significant resistance.

In late 2020, the Constitutional Court annulled vigorous anticorruption legislation. As a reaction, President Zelensky attempted to dissolve the Court, though this did not actually take place. Instead, parliament passed new weakened legislation, replacing the annulled anticorruption measures. In July 2021, it also backed legislation to relaunch the deeply compromised High Qualification Commission of Judges (HQCJ) and the High Council of Justice (HCJ). Since then both Ukrainian and independent international experts would participate in the future selection process for judicial vacancies. However, the judiciary opposed the reforms. The refusal to comply threatens to derail the promise of real judicial reform in Ukraine.

Regarding media, Ukraine has a mixed landscape. While there is a law on media ownership transparency, the media landscape is under the strong influence of oligarchs, limiting diversity and giving the oligarchs political influence. The overall media landscape therefore lacks objectivity and is “divided along political lines”, concentrated in the hands of a few owners. Furthermore, attacks against journalists and civil society activists are prevalent, while police response is often inadequate.

Human Rights and Gender Equality

Human rights in Ukraine continue to be affected by the armed conflict in the east and the COVID-19 pandemic. The conflict not only threatens civilian’s physical safety, but also limits their access to food, medicines, adequate housing, and schools. Travel restrictions, imposed by both the Russia-backed armed groups and the Ukrainian government, have had a devastating impact on social and economic rights, driving civilians deeper into poverty. Women are particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as they account for over 80% of Ukraine’s healthcare and social workers, and domestic violence cases have increased.

Other than the effects of COVID-19. Gender inequality in Ukraine also takes other forms. Gender inequality is prevalent in political participation (women hold 21% of the seats in parliament), participation in managerial positions (23% of the management positions are held by women), and the gender pay gap (women earn on average 23% less than men). According to Freedom House, rights groups have reported that employers openly discriminate on the basis of gender and age.

According to the law, minorities such as Roma and LGBT+ people are officially protected in Ukraine, though violence against these groups continues to be a major problem. Anti-LGBT+ attacks remain prevalent, and perpetrators almost always get away with it. Both Roma and LGBT+ people and groups generally only receive police protection or justice for attacks against them when there is intense pressure from civil society or international actors. In these cases, human rights are still under pressure.

Elections

Parliamentary elections

On May 20th 2019, the day of his inauguration, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced his intention to dissolve parliament and call early elections. On that day the presidential decree set the elections for July 21, 2019, and Zelensky dissolved parliament because the current coalition didn’t have the support of the majority of the parliament. 62 MPs filed a constitutional challenge against the decree, but the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of early elections on the 20th of June. After the election results were published, it became clear that the president’s party, Servant of the People, won a majority. The party won 254 seats out of 424, thereby enabling it to form a government without a coalition. For the first time in the history of independent Ukraine, one party could control the cabinet of ministers, the office of the president and parliament on its own. Many consider the victory of Zelensky to be the result of disappointment in the previous government and the continuous power of oligarchs in Ukrainian society.  

Campaign
The OSCE reported that during the campaigning period contestants were able to freely convey their messages to the electorate. The campaign was seen as competitive with a huge amount of candidates representing a wide spectrum of political options. Despite this, vote-buying remained widespread in many regions of the country, especially in single-vote mandate districts. The National police initiated over 125 criminal investigations concerning vote-buying. On top of that, several incumbent MPs and mayors, who stood as candidates, often misused their incumbency by promising and providing benefits to voters.

Election results 2019
Due to the war in eastern Ukraine elections couldn’t be held in 26 different constituencies, and as a result, 26 out of 450 seats were left vacant. With all votes counted, the Central Election Commission (CEC) showed five parties passing the 5 per cent threshold, thus entering the Ukrainian Parliament (Rada). Voter turnout was historically low with only 49.9 per cent of the population casting their vote.

Party

Seats party lists*

Seats constituencies**

Total

%

Servant of the People

 124

  130 

254

 43.16 %

Opposition Platform — For Life

 37 

  6 

 43

13,05 %

Fatherland

 24

  2 

 26 

8,08 %

European Solidarity

 23

  2 

 25 

 8,10 %

Holos (Voice)

 17

  3

 20 

 5,84 % 

Opposition Bloc

 -

  6 

 6

 3,03 % 

All-Ukrainian Union "Svoboda"

 -

 1

 1

 2,15 %

Self Reliance

 - 

 1 

 1

 0,62 %

United centre

 -

 1

 1

 -

Bila Tserkva Together

 -

 1

 1

 -

Independent single constituencies

 -

46

 46

 10,85

Proportional lists
** Single-mandate constituencies

The elections resulted in a major win for Zelensky’s Servant of the People, along with which three new political parties entered the Rada, namely Opposition Platform - For Life, European Solidarity and Holos (Voice). Opposition Platform consists of former members from its predecessor For Life, Opposition Bloc Ukraine Forward! and Ukrainian Choice. The party is openly pro-Russian and anti-EU. European Solidarity is essentially a rebranding of “Poroshenko Bloc” and aims to continue Porsohenko’s political agenda. Holos is founded by singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, who presents himself as anti-establishment and is considered to be a Liberal, pro-EU and pro-NATO. Thanks to Servant of the People and Holos, 80 percent of MPs are newcomers. Furthermore, the average age of MPs has gone down from 48 to 41 years compared to the previous parliament. A record number of 87 women entered the Rada as a result of the elections, making up 19.3 per cent of the total number of deputies. This is a significant increase from 2014 when 11.1 per cent of the parliament was made up of women.  


Presidential elections

On 21 April 2019 the presidential runoff was won by comedian and frontrunner Volodymyr Zelensky. He defeated incumbent President Petro Poroshenko with 73 percent of the votes. Poroshenko got 25 percent of the votes. The turnout of the votes was just over 62 percent. On 31 March 2019, the first round of presidential elections was held in Ukraine. Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky then already enjoyed the majority, namely 30.23 percent, of the votes. Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko was second with 15.95 percent, followed by Bativshchyna Party leader Yulia Tymoshenko with 13.38 percent. 

Frontrunner Zelensky, 41 years old, is best known for his role in the political comedy series Servant of the People where he plays a teacher that becomes president of Ukraine through some extraordinary circumstances and proceeds to fight corruption and shake up the political system. During his anti-establishment campaign, he mocked his political rivals with jokes, sketches and other performances. Zelensky promised that, if elected, he will fight against corruption and for reforms. Moreover, he promised to address and implement peace talks for eastern Ukraine. He also wanted to implement a new law on ‘People’s Rule’ to establish referendums where Ukrainians could express their expectations for the authorities. More than 35 million people were eligible to vote in the first round. 

Election results

Candidate

Party

First-round

Second round

Votes

%

Votes

%

 

Volodymyr Zelensky

Servant of the People

5,714,034

30.24

13,541,528

73.22

 

Petro Poroshenko

Independent

3,014,609

15.95

4,522,320

24.45

 

Yulia Tymoshenko

Fatherland

2,532,452

13.40

 

 

Yuriy Boyko

Independent

2,206,216

11.67

 

Anatoliy Hrytsenko

Civil Position

1,306,450

6.91

 

Ihor Smeshko

Independent

1,141,332

6.04

 

Oleh Lyashko

Radical Party

1,036,003

5.48

 

Oleksandr Vilkul

Opposition Bloc

784,274

4.15

 

Ruslan Koshulynskyi

Svoboda

307,244

1.62

 

Yuri Tymoshenko

Independent

117,693

0.62

Political parties

Other Parties

Logo of Servant of the People (Source: https://sluganarodu.ua/)

Servant of the People

Party Leader: Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Number of seats: 240

https://sluganarodu.ua/

Read more

Logo of European Solidarity (Source: https://eurosolidarity.org/)

European Solidarity

Party Leader: Petro Poroshenko

Number of seats: 27

https://eurosolidarity.org/

Read more

Logo of Batkyvschina (All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland" (incl. United Opposition)

Batkyvschina (All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland" (incl. United Opposition)

Party Leader: Yulia Tymoshenko

Number of seats: 24

http://www.tymoshenko.com.ua

Read more

Logo of Platform for Life and Peace

Platform for Life and Peace

Party Leader: Yuriy Boyko

Number of seats: 23

Read more

Logo of Holos (Voice) (Source: By Tohaomg - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80807355)

Holos (Voice)

Party Leader: Svyatoslav Vakarchuk

Number of seats: 20

https://https://goloszmin.org/

Read more

For the Future (ZM)

Party Leader: Ihor Palytsia

Number of seats: 20

https://zamajbutne.com.ua/#/

Read more

Logo of Dovira

Dovira

Party Leader: Oleh Kulinich

Number of seats: 18

http://dovira.org.ua/

Read more

Restoration of Ukraine (VU)

Party Leader: Maksim Yefimov & Igor Abramovych

Number of seats: 18

Read more

Biographies

Image of Volodymyr Zelensky (Source: https://www.president.gov.ua/photos/urochisti-zahodi-z-nagodi-skladennya-prisyagi-prezidentom-uk-2905)

Volodymyr Zelensky

President

Read biography
Image of Denys Shmyhal

Denys Shmyhal

Prime Minister

Read biography
Image of Petro Poroshenko

Petro Poroshenko

Former President and Leader of "European Solidarity"

Read biography
Image of Oleksiy Honcharuk (Source: https://www.kmu.gov.ua/ua/news/novim-premyer-ministrom-ukrayini-stav-oleksij-goncharuk)

Oleksiy Honcharuk

Former Prime Minister

Read biography
Image of Yulia Tymoshenko

Yulia Tymoshenko

Leader of Batkyvschina (All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland")

Read biography
Image of Vitaly Klitschko

Vitaly Klitschko

Mayor of Kiev

Read biography

Sources

  • BBC
  • Central Election Commission
  • Central Europe Review
  • Chernobyl.info
  • Committee to protect Journalists
  • Economist
  • Election World.org
  • EU External Relations
  • EU Institute for Security Studies
  • Freedom House – Nations in Transit 2005
  • Glavred info
  • Government Portal
  • Guardian
  • International Herald Tribune
  • Liga
  • Kmu
  • Korrespondent
  • Kyiv Post
  • Mirror Weekly
  • NATO – Ukraine
  • OSCE/ ODIHR Election Reports
  • Rada portal
  • Reuters
  • RFE/RL
  • Rian
  • The Guardian
  • The Telegraph
  • Transitions Online
  • Ukrainian Government Portal
  • UA Monitor
  • Ukraine info
  • Ukrainian Monitor
  • Ukrainian Weekly
  • Ukrayinska Pravda
  • Unian News from Ukraine
  • US Department of State