Stanford historian Norman Naimark proclaims that Ukraine was a ‘thriving young democracy’ prior to the Russian invasion. He qualifies this proposition by stating that there were ‘… lots of bumps on the road and problems with corruption’. The insufficiently critical reader might discount such fleeting caveats, but one could argue that they undermine the notion of Ukraine as a thriving democracy. Indeed, a well-established view is that the dysfunctional nature of Ukraine’s governance has led to widespread corruption and mediocre economic performance because of the inability of policymakers to implement and sustain much-needed growth-promoting reforms.

Offering a critique of Ukraine’s political and economic institutions at a time when the country has become the utterly tragic victim of Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion might seem cruel and heartless. Yet, as Andrew Mitrovica notes:

‘… it should be possible, even during these horrible times filled, as they are, with misery and death, to challenge the prevailing view that Ukraine is a lovely democratic oasis that requires the country’s more sinister history to be airbrushed out of view or consideration…’.

A large empirical literature on the measurement of democracy eschews a crude binary divide between democratic and non-democratic forms of governance. Instead, there is an emphasis on measuring the quality of democracy along a spectrum that typically consists of multiple categories. Usually, cardinal scales and ranks are used to distinguish the nature of political regimes across countries. Thus, Freedom House employs a classification of three tiers – not free (NF), partly free (PF) and Free (F). These tiers in turn encompass multiple indicators grouped under ‘political rights’ and ‘civil liberties’. Ukraine has consistently been ranked as partly free. Furthermore, it appears that Ukraine’s overall score deteriorated between 2019 and 2020. Freedom House concludes that:

‘…Corruption remains endemic, and the government’s initiatives to combat it have met resistance and experienced setbacks. Attacks against journalists, civil society activists, and members of minority groups are frequent, and police responses are often inadequate.’

Other efforts to measure the quality of democracy in Ukraine arrive at similar conclusions. The Economist uses its ‘democracy index’ to identify four different regimes ranging from the least to the most democratic: authoritarian, hybrid, flawed and full democracies. Ukraine is classified as a ‘hybrid regime’ (the second least democratic category) – an unenviable distinction that it shares with such countries as Kenya, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

The well-known ‘Varieties of Democracy Institute’ (V-Dem) uses a cardinal measure of liberal democracy index (LDI), with 0 being the least democratic and 1 being the most democratic. This can be combined with expert assessments to assess the state of democracy in Ukraine and its trajectory over time.

Figure 1 shows the evolution of LDI for Ukraine between 1946 and 2021. It appears that Ukraine has seen a deterioration in LDI, especially after 2007. In 2021, the value for LDI (0.32) was well below the peak in 2007 (0.47).

Figure 1

Why has the democratic trajectory of Ukraine been so disappointing, despite the promise held by the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 and the Maidan Revolution of 2014? This can plausibly be attributed to two major challenges that Ukraine faces: (a) the long-standing influence of oligarchs; (b) the rise in far-right extremism, especially after 2014. Ukraine has been described as an ‘oligarchic democracy’. These oligarchs, much like the ones in Russia, emerged in the early to mid-1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They benefited enormously from a badly managed privatization process that converted public monopolies into private monopolies—or at least dominant business entities —in a short space of time. The ultra-wealthy owners of these business entities soon embedded themselves into the political process and media outlets to sustain their commercial advantage. This entanglement of business with political power and the media became a source of endemic corruption. Transparency International uses its well-known ‘corruption perception index’ (CPI) to classify Ukraine as one of the most corrupt countries in the world (with a rank of 122/180 and a score of 32/100 in 2021).

The pervasive influence of the oligarchs on Ukraine’s political institutions has been documented extensively – see, for example, here and here. Repeated attempts by various regimes, including the current one led by President Zelenskyy, has been largely ineffective. It is intriguing to note that many of these oligarchs fled Ukraine in their private jets about two weeks before the Russian invasion.

Ukraine has also been characterized by the emergence of far-right extremist groups. They have very modest electoral presence. Unfortunately, since 2014, they have emerged as a potent anti-democratic force. As a report by Freedom House notes:

For the first 20 years of Ukrainian independence, far-right groups had been undisputedly marginal elements in society. But … Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution and Russia’s subsequent aggression, extreme nationalist views, and groups, along with their preachers and propagandists, have been granted significant legitimacy by the wider society…

Extremist groups are… aggressively trying to impose their agenda on Ukrainian society, including by using force against those with opposite political and cultural views. They are a real physical threat to left-wing, feminist, liberal, and LGBT activists, human rights defenders, as well as ethnic and religious minorities.

In the economic sphere, Ukraine has been saddled with mediocre performance. It languishes as a lower-middle-income economy. Indeed, in 2020, Ukraine’s per capita real GDP was lower than it was in 1987—see Figure 2. Based on the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI), Ukraine falls below the threshold for ‘very high human development’ that characterizes European countries. There is a lack of notable progress in terms of HDI between 2017 and 2019.

Ukraine has suffered hyperinflation in the past. Estimates derived from the IMF data mapper, suggest that Ukraine has a significantly higher inflation rate than its regional peers. The same data source records that unemployment rose from 6.4 percent in the mid-2000s to 9.7 percent in 2021. Ukraine has been a regular participant in IMF-supported programs (11 since 1992) implying a country that is vulnerable to periodic bouts of macroeconomic imbalances.

Figure 2

Real per capita GDP in Ukraine was lower in 2020 than in 1988

In sum, it is difficult to sustain the proposition that Ukraine was a ‘thriving young democracy’ before the Russian invasion. Virtually, all empirical measures of democratic governance suggest that it is best seen as a hybrid regime with significant erosion of democratic standards in recent years. The long-standing baleful influence of oligarchs and the rise of far-right extremism, especially after 2014, have led to stunted political development. This has been compounded by mediocre economic performance.


Iyanatul (Yan) Islam is an Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute and former Branch Chief, International Labour Office, Geneva. The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and should not be attributed to the ILO.