The Washington-based organization Freedom House, which measures the degree of liberty in countries around the world, says Ukraine is setting an example for its region in the progress it is making in democratization.
But Freedom House's director of studies, Christopher Walker, warns of possible dangers ahead in an interview with RFE/RL.
RFE/RL: You have said that the success or failure of democratization and the development of civil society in Ukraine has a significance that goes beyond its own borders. Please explain this potential to influence the region.
Christopher Walker: The success or failure of Ukraine as a democratic state in a region which is more defined by a scarcity rather than an abundance of such states is important because demonstration effects can matter, and Ukraine has managed -- certainly in the context of the non-Baltic former Soviet Union -- to make some very important headway in a number of key areas, to the extent that if we start to see reversals or erosion of some of the institutions we have seen [emerge] over the past decade or in particular over the past half-decade, this would be a damaging signal to other countries in the region that may look to Ukraine as an example in a very difficult environment.
RFE/RL: How do you rate Ukraine's efforts at democratization over the past decade? Have they managed to build stable institutions and a degree of accountability into their system?
Walker: If you look at the post-Soviet period, there were hopes certainly that in the immediate aftermath of that time that things would move forward swiftly. [But the situation] became in the end -- certainly in the period of [President Leonid] Kuchma -- it became rather difficult on a number of counts, including press freedom. This was exemplified to the outside world by the murder of the [investigative journalist] Heorhiy Gongadze, and those events about a decade ago led many to believe that meaningful reform would be extremely difficult.
But then the events of the Orange Revolution opened the door to a different way of doing things, and I think what has been notable since that time has been the institutionalization of open, competitive elections, the ability of civil society to function and play a meaningful role, and the news media. In a wilderness of unfreedom, Ukraine's news media has been a very notable exception, one which now needs to be safeguarded.
RFE/RL: Is the progress in democratization and civil society now under threat from the government of Moscow-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych? In what ways?
Walker: We've been hearing from colleagues and our analysts that a number of developments in the early months of this year, since the government took over, create some causes for concern, and our feeling is that to the extent there has been progress in a number of areas, that threats in those areas would be rather damaging to Ukraine's longer-term prospects for building a rules-based and open state.
In particular, pressures on civil society and news media which we gather have started -- they may not have reached full force, but the indicators are that there have been some growing pressures in those areas.
RFE/RL: How can the Western democracies help Ukraine?
Walker: The key steps which can be taken are first, to help safeguard the progress which has been made in recent years. This, I think, will be important for European and U.S. officials to consistently raise; it was very valuable for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to raise these issues during her visit to the community of democracies meeting in Krakow.
At the same time, its important to ensure that the sort of support that Ukraine has gotten more broadly is not cut off too quickly, because it's clear that there are a set of emerging challenges that may argue for assistance for a variety of sorts, political and otherwise, for the foreseeable future.