As an investigative journalist, then an activist, and later a...

As an investigative journalist, then an activist, and later a lawmaker, Yehor Soboliev speaks during the interview with Associated Press in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 3, 2024. Credit: AP/Alex Babenko

KYIV, Ukraine — As an investigative journalist, then an activist, and later a lawmaker, Yehor Soboliev sought to expose corruption in business and government as a way to defend Ukraine's budding democracy.

Now, as a soldier battling Russia, he's had to put those aims on hold as he fights alongside some of the people he once tried to bring down.

“Till the victory, we are on the same side,” said Soboliev, a lieutenant in a front-line drone unit. “But maybe — definitely — after the victory, we should separate ourselves from each other. And we should continue that fight in making our country more honest, more responsible, more serving to its citizens.”

Ukraine has spent years trying to build a Western-style democracy, although not without some bumps along the way as it shed habits from its Soviet past. Russia's full-scale invasion two years ago raised the stakes of these democracy-building efforts, which are fundamental to Ukraine's goal of joining the European Union and NATO.

Soboliev's feelings capture a paradox within Ukraine: To beat back Russia and remain a democracy it has felt compelled to temporarily suspend or restrict some democratic ideals.

Elections have been postponed, a once-robust media has been restrained, corruption-fighting has slipped down the agenda, and freedom of movement and assembly have been curbed by martial law.

And as Russia pounds Ukraine’s cities and makes battlefield gains, the unity sparked by the invasion — and the sense of common purpose crucial to defending democracy — have come under growing strain.

As an investigative journalist, then an activist, and later a...

As an investigative journalist, then an activist, and later a lawmaker, Yehor Soboliev speaks during the interview with Associated Press in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 3, 2024. Credit: AP/Alex Babenko

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This story, supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, is part of an ongoing Associated Press series covering threats to democracy in Europe.

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Corruption ‘metastasized’ in the midst of war

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a news conference at...

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a news conference at the Ukraine peace summit in Obbürgen, Switzerland, on June 16, 2024. Zelenskyy indefinitely postponed the 2024 presidential election because of the war, which has seen almost one-fifth of Ukraine occupied by Russia and millions of citizens displaced from their homes. Credit: AP/Laurent Cipriani

When comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected Ukraine’s president in 2019, he promised to crack down on corruption that had flourished for decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

War hasn’t made that any easier. Corruption exists at a “frightening scale” in Ukraine, the pro-democracy organization Freedom House said in a February report, noting that it “metastasized within the army in 2023," especially around defense contracts and men seeking exemptions from the draft.

The European Union says Ukraine must reduce corruption before it can join the 27-nation bloc and in November said the country had made “some progress” but needed to do more, especially on “high-level cases.” Ukraine’s defense minister, agriculture minister, top prosecutor, intelligence chief, and other senior officials have been pushed out over the past two years, and last year the head of the Supreme Court was arrested for allegedly taking bribes.

But Ukraine’s judiciary has been an obstacle. After Zelenskyy took office, Ukraine’s top court said officials no longer needed to declare their assets in an electronic register. That decision was overturned, in part due to public pressure — but it was just one of many that have undercut anti-corruption efforts.

Still, Olha Aivazovska, who chairs the pro-democracy charity OPORA, believes pressure to eliminate corruption will be maintained by Ukraine's desire for EU membership.

“Ukrainian politicians will not win any elections after the end of the war if they will not be successful on the EU integration track,” she said.

‘A democracy even without elections’

Zelenskyy indefinitely postponed the 2024 presidential election because of the war. With almost one-fifth of Ukraine occupied by Russia and millions of citizens displaced from their homes, Ukraine’s opposition leaders supported the decision, and opinion polls suggest most Ukrainians agree.

But some Ukrainians grumble about the power Zelenskyy has accumulated. Criticism of him grew last year after Ukraine’s failed counter-offensive, and political rivals are testing the ground.

Kyiv Mayor Vitalii Klitschko has accused Zelenskyy of becoming increasingly autocratic, citing the replacement of some elected mayors with military officials. Zelenskyy’s immediate predecessor as president, the candy magnate Petro Poroshenko, says he is planning a postwar comeback. And in a possible sign of his desire to sideline rivals, Zelenskyy in February dismissed the country's popular military chief, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the canceled elections to question Zelenskyy's legitimacy. The idea of Zelenskyy as anti-democratic has been echoed in the U.S. by some Republicans in Congress who oppose military support for Ukraine.

Aivazovska rejects that argument. “During wartime, Ukraine can be a democracy even without elections,” she said — as long as it strengthens its media, local government and civil society organizations.

“Russia formally had elections in March, but that doesn’t mean that Russia is a democratic state,” she said. “We need real democracy in Ukraine for development, not fake democracy as Russia has.”

Journalists come under pressure

Soon after the invasion, a handful of Ukrainian TV networks combined resources to create one 24-7 channel, the “United News Telemarathon,” as a way to ensure continuity.

Public trust in the channel is low, and so are ratings, according to Reporters Without Borders, a journalism advocacy group that has called for the arrangement to be broken up. The U.S. State Department said the consolidation stifled competition and “enabled an unprecedented level of control” by the government by effectively establishing a single authorized broadcaster.

Ukraine has a vigorous online media that includes widely read investigative outlets, though some independent journalists say they have faced dirty tricks from the authorities.

The Committee to Protect Journalists in January called on the government to investigate threats against reporter Yuriy Nikolov, whose apartment door was plastered with notes calling him a traitor and a draft-dodger after he wrote about defense ministry corruption. That same month, the online investigative outfit Bihus.Info said its journalists had been wiretapped and filmed surreptitiously, after a video was published allegedly showing employees using drugs at a party.

In Reporters Without Borders’ 2024 press freedom index, Ukraine was ranked 61st out of 180 countries surveyed, up from 79th last year. The group said the situation is improving, citing a reduction in political interference, an outspoken media and the decision in May to readmit reporters to cover parliament.

Marichka Padalko, a TV anchor whose channel is part of the Telemarathon, said Ukrainian journalists know they must fight to ensure a free press.

“Every government is the press’ friend at first, and then they want to control it,” said Padalko, who is married to Soboliev, the former lawmaker now part of the front-line drone unit. “There is a lot of self-censorship with Ukrainian journalists. So a lot depends on the individual decisions that you make.”

To serve or not? The draft divides society

Martial law, imposed on the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion, gave Ukraine's government power to expropriate property, impose curfews, limit people’s movement, ban gatherings and more.

Men between 18 and 60 are barred from leaving the country without permission and must register with the military. Nonetheless, there has been an illicit exodus of fighting-age men.

With Ukraine’s outnumbered troops facing repeated attempts to push them back by Russia’s much larger army, the government in April lowered the conscription age and announced that it was suspending passport renewals and consular services for men of conscription age who are outside the country.

Some human rights groups criticized the move aimed at pressuring expatriates to register for the draft. But it met with broad support inside Ukraine, where the divide between those who stayed and those who left could become a fault line that threatens social unity in the future.

Aivazovska, the pro-democracy activist, said those in the military find it “difficult to accept that many others don’t want to serve.” And those who have left are scared that society "will not accept them” if they return when the war is over, she said.

Keeping the faith in democracy

Despite everything, research suggests war has not destroyed Ukrainians’ belief in democracy, and may have strengthened it.

Some 59% of Ukrainians surveyed by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology said they felt democracy was more important than having a strong leader — up from 31% before the war.

In the latest survey, respondents conveyed that “Ukraine is a democratic state, but not a full democracy,” the institute's executive director, Anton Grushetskyi, said.

Twice in the past two decades, Ukrainians have taken to the streets to defend democratic decisions. In 2004, mass protests against attempted election fraud ushered pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko into office in what became known as the Orange Revolution.

In late 2013, Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych scrapped an agreement to bring Ukraine closer to the EU. Protesters flooded Kyiv’s Independence Square and were met by a brutal police crackdown. Yanukovych was ultimately ousted in what became known as the Revolution of Dignity.

Putin annexed Crimea soon afterwards, and then Moscow-backed separatists began an uprising in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region that grew into a conflict that left thousands dead.

More than two years after Putin escalated with a full-scale invasion, many Ukrainians are tired and traumatized by a war in which victory feels remote. But, by and large, they do not feel powerless to influence events, something experts say is key to the country’s resilience.

Political scientist Olexiy Haran said Ukraine has retained an impressive level of democracy despite the war.

“And definitely it’s not only because of our government, but it’s also because of opposition, civil society, the expert community, media,” he said.

Soboliev, who joined the army on the day of the February 2022 invasion, was an organizer of the 2013 protests against Yanukovych, and sees the current war as an extension of that struggle for democracy.

“I wrote about democracy. I tried to build to improve democracy, and now I am fighting for it,” he said.

Sitting in the family’s Kyiv apartment as her husband prepared for a deployment to the front, Padalko conceded that democracy “is struggling during war.”

“But we need to bring a new democracy to Ukraine after the war is over,” she said.

Their son Misha, who was 7 when Russia seized Crimea and 15 when the full-scale invasion began, once dreamed of being a professional soccer player. Now 17, he focuses on his studies and, in time off from class, has built a drone to send to his father's unit.

“But then I understand that the good food, the good other things – good friendships, relationships – could be only in a free state,” he said. “For me it’s motivation to work every day, hard, and to win this war for independence."

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