Creeping Soviet Rot

Mykola Azarov’s assessment on 22 June of his government’s achievements where he stated that “life has become better, life has become merrier” loses something in the translation – the fact that Ukraine’s Prime Minister was quoting Joseph Stalin from around the time of the Great Terror. 

If this can still just about be dismissed as extraordinarily bad taste, the Soviet echoes from the weekend’s events cannot. 


On Sunday Nico Lange, Director of the Kyiv Office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, was detained at Kyiv Airport for around 10 hours. He was informed that he was being refused (re-) entry and that this was on the instructions of the Ukrainian Security Service [SBU]. No explanation was given.  Most worrying, none seemed required given the hard-hitting article published by Nico Lange just a few weeks ago to mark President Yanukovych’s first 100 days in office. In it he speaks of worrying authoritarian tendencies and the threat to democracy.


Diplomats intervened, held negotiations and a little after midnight, we are told, “the German Embassy” did managed to get permission for Nico Lange to enter the country”.


We are not informed what the negotiations entailed which is a shame. After all the arguments of the German side about the threat to mutual relations, business links and at the end of the day, the massive damage to Ukraine’s reputation, require no mental leaps across some cultural or political divide. Considerably more difficult to understand what kind of words and concepts representatives of supposedly democratic Ukraine are supposed to use.  “Anti-Ukrainian agitation and propaganda” some 19 years after the demise of the Soviet Union has quite the wrong ring to it. In a democracy that “unconstructive criticism” that so riles the present Ukrainian leaders does not constitute grounds for denying entry to the country.


It is worth noting the response over the weekend by the Head of the SBU Valery Khoroshkovsky to another allegation of attempts to curb freedom of speech. “Komersant” Newspaper journalist Artem Skoropadsky asserts that in a supposedly informal conversation an SBU officer  suggested that he was writing “too much about the opposition” and hinted that, as a Russian national, he could be deported from Ukraine.


Mr Khoroshkovsky on what is effectively his own Inter TV channel rubbished this as “technology”, information fed to the press.  He was unfortunately not asked to explain whether Nico Lange’s ordeal also constitutes “technology” and what role, in that case, should be attributed to high-level German diplomats and, in fact, the German Government .


The Head of the SBU’s understanding of “technology” is rather specific.  It does not – officially, that is – quite coincide with the views of the President and his Administration.  The latter, after all, assured foreign diplomats, as well as the Ukrainian public, that the SBU visit to the Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University on 18 May was in no way pressure or restoration of the bad old Soviet ways, that they were appalled by the incident and that an official investigation was planned. Khoroshkovsky’s comments are, as always, packaged with marketing skill, however they do not indicate any acknowledgment that in a democratic country the Rectors of universities do not receive visits from the Security Service asking for signatures on letters with not even a copy left behind. Instead the Head of the SBU alleges more of this same “technology”, and we are told that “Prevention of crimes is the sacred duty of any law enforcement body. Therefore when we receive information about incitement to unlawful actions, and it is confirmed, then naturally, what we want to do and, incidentally, always will do,, is to try to protect the student community from being drawn into these processes”.  That is, such visits, encouraging Rectors to warn their students about “illegal protests” will continue.


The assurances from President Yanukovych and his Administration are, thus, empty. In view of the published transcripts of the meeting between Khoroshkovsky and members of “Stop Censorship”, it is also difficult to understand how the President can seriously suggest that “during the conversation which he initiated between members of the association “Stop Censorship” and the Head of the SBU, , mechanisms were found for resolving the majority of issues raised”. 


If these words were in any way addressed to the media and human rights organizations increasingly concerned about curbs on freedom of speech and the Ukrainian public in general, not merely intended as music to western diplomatic ears, some detail would most certainly not go amiss.


Khoroshkovsky by the way, commenting, again on Inter, about this meeting, stated that there is no censorship in Ukraine, only “incidents”.

There have been rather a lot of such “incidents”, and some have directly involved the State Security Service which he heads, for example, requests to the National Broadcasting Council to check on TVi, one of the three TV channels still consistently willing to give broadcasting time to “opposition” figures and views. They have also involved the Inter Media Group which Khoroshkovsky, together with his Director wife, effectively owns. 


All of this has been noted and commented upon by international NGOs, the Council of Europe and some diplomats. In diplomatic mode, the latter “welcome” words about commitment to freedom of speech.  Credulity is surely strained, however, when the words seem so very out of sync with deeds and general policy. 


Not only has the clear conflict of interests where the Head of the SBU is also a media magnate not been resolved, but it has in recent weeks been exacerbated. Mr Khoroshkovsky who is not a lawyer, and does not have the relevant experience demanded by law, has been appointed by President Yanukovych to the High Council of Justice. This body, according to the draft law which the President and Cabinet of Ministers are endeavouring to present as “judicial reform”, will receive considerably more power.  Following the ruling on 8 June by the District Administrative Court in Kyiv which fully allowed the claim brought by channels of the Inter Media Group and annulled the results of a tender for broadcasting licences from 27 January, two of the three television channels with a more or less independent position – Channel V and TVi, cried foul.  TVi filed a law suit specifically against Khoroshkovsky’s appointment to the High Council of Justice. 


It is not only within Ukraine that concern has been expressed. In their report to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE] Monitoring Committee, the PACE Co-Rapporteurs note “the increasing numbers of allegations that the authorities are reducing these freedoms and state that “An aggravating factor is the alleged role of the Head of the State Security Services, Mr. Khoroshkovsky – who is a close ally of Mr Yanukovich and owner of TV InterAfter mentioning the visit to the UCU Rector and a request “reminiscent of the Soviet era”, they note that “President Yanukovich has recently appointed Mr Khoroshkovskyi to the High Council of Justice, despite potential conflicts of interest as it is the State Security Service that is responsible for investigating any allegations against judges in Ukraine”. Mr Khoroshkovskyi to the High Council of Justice, despite potential conflicts of interest as it is the State Security Service that is responsible for investigating any allegations against judges in Ukraine


The report mentions assurances received from those in high places regarding the visit to the UCU Rector by an SBU official, but note that these are undermined by the position and recent new appointment of Khoroshkovsky.


Similar assurances, condemnations and are fine words, can be expected regarding the treatment this weekend of German national, Nico Lange. 

Responsibility for this incident and the staggeringly damaging effect it has had on Ukraine’s reputation is directly borne by Valery Khoroshkovsky, Head of the Security Service, member of the High Council of Justice and owner of one of the largest media holdings in the country.

For the inevitable conclusions regarding the present regime’s contempt for freedom of speech and Ukraine’s democratic choice, and for the return of the worst traditions of Soviet times, responsibility is shared by all those leaders who prove incapable of fathoming that people are not cretins to be duped by facile assurances.


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