Ukraine: An Inherited Problem
Free speech is necessary for Ukraine to develop into an independent European state.
Mr. Yanukovych, a pro-Russian president who was elected by a minority of Ukrainian voters largely as a result of disenchantment with the policy of his predecessor Yushchenko – and not without his direct support behind the scenes – and who managed to achieve a majority in the parliament that had produced the Orange Government back in 2007, drastically expanded his presidential powers within just the first few months of his presidency by making the Constitutional Court loyal to the president and by cancelling the amendments made to the Constitution in 2004.
By the end of his second year in office, he had consolidated his control over the whole judiciary and placed law enforcement authorities under the direct control of a narrow circle of trusted people known as ‘the family’. He managed to eliminate the two most consistent opposition figures – former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (sentenced to 7 years in prison for alleged abuses of power) and former Interior Affairs Minister Yuriy Lutsenko (sentenced to 4 years in February this year).
During the 20 years of Ukraine’s independence, no person or group has ever exercised such enormous control over the country’s political system, economy and the life of its citizens.
Sweeping actions in consolidating presidential control over the political system and economy have faced no serious resistance from either the crumbling opposition or fragmented civil groups. A terrified majority has been witnessing the worst scenario of blitzkrieg unfold in front of their eyes. The ghost of the Lukashenka regime began to look like Ukraine’s inevitable future.
To no one’s surprise, the above-mentioned developments have affected freedom of speech in Ukraine.
Notably, the Ukrainian media, in particular, seemed to be quite free and diverse in the first years after the Orange Revolution. In 2005–2008, Ukraine seemed to enjoy a media freedom comparable with other Eastern European countries. However, this diversity of opinions and views had a slightly different nature. Most Ukrainian TV channels and print media, as well as some important radio stations, are owned by oligarchs who use their media outlets to exert political influence, to fight with rival groups or to promote their owners. The media have never been regarded as business models in Ukraine. Therefore the quality of journalism has never been vital to survival and success.
When the Orange Revolution ended the period of political monopoly in Ukraine, oligarchs relaxed their grip on editorial policies and gave editors more freedom in choosing issues to write about. Clearly, they no longer risked as much as before in criticising the government. Yet this stage revealed two weaknesses of the media. The first one was plain to see in the early autumn of 2005 when oligarchs united their efforts, with active support from major Russian TV channels, in using their powerful TV stations and newspapers to overthrow the first Orange Government which tried to review most cases of unfair privatisation of big industrial facilities completed behind closed doors by the Kuchma regime. Notably, the government at the time enjoyed wide public support in this initiative (the revision of recent murky privatisation deals was in fact one of the major items on the Orange Revolution agenda), but the only viewpoint communicated by the media was that of the interests of oligarchs, later widely accepted in the West.
Although paid articles and TV reports had been nothing new in the Ukrainian media market long before the Orange Revolution, corruption in the media was the second problem that was growing increasingly visible due to a wide range of reasons.
Firstly, media owners preferred to minimise their subsidies and encouraged their managers to sell advertising services not marked as advertisements. Secondly, this practice tempted editors and journalists to do the same to fill their own pockets by bypassing top managers, especially given common salary delays of 4–6 months. With the pre-2005 political censorship, these corrupt activities were mostly limited to business articles and self-promotion. After the return of political rivalry, paid journalism grew more widespread and dominant. By 2009, the voters’ disappointment with Orange politicians, who had failed to establish the rule of law and to restrict the influence of criminal groups in politics and economy, transformed into indifference. That made it easier for most media owners to push the media deeper than ever into corruption and political manipulation.
Strange as it may seem, before the 2009 presidential elections the real incentive for most editors and journalists to talk or write – something good, bad or anything in-between – about politics and politicians lay in a pay cheque the publication would later receive for it. Acting otherwise was viewed as ‘silly market dumping’. Therefore the 2010 presidential campaign was more like a rivalry among advertising agencies through which black money flowed into media outlets rather than a competition between the candidates’ ideas on the nation’s future. No candidate running for president was prepared to give real interviews and every interview published with the speaker’s face on the cover was compiled by spin doctors and paid for by politicians.
At that point, many important media outlets found themselves under the control of the Party of Regions and its allies. The TV channel with the biggest audience, Inter, owned by Valeriy Horoshkovskyi, until recently Chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and currently First Vice Premier; Era, the only talk radio network in Ukraine; and Segodnia (Today), the biggest daily newspaper owned by Rinat Akhmetov, a Donetsk-based tycoon and the richest man in Ukraine, all promoted Viktor Yanukovych. The central role in manipulating public opinion was given to two Russian guest stars: Savik Shuster and Yevgeniy Kiseliov, the hosts of two major political talk shows on Ukrainian television.
After Yanukovych took over and started consolidating his grip on the country, most other central media preferred to keep a lower profile, limiting sharp criticism of the new president and his team. Unlike many Western experts who then hailed Yanukovych as a man who had learned to play by the rules, had given up his criminal and authoritarian approach and had turned into a stabilising force for the country, these media owners, such as tycoon Viktor Pinchuk (the son-in-law of former President Kuchma and the owner of four TV channels and some print publications) and Petro Poroshenko (the newly-appointed Minister of Economy and the owner of Channel 5 and a leading weekly), were well aware of the nature and intentions of the ruling clan. They quickly realised that a ‘willingness to cooperate’ was a necessary prerequisite for keeping their main businesses untouched. As a result, most media outlets imposed self-censorship on themselves, while only the Internet media, very few publications and TVi, a smaller channel owned and supported by an exiled Russian tycoon, continued to speak freely.
It is praiseworthy that many Ukrainian journalists spoke out at the time and that there were open protests, especially on TV. The most proactive journalists launched the Stop Censorship Campaign. However, the lack of truly free media platforms was the key reason why these actions had little impact. Independent journalists did not have many places to go if fired by their employers. Most of them, though, are simply used to being an integral part of the corrupt and manipulative media system.
Even the most independent investigative websites depend on financial support from oligarchs and must keep silent about some issues. This mechanism is easy to see in the activities of Viktor Pinchuk, an oligarch who converted his family ties with Kuchma into impressive assets consisting of a number of large steel mills. In addition to being a major media tycoon, he launched a few high-scale charity projects in the wake of the Orange Revolution. After a few years, he managed to present himself internationally as a known philanthropist. The Time magazine even called him a ‘thinker’ in 2010. Every year, he organises YES, Yalta European Strategy meetings, where key politicians from Ukraine, the EU, Russia and the US discuss issues involving Ukraine and the region. Pinchuk Foundation covers travel costs for the journalists who are invited. There is an unspoken rule that they do not criticise Mr. Pinchuk and his objectives. In 2010, these objectives expanded. Apart from improving his personal image, Mr. Pinchuk needed to be helpful to Mr. Yanukovych, or so at least his survival instinct dictated. When Mr. Yanukovych takes part in YES annual meetings, no one should irritate him with unexpected criticism or annoying questions. As a result, some media, including Ukrayinsky Tyzhden (The Ukrainian Week), were not allowed to cover the event in September 2011. Some of those invited at the expense of the organisers, among them a leading investigative website, refused to mention the fact of hidden censorship.
Do the government and law enforcement authorities implement censorship directly? Normally, it is done in various ways. For instance, Ukraine International Airlines (MAU), a partly government-owned company, banned The Ukrainian Week publication from being distributed on its aeroplanes a few months after Mr. Yanukovych was sworn in as president. In some cases, journalists who tried to do their job were brutally intimidated by officials. Only the loyal journalists, always including the Russian ‘free speech experts’ Savik Shuster and Yevgeniy Kiseliov, were allowed to accompany the president on his trips.
Olena Bondarenko, Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Freedom of Speech, is a perfect illustration of what the ruling group thinks of the media and freedom of speech. In her interview, she says: “If our faculties of journalism, courses, programmes and studies continue to be financed by people like Soros, we will lose our information war.” Then she claims the SBU should counter such activities. Mrs. Bondarenko’s views are reminiscent of those often expressed by officials in Russia and in Belarus: critics of the president and the government are financed by Western institutions and undermine peace and order in the country. The natural instincts of the people currently in power are a mixture of Soviet mentality and the criminal background of Donbas, an area with a specific mindset. These people tolerate no opposition or dissent, require strict hierarchy in ruling structures, trust only insiders and have no mercy on weak or fallen opponents.
Yet despite its deep suspicion of and dislike towards free speech and the law enforcement institutions at its disposal, the ruling regime has so far refrained from a brutal crackdown on the remaining free media. Some media channels which expected the worst in the beginning have become slightly more courageous again. In January 2011, the parliament under the control of the Party of Regions passed a fairly liberal law on the provision of access to public information sponsored by the opposition, having rejected the bill sponsored by Mrs. Bondarenko on behalf of the ruling party itself.
Why would the people who ruthlessly jail their key political opponents in acts of defiance against Western leaders still tolerate some independent sources of free speech?
Despite their strong pro-Russian sentiments, some people surrounding Mr. Yanukovych are seriously suspicious about the intentions of Vladimir Putin. They might not value Ukraine, its European past and possible future, but they are equally reluctant to hand over the territory they firmly control to someone else. Therefore they need to set up reasonable relations with the West, namely the EU and the US, to counterweigh the ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia. Having put Mrs. Tymoshenko and Mr. Lutsenko behind bars, Mr. Yanukovych lost the trust of Angela Merkel and other European leaders. The EU will not sign a Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine as long as the latter fails to fit the basic standards of democracy. However, no personal sanctions against top Ukrainian officials are under consideration either.
This status quo suits the regime in Ukraine. Firstly, it has never had an intention to deepen Ukraine’s European integration, as that would put an end to the ruling party’s exclusive control over the biggest chunks of economy. Indeed, its pretence goal of ‘European integration’ signals its desire to retain a heavyweight argument in talks with Russia more than anything else. Once serious opposition leaders have been removed and the ruling party has comfortably settled down, surrounded by fragmented quasi-opposition groups (often ready for ‘constructive dialogue’), the regime no longer needs to irritate Western leaders further by bullying the few remaining sources of free speech, especially before Euro 2012.
There is a widespread expectation that the party in power will manage to gain an actual majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2012, despite its plummeting popularity (based on opinion polls, the Party of Regions enjoys around 20% of the electorate’s support). This will be done through the execution of control over deputies elected in constituencies. Vote-rigging is widely expected, but due to the weakness of the opposition no major protests will take place. In this comfortable environment, the government may well opt for tolerating some relatively free media outlets (primarily online media and a few printed publications) as long as they make up a tiny minority and pose no direct threat.
Still, a major crackdown on the remaining free media may happen if the current rulers perceive that their power is at risk. Holding on to their power is a top priority for them and every tool will be good for that purpose. While the creation of a proper opposition that would challenge the monopoly of Mr. Yanukovych’s team is not realistic in the short-term perspective, an impending economic collapse could change the situation. Mr. Yanukovych would have no other option in the face of national bankruptcy but to join the Kremlin’s Customs Union and to partially give up sovereignty. For this, he would need to hush up the media and civil rights groups, thus turning Ukraine into another Belarus and eventually leading to the loss of the nation.
Ukraine is a unique phenomenon on the European map in the 21st century. Referred to as the key element of Russia’s imperialistic myth, Ukraine has always seen its separate identity denied, having gone through a terrible famine and the extermination of the nation’s intellectual resources. As a result, Ukraine was not ready to produce a leadership intellectually prepared to offer a modern Ukrainian project to its people after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The children of local Communist apparatchiks and Komsomol leaders grabbed major chunks of heavy industry, even if these were inefficient and energy consuming. These assets were to be shared with criminal warlords who emerged during the chaos of the 1990s. Their wars for political control with each other resembled a democratic process. Yet their prosperity was based on preventing others from doing business and on earning windfall profits on obsolete assets at the expense of the nation, rather than on market economy. That blocked economic freedom, which provides a solid ground for civil society. A Soviet-style economy produces new Soviet people. The current authorities represent an extreme version of this hybrid post-Soviet oligarchy. As competition between oligarchs fades out, one group gains control of all political power and corruption grows, even if it is consolidated within the ruling hierarchy, leaving even fewer chances for independent businesses than before. The anti-Ukrainian nature of the regime is equally striking. The vast majority of top officials come from the heavily Russified Donbas region; many were born in Russia and have no command of the Ukrainian language, including Prime Minister Azarov. Above all, Dmytro Tabachnyk, Minister of Education, is an extremist Ukrainophobe who denounces Ukraine as a separate nation with its own history.
Ukraine has a far-reaching European background. Even though severely damaged, Ukraine’s European identity is still very strong. The Orange Revolution proved that. Pushed to the extreme, Ukrainian society and intellectuals have a chance to realise that they have lived in an extended version of the Soviet Union for the past 20 years and to make the choice they missed in 1991. This is the choice of an independent European nation, not a backward Soviet colony.
Europe must understand this choice and support it – for its own sake.
Freedom of speech will come as an indispensable natural element of this new, free Ukraine.