Ukraine’s ideological struggle threatens freedom of expression

June 15, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

With tensions in the east at their most heightened levels yet since the signing of the Minsk II accord in February, Kiev is increasingly looking to its Western partners to save the country from ultimate devastation. But while its international creditors have provided a $25 billion loan package in the hope of enticing leaders to undertake painful economic reforms, the government appears to have been more preoccupied with disarming its critics than with bringing the country together. Indeed, Ukraine’s most recent actions in curtailing basic freedoms of expression point to the country’s slide away from Western democratic values in exchange for the tight-lipped freedoms of neighboring Russia. But Europe’s own silence on the matter is even more worrisome.

Between the prominent Ukrainian journalist, Oles Buzyna, known for his pro-Russian views, being shot dead in the capital Kiev in mid-April this year, the showdown between Ukrainian government and Inter TV Channel, and the laws of de-communization which banned the discussions about the Soviet past instead of engaging in an open dialogue, one can begin to gain a clearer image of how media freedoms are being increasingly threatened in Ukraine.

Mr Buzyna, an active blogger who briefly served as the editor of the pro-Russian daily newspaper Segodnya, was gunned down outside his home just hours after a prominent opposition politician was murdered under similar circumstances in Ukraine’s capital. Although Petro Poroshenko ordered an investigation into the murders, calling them “deliberate acts” aimed at enhancing the position of Ukraine’s enemies (read Russia), the inquiry into the deaths is moving at a snail’s space, with the authorities no closer to finding an explanation even two months after the incident. Furthermore, the deaths have raised some grave questions regarding Kiev’s own commitment to fostering the kind of democratic debate and encouraging that plurality of viewpoints that has is one of the central values of liberal democracies everywhere.

Meanwhile, Inter TV channel, an opposition network, is facing closure and criminal charges, after it aired a New Year’s Eve program featuring three prominent Russian pop singers performing a sarcastic song bemoaning the Russian sanctions regime, spurring members of the Ukrainian Parliament to accuse the channel of “destructive behavior”. Inter denounced the charges, largely seen as politically motivated, claiming that “we see these steps as pressure on freedom of speech and a systemic assault on independent media, caused by the fact that Inter’s news shows feature stories on corruption in the government”.

In an attempt to cleanse Ukraine of its communist past and “create a new national identity”, Petro Poroshenko signed a series of controversial laws banning communist-era symbols, and criminalizing acts that disparage the legacy of several World War II patriotic groups. The sweeping laws, harsher than any of those previously enacted by former USSR states, carry prison sentences for anyone caught positively assessing the Soviet era (1917-1991): this includes banning the word “Communist” from political parties’ titles, displaying Soviet symbols, and even singing the Soviet hymn – offences which are now punishable by up to 10 years in prison. While the restrictive laws, slapped with the benign sounding label of “de-communization”, underline the harsh ideological struggle going on in Ukraine today, they also threaten to “further divide the country by replacing one officially sanctioned version of history with another”.

One of the most worrying aspects of the new laws is that they are unequally applied. Whereas communism is demonized, far right nationalist groups such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which were largely responsible for the massacres of Jews and Poles during their collaboration with the Nazi regime in World War II, are protected and raised to the status of national symbols.

Between the government’s new laws, attacks on media, and inaction in the face of opposition figures being murdered, Kiev is curtailing any possibility for dialogue in a country profoundly divided between a pro-Russian East and a pro-European West. Its goal should be to create a climate in which individuals holding different viewpoints can engage in debates and enhance mutual understanding, rather than stifle critics. Ukraine’s former minister of tax and revenues, Oleksandr Klymenko, who has been one of the louder Ukrainian proponents of a united Ukraine, has largely deemed the de-communization a flawed attempt for a fresh start. Additionally, he claims that moves to change street names that honor Soviet era figures, of which there are approximately 30 in each of Ukraine’s 459 cities, “could cost the near-bankrupt Kiev government hundreds of million dollars it doesn’t have”. But besides the obvious lack of funds, Ukraine’s new laws do more to damage Ukraine’s unity and are “a potentially provocative and divisive step for a country currently united in an existential struggle against Russia-backed separatist”

Budgets aside, Kiev’s overall actions to silence critics and attempt to lock the door on the country’s past largely equate to an attack on any narrative that refuses to toe the official line. Indeed, many have pointed out that the Ukrainian government, in its battle for the hearts and minds with Russia, has chosen to curb media freedoms. But with a lack of democratic debate to underpin the efforts to unite a country already divided by war and ideology, Ukraine’s efforts are doomed from the start both in terms of building a strong and independent state and in terms of its vision of a European Ukraine.

In its battle for freedom, Ukraine seems to have forgotten about the need for plurality. As a nation struggling with its past and future, the Ukrainian government would be wise to look to its European neighbors, move past ideological divides and understand that “laws alone can not secure freedom of expression; in order that every man present his views without penalty there must be spirit of tolerance in the entire population.”