WORLD AFFAIRS.  Hanna Herman, President Viktor Yanukovych’s deputy chief of staff and slick spokeswoman, recently had a bright idea: to transform Kyiv’s Independence Square into a “kind of, you know, English Hyde Park. More than that, I’d make it into a permanent meeting place, where power holders and people could meet at critical moments, when misunderstandings between them arise.”

So who said the Yanukovych regime fears freedom of speech?

Now, forget the fact that Kyiv already has a “permanent meeting place” — and it just so happens to be called Independence Square, the site of the Entrepreneurs’ Rebellion in November 2010, the Orange Revolution in 2004, and every major and minor popular assembly, by all political parties, since Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed perestroika in the second half of the 1980s. Herman’s bold new thinking is like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposing that Broadway be transformed into — hold on to your seats! — a theater district.

OK, so Hanna’s a bit out of touch — who wouldn’t be in an administration that cooks up daring reforms and real estate deals at lightning speed? — but surely the intent is good, right? This is where things get interesting, and you know what the Chinese say about interesting things.

Here’s the best-case scenario. Assume that the Yanukovych people formally decide to bring coal to Donetsk by officially designating Independence Square (also known as the Maidan) a “kind of, you know, Hyde Park.” Given their obsession with regulating everything in neo-Soviet style, they’re certain to pass a whole raft of legislation defining exactly what constitutes a meeting, what constitutes speech, who may or may not be deemed speakers, publics, listeners, and power holders, and what the exact physical parameters of the Ukrainian Hyde Park are. Which, if you think about it for just a nanosecond, kind of, you know, undermines the whole point of free speech. Herman also forgot to mention that London’s Speakers’ Corner is just that — a corner of Hyde Park. One can easily imagine that her envisioned “Maidan Corner” would consist of a few square meters of open space. One can also imagine that even minor transgressions against legal definitions of speech, speakers, and place would lead to vigorous regime efforts to remind the people that free speech is confined to those few square meters of open space, and not a square centimeter more.

Which brings me to the worst-case scenario. In light of the Yanukovych regime’s abysmal record on democracy and civil rights, one doesn’t have to be paranoid to suspect that a Maidan Corner would be used and abused by the secret police. All you need to do is set up cameras, bugs, and informers all over the place and, before you know it, you’ve got information on all the rabble-rousers and troublemakers in the country. Of course, very quickly the real dissidents, who know a con when they see one, are certain to avoid setting foot in the Square, which in turn means that Maidan Corner would rapidly degenerate into a Korner for kooks and kops.

Sounds like a lot of wasted effort, right?

Except for one thing. Having a very public place in downtown Kyiv for crazies to mouth off in would be a terrific public relations coup. After all, if you can’t have real freedom of speech, why not Potemkin freedom of speech? Who’ll know the difference? Certainly not the Europeans or the Americans.

You can just see Monsieur and Madame Herriot taking a stroll along Independence Square and remarking, “O la la, quelle liberté!”

But perhaps Hanna’s being sincere and her boss really wants to hear what the people have to say? Judge for yourself. While commenting on Freedom House’s demotion of Ukraine from “free” to “partly free” status, Hanna stated that “the results of the work of the former government produced a significant economic fall in Ukraine and became the reason that such organizations as Freedom House lowered Ukraine’s freedom rating.” Economic decline was definitely not “the reason” for the rating change, and Hanna, who used to work for Radio Liberty and therefore understands how Freedom House works, knows it (I do too, since I serve as an adviser to Freedom House). Of course, her Ukrainian audience does not, and she knows that too.

And then consider Yanukovych’s own recent statement on his government’s investigation of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko: “I’d like her to prove that the charges brought against her are false.” Come again? Perhaps Hanna could tell Viktor that it’s supposed to be the other way around — that the government has to prove that the charges are true.

Is it a surprise that Ukrainian democrats don’t trust Hanna and her boss any further than they could land a punch in the Ukrainian Parliament? And they’re not the only ones to think the regime has a credibility problem. As Poland’s former minister of foreign affairs, Adam Rotfeld, put it, Yanukovych’s “weak spot is that many people in the West do not believe in the sincerity of his intentions.” On the real Speakers’ Corner, they’d put that a bit more bluntly.

Ukrayinska Dumka


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