The Regionnaires’ inability to understand just what freedom is and how it works was amply on display in the last few weeks. With something that elementary beyond their grasp, it’s small wonder that President Yanukovych and his pals invariably elicit eye-rolling, groans, and grins when they pontificate about such things as free speech and civil society.

Back in mid-January, Ihor Huzhva, editor of the pro-regime newspaper Segodnya, was fired by the paper’s supervisory council, which reports to the owner, Ukraine’s richest man and a lapsed Regionnaire MP, Rinat Akhmetov. The incident was undeservedly underreported, even though Huzhva made the following sensational claims in an interview:

As far as I know, the question of my firing was decided after I refused to submit to censorship in the paper. This was last summer. That’s when all my problems began. When we initiated our action [a planned strike], I knew what I was risking. But this action was the only means of breaking the system of censorship that they tried to establish in the publication. After all, our owner Rinat Akhmetov continually emphasizes his commitment to transparent rules of the game…. But, evidently, the Supervisory Council … has completely different views. And that’s why I was fired: for exposing the system of censorship. Evidently, they persuaded Akhmetov that I am a dangerous mutineer who violated corporate ethics…. In actuality, I simply tried to defend those principles that SCM [System Capital Management, Akhmetov’s holding company] officially declares on behalf of our publication.

So there you have it, just in case you didn’t know: the media are censored in Yanukovych’s Ukraine. Moreover, the country’s largest newspaper, Segodnya, is censored—despite (or is it due to?) having a more or less enlightened oligarch as its owner. Did any Regionnaire politico protest? Take a wild guess.

A little after Huzhva’s firing, another scandal concerning freedom of speech hit the headlines. This time it concerned a critic of Yanukovych, the Western Ukrainian writer Yuri Vynnychuk. His crime was to have recited a poem at an “Evening of Erotic Poetry” in Kyiv that expressed some pretty strong sentiments about the regime and its leader. Here’s a bit, translated by Sophie Cooke:

The time has come when each of us
faces the choice times give to us:
now gangsters and liars govern,
con-men and pig-herds rule Parliament.
They have ground the state down to powder,
drunk from our veins like vampires;
now their leader, pelted with egg,
pushes us on to the cliff-edge.
A gangster before: he’s a gangster now
but of a better class, the kind that are allowed.
It’s not fur hats he’s nicking, but public millions now—
Kill the bugger.

OK, it’s not exactly Great Art, but it’s a legitimate literary undertaking and, as with all controversial poetry or prose, policymakers who disagree with its sentiments are served best by ignoring it. Not so in Yanukostan, where criticism is viewed as being tantamount to aggression. The outraged Leonid Hrach, a humorless Communist (if that isn’t a redundant description), immediately filed a charge of pornography and incitement to violence with the procurator’s office. The Regionnaire Kharkiv Province governor, Mykhaylo Dobkin, suggested that Vynnychuk and other critically minded intellectuals were subversives acting on behalf of foreign donors. Yanukovych said nothing, perhaps because he was in Davos hoping to hobnob with anyone who doesn’t yet consider him a pariah. Unsurprisingly, stupid criticism of a bad poem just made the incident even more popular, especially as Dobkin, who blasted the intellectuals for “vulgarity,” conveniently forgot that he was caught on tape a few years ago cussing so hard that even a sailor would blush.

Ukraine’s freedom-loving president, meanwhile, announced at the height of the Vynnychuk controversy that he was setting up a Coordination Council on Questions of Developing Civil Society. Although anyone who comes with an impossibly convoluted name like that should be disqualified from speaking on speech, the more important point is that civil society is the real thing if and only if it is free and independent of government interference. The organizations and institutions that governments promote are, well, government organizations and institutions, whereas civil society—clubs, churches, movements, and nongovernmental organizations—is non-governmental by definition. It’s certainly possible for government to lay the legal groundwork for civil society, but the best way for governments to “develop” civil society is to stay out of it. And the best way for authoritarian governments to develop civil society is to disband and become democratic.

Not so, alas, with Yanukovych. The Ukrainian president, who is blind to censorship, says he really, really supports civil society. No one believes him, of course. They know that what he really, really wants is to control it.

Alexander J. Motyl


Ukrayinska Dumka


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