Reading the Kyiv Post and many of Ukraine’s other newsweeklies, one gets the impression that a measure of hysteria has seized normally sober-minded and serious analysts. Respected analysts speak in dire terms of a wholesale sellout of Ukraine to Russia and of the consolidation of dictatorship.
One excellent U.S. scholar of Ukrainian affairs, usually a voice of probity and a good friend, has even gone so far as to suggest that Ukraine is hurtling toward dictatorship and even invoked echoes of the Nazi (!!) consolidation of power. He wrote: “Having succeeded in ‘coordinating’ government within two months—the term the Nazis used for Hitler’s identical feat in 1933 was “Gleichschaltung”—[Victor] Yanukovych and his band of dons are on a roll.
Having openly embraced dictatorship, they cannot retreat. They must now consolidate their power, eliminate all opposition, and transform Ukraine into the Donbas, both because their legitimacy depends on it and because anything less than complete success for a dictator spells defeat.”
The author even compiled a list of individuals slated for “disappearance,” i.e. political assassination. And many well-regarded analysts in Ukraine have adopted a similarly hysterical tone, predicting that within weeks we will see the dismantling of Ukraine’s sovereignty and fragile democracy.
In short, there has been a tsunami of articles suggesting Ukraine is about to become a vassal of Russia led by an unchecked tyrant who has seized control of most media content.
The reality, in my view, is somewhat different. During my most recent visit to Kyiv, I saw what could only be described as “dissident day” on Ukraine’s television with Yulia Tymoshenko shuttling between and appearing for several hours on the two highest rated news talk shows, those of Evgeniy Kiselyov and Savik Shuster.
Rumors that independent Channel 5 being was to be sold under pressure to pro-government owners were utterly refuted by its proprietor Petro Poroshenko.
Moreover, claims that media discussion of the Holodomor were being suppressed by the Yanukovych team were undermined by the reality of Ukraine’s President and his Russian counterpart laying a wreath at the memorial to the victims of the Holodomor, which was shown prominently by all Ukraine’s main news channels.
When Yanukovych was struck by a memorial wreath during the recent Russo-Ukrainian presidential summit, his zealous staff tried to prevent the incident from being broadcast. But this, too, was remarkably similar to the actions of Yulia Tymoshenko’s earnest staff when she uttered the phrase “all is lost” during a taping of an Eastertime 2009 address to the public. The end result in both cases was the same: “vsyo propalo” and the “fierce firs” incident in the end were all over television and the internet for the amusement of all.
The television journalists of Channels 1+1 and STB, as well as the Stop Censorship! movement, are to be commended for their open letters and actions against censorship, however, many of the examples of censorship and politicized content management they cited also occurred when Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymosehnko were in power. In short, these public protests show concern about the phenomenon of ownership intrusion into news content and commentaries, i.e. a longstanding practice (occasionally also on view in the United States – think New York Times and Fox News) and not a consequence of Yanukovych’s accession to power.
So, too, have rumors of Ukraine’s political death been exaggerated. Whatever one’s opinions of the “gas for fleet” tradeoff, the commentary on growing Russia-Ukraine cooperation that preceded the summit hosted by Yanukovych and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested Russia was taking over Ukraine’s gas, nuclear energy, and aerospace industries, and surrendering the island of Tuzla to Russia control. Instead, the main accomplishment of the summit was agreement on the demarcation of the land borders of Ukraine, an accomplishment that had eluded three earlier presidents.
Ukraine’s state institutions, the actions of Ukraine’s leaders, and the foreign policy course of the country is only beginning to take shape. And that final shape is far from determined. The current ruling elite consists of both reformers and retrogrades; seasoned defenders of the national interest and those eager to dance to the Kremlin’s leitmotiv.
This is why there is a far more restrained and nuanced view of developments in European capitals, in Washington, and on the editorial and news pages of the international media.
What, then, explains this explosion of fear and loathing on the part of Ukraine’s media?
First, with a few exceptions, the current ruling elite in the main is the first without direct experience of participation in the early struggles for Ukraine’s statehood and sovereignty. Many of them have a tough time articulating a detailed case for why Ukraine should be a state distinct from Russia.
Second, few in the current ruling elite had a track record of engagement in human rights and civil liberties struggles.
Third, the selection of the rapier-witted Ukrainophobe Dmytro Tabachnyk as education minister has turned the vast majority of the intelligentsia against the government. Efforts to undo the inroads Ukraine’s language and cultural output have made in education, government, and the marketplace of ideas are also calling forth a hostile reaction. But such a justifiably hostile reaction should not deter scholars and analysts from taking a more nuanced view of developments in the economic, foreign policy, and civil liberties spheres.
Fourth, the rapidity and efficiency with which the president has shaped an effective team and began implementing his agenda has caught people unawares. But this is what happens in every democracy where executive and legislative powers are consolidated. Certainly, this was the case 18 months ago in the U.S. when President Barack Obama took power.
Readers should not misunderstand me. Legitimate concerns about some developments in Ukraine are not without some foundation and do bear careful watching.
Ukraine’s justice system, in particular its judges are easily influenced by corruption and political pressure. Ukraine’s prosecutorial administration is oftentimes motivated more by the desire to please those in power than by the pursuit of blind justice. There is also is reason to be concerned by a proliferation of Russian proposals for joint economic ventures that – if not balanced with interest and proposals from North American, European, and Asian investors – can make Ukraine far more dependent on Russia.
There is also a proliferation of crude behavior by zealous security service operatives, who need to be reined and disciplined in by the president, government and parliament. And there was the disgraceful fracas in the Ukrainian parliament in which deputies from both opposition and majority engaged in vandalism and/or violence. Deputies from both sides of the aisle should be held responsible for such reprehensible behavior.
All these problems and issues call for vigorous discussion and civic engagement. There are real problems and challenges in the areas of press freedom, foreign policy, the economy, and the justice system. But this is precisely why analysts, journalists, and public intellectuals have a moral responsibility to give a balanced and truthful picture of the state of Ukraine and not fall prey to exaggeration.
Ukraine’s political discourse has been coarsened in recent years, primarily by the tone set by its political elites. It is the responsibility of the media and of civic groups not to join in this miserable and fruitless rancor.
Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council of the U.S. and the managing partner of Myrmidon Group LLC. This article first appeared in the Kyiv Post.