When thinking about Ukrainian democracy under peril, Western observers typically think about the Russian invasion that began last year. But critics and dissidents inside and outside of Ukraine also warn of a different threat to democracy, one coming from within, with the war catalyzing an escalation of authoritarian trends under President Volodymyr Zelensky. One such critic is Olga Baysha, associate professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and author of Democracy, Populism and Neoliberalism in Ukraine. Starting out her career as a news reporter and editor in Kharkiv, Baysha spoke to Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic about this growth in political repression.
1. Has repression of dissent in Ukraine gotten worse since the outbreak of the war? And are some of the things we’ve heard about in terms of centralising power – banning of media outlets and parties, bans on the Russian language, raids on Orthodox churches – new phenomena? To what extent are they a continuation of trends that were happening before the war?
Zelensky’s war on journalism started one year before the current war. In February 2021, he signed sanctions by the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) against two parliamentary deputies from “Opposition Platform—For Life,” the main political rival of his own party. As a result of this unconstitutional move, three television channels controlled by the opposition—NewsOne, 112 Ukraine, and ZIK—were shut down. This happened after Zelensky’s approval rating, sinking throughout the course of his unpopular neoliberal reforms, fell below 30 percent, for which he blamed oppositional media. Later that year, other oppositional channels were sanctioned and banned as well: Strana.ua, First Independent Channel, UKRLIVE, Sharij.net, and Nash.
In other words, the prosecution of oppositional journalists presented as “enemies of the people” started not because of the war but because of the falling popularity of Zelensky in the course of his neoliberal experiments. In January 2022, one month before the launch of Russia’s “special military operation” (SMO), sociological data showed that 64.7 percent of Ukrainians believed the country was moving in the wrong direction; Zelensky’s presidential approval rating was as low as 17 percent. In fact, it was Russia’s offensive in February 2022 that transformed Zelensky from an unpopular ruler selling Ukrainian land against the people’s will into a transnational hero struggling against tyranny.
The beginning of the current war just marked another level of efforts to crush dissent. As you know, in March 2022, eleven oppositional parties were banned. Along with banning the parties, Zelensky also implemented the NSDC decision to launch a telethon called “United News #UARAZOM,” which all national TV channels were expected to broadcast. Now, they have little choice but to show this telethon reflecting the “only true” version of events–the one approved by the presidential administration. As a matter of fact, the situation is very similar to what has been happening in Russia since the beginning of SMO–here, media are also instructed to present the only “reliable” (i.e., approved by the government) version of “truth.” The only difference is that nobody in the world argues that Russia is a “beacon of democracy”—the way Ukraine is presented for global audiences today.
Meanwhile, all Ukrainian journalists and bloggers who did not want to promote Zelensky’s version of “truth” had to either shut up (voluntarily or under duress) or, if possible, emigrate. Among the latter are Tatyana Montyan, Dmitry Vasilets, Taras Nezalezhko, Ruslan Kotsana, Yuri Podolyaka, and many others. What about those arrested after the beginning of the current war, the problem is that nobody knows their exact numbers, and nobody knows for sure if they are still imprisoned, free, or simply alive. There is no public news about Dmitry Dzhangirov, Yuri Tkachev, Dmitry Marunich, brothers Kononovich, and other oppositionists who were arrested in Spring 2022. One can only judge on what is going on in the dungeons of the SSU (the Security Service of Ukraine) drawing on rare evidence provided by journalists who were detained and later released. One of them is Andrei Wojciechowski, an honored journalist from Kharkiv who was arrested and charged under Article 111 (treason) for alleged contacts with Russian journalists and officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service. His account of what he went through in jail is available on YouTube, and it is terrifying: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Umm7kbJIKmA. I know Andrei since 1991, when I started working as a journalist in Kharkiv, and I have no doubt he is telling the truth.
But, to answer your question, the intimidations and prosecution of oppositional journalists in Ukraine, presented as “enemies of the people,” started long before Zelensky’s presidency. Since the victory of the Maidan in 2014, Ukrainian radicals—encouraged and supported by post-Maidan power–have been intimidating those who protested the ideology of integral nationalism, propaganda of Nazism, and the policy of omnipresent de-Russification. The most famous figure in this respect is Oles Buzina, who was killed by radicals in 2015; the names of the killers are well known, but they are still free—in contemporary Ukraine, extremists are considered heroes struggling against Russia and its “collaborators.” It is within this context that we should consider the persecutions of the Russian Orthodox Church. The first attempts of the seizures of its temples were recorded as early in the beginning of the 1990s, after Ukraine declared its independence, but at those times these were isolated cases. Now, we are dealing with a state policy of eradicating any kind of cultural and political “otherness.” This is a political course aimed at creating a unified Ukraine, in which, as Zelensky boasts, “there is no left and right,” “the government becomes the people,” and everybody is “like-minded,”—a rosy dream of any totalitarian ruler.
2. Pro-Russian sympathies or even outright collaboration with Moscow are often cited by the SBU, private blacklists, and even media outlets in claims of treason and collaboration. Should we accept these charges at face value?
To become a “collaborator” in the eyes of Zelensky’s regime, one need not have deep sympathies with Russia or to collaborate with it—it is enough to state anything that would contradict Zelensky’s version of truth. For example, while speaking to the participants of the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in June 2022, Zelensky explained that Russia’s “disinformation thesis” is that its war against Ukraine “is allegedly something about NATO, about the role of America, about the West’s attempts to advance somewhere in Europe.” In other words, anybody who would dare to link the ongoing war with NATO expansion and the interests of the military-industrial complex of the United States would be considered a mouthpiece for Russia and collaborator.
This happened to the British musician Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame, after a CNN interview in which he criticized the role of the U.S. government in the Russia-Ukraine war and argued that the conflict hinged on the action and reaction of NATO pushing right up to the Russian border. Waters was immediately declared an “enemy of Ukraine” and his name was put on Myrotvorets–a website where all the names of “Ukraine’s enemies” are listed, along with their home addresses, telephones, and other personal information. The same destiny awaited numerous other well-known foreign public figures who dared to articulate the conflict not in the way considered “true” by the government of Ukraine. Among them are Oliver Stone, Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, and many others, including hundreds of foreign journalists who have visited Donbas, which was considered by the Ukrainian government as “complicity of terrorism.”
No wonder that the number of Ukrainians accused of being “collaborators” is so big. According to the SSU, from February 24 to the middle of November, it started more than 18,000 criminal proceedings related to “crimes against national security,” which include treason, sabotage, and assistance to the aggressor state. These are official figures, which do not show the real picture; one can only imagine how many people in the territories first occupied and later left by Russian troops were declared “collaborators” with all the ensuring consequences that are not necessarily legal. Extrajudicial killings have become a norm in the war-torn Ukraine. Suffice it to mention the names of Kremennaya Mayor Vladimir Struk, who was abducted and killed in March 2022 because of his pro-Russian stance, or Denis Kireev, one of the negotiators at the first Gomel meeting (the first round of negotiations with Russia after the beginning of the current war) who was killed right in the center of Kyiv as a warning to other collaborators. The most terrible thing is that such extrajudicial executions have been normalized in public discourse; governmental officials do not shun admitting that “traitors” and “collaborators” deserve to be punished without regard to legality. NSDC Secretary Danilov, for example, called all those sympathizing with Russia “rats” who need to be poisoned.
3. Isn’t it true that some parties, opposition politicians, and government critics – like Medvedchuk and Opposition Platform – for Life, and even the Orthodox Church of Ukraine – do have Russian ties and more Russia-friendly positions? So why should we be troubled by the fact that they’re being banned, prosecuted, raided etc.?
Medvedchuk is an odious figure. He is a millionaire, and the godfather of his daughter Daria is none other than Vladimir Putin. Obviously, this may make Medvedchuk loathsome in the eyes of many. However, one should not forget that Medvedchuk’s television channels, banned by Zelensky, represented the views of different groups within Ukrainian society that opposed Ukraine’s war against Donbas, the prosecution of dissenters, or Zelensky’s neoliberal reforms. Among those speaking on the shows of these channels, there were oppositional deputies, economists, political experts, leaders of people’s associations, activists, and more. In other words, these channels represented various strata of the Ukrainian population—their public opinion, with all its variation and subtle shading.
What I am trying to say is that, no matter whether one likes Medvedchuk or not, but his television channels served as public platforms where Ukrainian citizens could voice their grievances. It is this possibility of accumulating oppositional strength through consolidating oppositional public opinion that scared Zelensky. Along with millions of Ukrainians, Medvedchuk was a strident opponent of the land reform, for example, which has nothing to do with “collaborating” with Russia. On the other hand, “a Russia-friendly position,” which you mention, is a sentiment that most people living in the southeastern regions of Ukraine shared (at least before the current war) due to close historical ties between the two states—you can hardly find a family in southeastern Ukraine that does not have relatives in Russia.
As a famous opinion poll made by Kiev Institute of Sociology in April of 2014 showed, more than 75 percent of people living in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, believed that Ukraine and Russia should be independent but friendly states with open borders and without visas. Needless to say, these people did not support the Maidan with its anti-Russian agenda. Most dwellers of other eastern regions of Ukraine shared this view. This is the crux of the issue—the post-Maidan government of Ukraine ignored the opinions of half of the country and, instead of negotiations on which the anti-Maidan Ukraine counted, launched the so-called “anti-terrorist operation” against the rebellious Donbas in April 2014, which manifested the beginning of what later became known as the “Donbas war.” It is widely acknowledged nowadays that during the first stage of the conflict, the rebels were primarily locals; only in August 2014, when they appeared to be facing defeat, did Russia support them with its own troops.
What I am trying to say is that the problem with Ukraine’s struggle against the so-called “pro-Russian agenda” is that this has been an agenda of millions of Ukrainian citizens whose opinions were completely ignored. Of course, many “anti-Maidan others” did not welcome Russia’s SMO, and in this sense public attitudes towards Russia may be changing now (it is difficult to judge because no opinion polls are reliable nowadays). However, we should not forget that the number of refugees moving to Russia—2.8 million people, the highest of any country receiving Ukrainians amid the conflict—suggests that pro-Russian sentiments among many Ukrainians are still high, despite all Zelensky’s talks about the unprecedented unity of the Ukrainian nation during the war, one of the main ideologemes he promotes in his speeches.
4. What kind of impact has this repression of dissident voices and tightening of government control over the media had on the Ukrainian political landscape, and on public opinion over the course of the war?
Even before the war, Zelensky demonstrated intolerance to independent media and the political process in general–I discuss this in detail in my book “Democracy, populism, and neoliberalism in Ukraine.” Political forces that ended up in opposition to neoliberal transformations have been attacked by him and his party members not politically (based on opposing opinions) but morally (based on the accusation of “hampering historical progress”). In place of a struggle of “right and left,” there was a permanent struggle between “right and wrong,” to use Chantal Mouffe’s dictum—this has been the essence of Zelensky’s “politics.” The opponents of his land reform, for example, were attacked on the ground that they ostensibly tried to preserve the Soviet way of life.
“The truth is on our side” has been one of Zelensky’s central messages for the world since the beginning of the current war. The problem with this “truth,” as it should be clear now, is that it is established administratively; anybody who dares to question it is declared a “collaborator” and “traitor”; they are being wiped out of the information space controlled by the government. Another thing is that it is impossible, within the digital environment of interconnected information networks, to close discourse fully and establish meanings that remain forever fixed. This impossibility manifests itself in the revival of oppositional discourse in new discursive-material configurations that cannot be controlled by the government. Oppositional journalists and bloggers who were able to flee Ukraine now run their media channels from abroad; all of those who are still able to work moved to Telegram—a platform beyond the reach of the Ukrainian government. It is noteworthy that the popularity of Telegram among Ukrainians has grown significantly since the beginning of the ongoing war, which reflects people’s dissatisfaction with the one-dimensionality of Ukraine’s official propaganda. With the adoption in December 2022 of the new media law of Ukraine, which, in the opinion of the European Federation of Journalists, “is worthy of the worst authoritarian regimes” because it establishes censorship in the information space, Telegram’s popularity in Ukraine is set to increase further as it will be the only channel offering an alternative to the official perspective while opposition channels on other platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook, have been increasingly blocked in Ukraine.
5. The war has also seen an escalation in what the government has called “de-Russification” of Ukraine. What are the implications of this, particularly since conflict over the role of Russian heritage in Ukraine has been one of the factors that’s fueled civil strife in the past?
I would like to highlight once again that what is called “de-Russification” is in fact Ukraine’s war against its own citizens for whom Russian language is a mother tongue and the Russian Orthodox Church is a religion of their ancestors. Most people in the southeastern regions of Ukraine and the overwhelming majority of Donbas residents, regardless of ethnic origin, use the Russian language in daily communication, with majority also claiming Russian as their native language. In a similar fashion, most people living in these regions, do not know any other religion but Russian Orthodox. I can imagine that the war might have changed the attitudes of many Ukrainian Russophones to many things related to Russia, but what we observe today is not a genuine manifestation of people’s will but a governmental experiment on social engineering—an aggressive de-Russification with an involvement of radicals who intimidate people, discouraging them from fighting for their rights. As mentioned earlier, this tradition of intimidating “others” traces its origin to the Maidan. The power of such intimidation was clearly demonstrated during the tragedy in Odessa, a Russian-speaking city located on the Black Sea, where on May 2, 2014, forty-eight anti-Maidan protesters, encircled by radicals, died in fire; more than 200 survivors were left with burns and other injuries. The horrible death of anti-Maidan activists was publicly celebrated by nationalists, and this became the moment of truth for Ukrainian Russophones. They simply realized that there is no space for them in the new Ukraine. To survive, they needed either to immigrate or to keep silence, accommodating themselves to new realities. What we observe now is just another act of their tragedy that started on the Maidan.
6. Is the Western public aware of these trends, do you think? Has Western media covered this subject sufficiently, and have Western politicians been forceful enough in condemning it or pressuring Ukrainian leadership to change direction?
I have been following the coverage of the Ukrainian crisis by global media since 2013—the beginning of the Euromaidan, which led first to the Donbas war and later to the disaster that we are witnessing today—and I can say with confidence that Western media have not been presenting their readers and viewers meaningful accounts of what has been going on. In an overwhelming majority of cases, Western journalists have not been incorporating the opinions of Ukrainians with alternative, anti-Maidan perspectives. Consumers of global media products had little chance to learn anything valid about the insurgency in eastern Ukraine except that the rebels were “Russia-backed separatists,” “modernization losers,” “barbarians,” “thugs,” and alike. This one-dimensional vision of the Ukrainian crisis, established globally from its very onset, had tremendously significant consequences not only for the people of Donbas, who have been living in a state of war since 2014, but also for the whole of Ukraine, which in February 2022 was plunged into full-scale military conflict.
During the current war, Western journalists overwhelmingly take Zelensky’s words at face value. Zelensky likes telling his global audiences different scary stories, for example, about “hundreds of cases of rape” committed by Russian soldiers, including “small children and even babies.” He provides brutal details of these crimes that—obviously—disgust and shock any human being. The problem with these stories is that many of them (if not all—I am not sure about this) were invented by Ukraine’s ex-Ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova, who was fired for these fabrications in June 2022. You can easily find this information in Ukrainian media (https://www.pravda.com.ua/articles/2022/06/27/7354838) but not in Western ones. This is just one example, but there are many of them.
7. What role can Ukraine’s Western partners play here? The US and EU have long used financial aid and the possibility of EU membership as inducements to get Ukrainian leadership to liberalise its economy and advance anti-corruption efforts – could we take the same approach to prevent a slide toward authoritarianism?
I am an ethnic Ukrainian; all my relatives still live in Ukraine; and we have been arguing about the role of the West in the Ukrainian tragedy since the Maidan, which was presented by Western powers and Western media as a fight of “Ukrainians” for democracy and freedom. As it should be clear now, this is an outright lie as there was no unified Ukraine in the name of which Western powers spoke and acted. As I already told you, half of the country, which did not support the Maidan, was disregarded completely, which at the end of the day brough today’s disaster. A similar story happened with the “liberalization of economy” that you mention. This “liberalization” brought nothing else but new neoliberal experiments that have deprived Ukrainians of their land and deteriorated their living conditions. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens (up to 70%) opposed the “liberalization” of the land market, but has this stopped the reformers supported by Western powers? No, amid the protests of Ukrainians, the adoption of the land reform was celebrated by Western ambassadors lobbying the interests of Western corporations—not Ukrainian citizens. Have any anti-corruption efforts of the West stopped corruption in Ukraine? No, it became rampant, and the recent revelations of corruption in the Ukrainian armed forces are very illustrative in this respect. Why should I or my relatives living in the east of Ukraine expect Western powers to be successful in preventing the country from sliding into authoritarianism if it was the Maidan, encouraged by the West (suffice it to remember Victoria Nuland distributing bread among the protesters), that marked the beginning of Ukraine’s persecution of political and cultural “others”? For me, these questions are purely rhetorical. I have no grounds to greet further “humanitarian interventions” of foreign powers in the name of a better future of Ukraine.
Olga Baysha, associate professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and author of Democracy, Populism and Neoliberalism in Ukraine. Branko Marcetic is a staff writer for Jacobin.