The 10-hour official detention of Nico Lange, a political scientist who leads the German-based Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Kyiv, is seen as the latest blow to speech and press freedoms under the administration of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Upon arrival in Kyiv, Lange was kept in a holding cell at the international airport in Boryspil on June 26 with other deportees before high-level government intervention finally cleared his entry. Lange had written critically of Yanukovych’s first 100 days in office.
Isolated incident? Perhaps.
But there are numerous isolated incidents that are starting to form a worrisome pattern about the administration’s disdain for democratic speech, especially if those speaking are critical of the president and his team, which took power on Feb. 25.
“The current trend smacks of a creeping ‘Putinization’ of the country, as Yanukovich has been using state tools -- including agencies such as Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) - to silence critics by muzzling media,” Peter Zalmayev, a Kharkiv native who is the director of the New York-based Eurasia Democracy Initiative. “Most recently, two TV channelsknown for their independent stance have come under severe pressure and may soon have to go off the air - TVi andChannel 5.
The guy who’s said to be behind this particular episode is [Security Service of Ukraine] SBU chief Valery Khoroshkovsky, who,at the same time, is the channels’ direct competitor by virtue of being the owner of Ukraine’s largest media group,Inter. Theconflict of interestwe are dealing with here is mind-boggling.”
Other incidents include:
- Four TV stations have written open letters in recent months expressing concern over interference and censorship in their news coverage and reporting.
- On June 29, Freedom House, a New York-based democracy monitoring organization, issued an unenthusiastic report called “A Decade of Democratic Regression in the former Soviet Union”.
- On May 18, a rector of a Lviv university was asked to a sign a letter addressed to him from the SBU, the successor agency to the Soviet KGB, in an apparent attempt to crack down on students participating in peaceful protests. The rector, Father Borys Gudziak, refused.
- On May 25, Kommersant-Ukrayina journalist Artem Skoropadskiy, a Russian national, had an informal meeting with an alleged SBU officer who advised him to refrain from maintaining close ties with right-wing Ukrainian political parties and hinted at his possible deportation.
- On June 23, two unknown assailants – who claimed to be law enforcers – entered the apartment of a high-profile women’s rights group leader on the eve of a planned street protest against Security Service of Ukraine pressure against civil society groups.
Lange’s incident sparked a backlash from the German government, and came on the heels of other statements of concern from officials representing many nations.
“We’ve received alarming reports about pressure on journalists,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Tefft said on June 24. “We believe that the police should investigate these facts and that the government should carefully monitor and react to any threats to press freedoms.”
Two days after Lange’s ordeal, Germany’s spokesman Christoph Steegmans said: “We hope that the proven and important work of German foundations in Ukraine will remain unhindered in the future and that Ukraine adheres to European Union standards in this area.
Yevhen Zakharov, chairman of the Ukraine Helsinki Group, a human rights organization founded on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse said: “This is part of a trend of the SBU harking back to the Soviet times when it was omnipotent and touched every corner of human life. The facts show the SBU is influencing the activity of civil society, of discouraging protests, they’re embarking on preemptive acts to influence every sphere of life.”
The Freedom House report of June 29 said: “Ukraine is confronting new challenges to the democratic progress it has achieved in recent years … However, the election of Viktor Yanukovych as president in early 2010 and the initial signs of authoritarianism that have accompanied it suggest that the durability of the country’s democratic changes over the past several years will soon be tested.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry on June 29 communicated to foreign embassies that international foundations promoting Ukraine’s democratic development need to be reminded of the “importance of adhering to the respective statutory tasks of their organizations and with Ukrainian laws.”
Oleh Voloshyn, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, explained: “We wanted to remind them that there is a fine line between political activity and political support. Yes, one can teach how to go about building political parties, but one shouldn’t provide political advice or consultation or behave like a political strategist.”
SBU spokesperson Myrna Ostapenko did not answer numerous phone calls.
As for Lange, the director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, he hopes that his detention was one big misunderstanding that won’t be repeated. “It’s an unfortunate situation to be a part of such a big affair, I really hope it’s all a huge misunderstanding, the work of the Konrad Foundation has been misunderstood, I just want others to help Ukraine get closer to European standards,” Lange said.
Kyiv Post staff writer Mark Rachkevych can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org