Written exclusively for the New Cold War website by our regular contributor and analyst, Dmitriy Kovalevich. The Biden administration in the US appears to be impacting on Ukraine’s presidential policy, which in turn is negatively affecting the country’s opposition and opposition media, while nationalism and militarism are increasing.
By Dmitriy Kovalevich
Published on NCW, Feb 26, 2021
In February, there began a sharp turn in the Ukrainian president’s policy, one apparently caused by a change of the US administration, together with desperate attempts to please it. In his statements, president Zelensky became indistinguishable from the previous president Petro Poroshenko, betting on radical nationalism and militarism. However, to do this, he first needs to cleanse even the moderate opposition and opposition media. The ban on Communist party in 2014 in Ukraine was only the beginning.
Sanctions against compatriots
In early February, three TV channels were closed in Ukraine at the same time: NewsOne, 112.ua, ZiK. The reason was the sanctions imposed by the president against one of the owners of the TV channels – opposition MP Taras Kozak. For the first time in history, sanctions were introduced not against a foreign citizen or company, but against a compatriot. There was no court decision to do this, but the police immediately turned off the channels, demanding that YouTube also closed their Internet version. The reasons for the imposition of the sanctions were the statements by the security service [SBU] about allegedly pro-Russian activities. But no one presented any evidence, as it’s been declared that the evidence and proof “secret” . The pattern: ‘We have evidence but we won’t present it” started to become widespread last year.
These sanctions immediately alarmed the country’s National Union of Journalists. Sergei Tomilenko, the head of the organization, considers the sanctions illegal. “By this decision, the authorities go beyond the legal framework. Responsibility for the media should emerge as a result of legal action, using the right to defense, as a result of a debate on the decision of media regulators. Here, in an extrajudicial way, the blocking of TV channels, media with a huge audience, takes place, and these are the media where representatives of the authorities including “Servants of the People”, appeared. That is, even in this way they have confirmed that they interact with the Ukrainian audience. This is an attack on freedom of speech, deprivation of the right to information for a large number of Ukrainians. This will lead to an information explosion and shock to international partners. This is an emergency situation. We will inform the International Federation of Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists, our partners – the OSCE Office on Freedom of Expression,” writes Tomilenko.
Right enthusiastic about closures
However, the decision was greeted with admiration by the head of the Ukrainian branch of the Soros Foundation “Renaissance” Alexander Sushko. “It seems that this is the most important decision of President Zelensky in his entire political career, which will have a decisive impact on the country’s political landscape in 2021,” said a representative of the Foundation.
The US Embassy in Ukraine also welcomed the closure of TV channels. “The United States supports Ukraine’s efforts yesterday to counter Russia’s malign influence, in line with Ukrainian law, in defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. We must all work together to prevent disinformation from being deployed as a weapon in an information war against sovereign states,” the embassy said in a statement. Let’s not forget that we are talking about Ukrainian TV channels, broadcasting in the Ukrainian language, owned by Ukrainian deputies.
Neo-Nazis from Azov and the National Corps were just as enthusiastic about the closure of the TV channels as the US embassy. They were so inspired by the closure of the three TV channels that they launched attacks on one more – the ‘Nash’ TV channel, owned by another opposition MP. Despite the fact that they broke into the channel’s offices and beat the journalists, the police did not interfere.
Decline in popularity of president
On the same days, two girls were arrested on charges of running Telegram channels that criticized the actions of the Kiev authorities. Despite the girls’ arrest, these telegram channels continue to operate. The Ukrainian media attempted to explain the arrests by saying that they were girlfriends of opposition activists who had fled to Moldova and Europe from Odessa in 2014. Thus, the SBU wants to blackmail the fugitive Ukrainian opposition politicians.
One of the likely reasons for the closure of the television channels and opposition media is the sharp decline in the popularity of the president and his political party following a sharp increase in gas/heating and electricity tariffs at the request of the IMF. According to the latest polls, the “Opposition Platform” party began to come out on top (as the most popular party), and after that a blow to the media of this party followed.
The next was a blow to the Sharij Party, a small opposition group that was elected to a number of local councils last year. Its leader, Anatoly Sharij, is a refugee and lives in Spain, but in his video blogs he regularly criticizes the Ukraine authorities. In mid-February, the SBU accused him of “high treason” and demanded his extradition. The charges are based on his statements about the civil war in Donbass, which contradicts the official narrative about “Russian aggression” and also his interviews to the Russian media.
Throughout the past year, activists and offices of this party have been targeted by far-rightists from Azov and the National Corps. A real fascist street terror has been unfolded against them. When the authorities failed to suppress this party completely, the government followed the pathway to political bans.
Then, on February 19, President Zelensky imposed sanctions against three more leaders of the ‘Opposition Platform’ party: the head of the party-political council Viktor Medvedchuk, his wife Oksana Marchenko, and Natalya Lavrenyuk.
“This is the desire of Zelensky’s dictatorial regime to settle scores with opposition leaders and strike a blow at the country’s most rated political force. There are no legal grounds for this extrajudicial reprisal,” the party said in a statement.
Shortsighted sanctions and reprisals
Sanctions and reprisals are not limited to politicians. In February, Kiev imposed sanctions against Chinese companies that had previously acquired shares of the Ukrainian ‘Motor –Sich’ plant (air-engines producer), paid about a billion dollars, but Ukraine later refused to transfer property rights to the Chinese buyers. Earlier, the US called this deal “malicious.” Now China is in litigation with Ukraine in the International Arbitration Court.
Then sanctions were introduced against the Ukrainian company Sportmaster, which sells sports equipment. According to the Ukraine media, in this case, the sanctions against the Ukrainian company were lobbied by their direct competitor in this market, the Epicenter company. In other words, the very mechanism of sanctions is being applied ever day against Ukraine’s domestic and foreign citizens or companies, as a form of political struggle and business competition.
On Tuesday February 23, Ukraine’s MPs from both the party of ex-President Poroshenko and Zelensky’s party, submitted a bill that allows shutting down media outlets, religious organizations and parties for “denial of Russian aggression. The bill also specifies punishment, for describing the conflict in Donbass as a civil war or an internal conflict, as well as for calling the armed forces of the Donbass republics ‘rebels’ or ‘militias.’ They should be called only
“Russian occupiers” to make it easier for the US to put pressure on the Russian Federation.
Such a narrative is an obvious contradiction of the fact that in 2020 the Russian Federation was one of the largest exporters/importers of Ukraine (after China and EU).
In February 2021, Kiev resumed the purchase of electricity from Russia. Russian companies also turned out to be the main suppliers of oil, petrol and food products, including food for the Ukrainian army. In other words, in case of a real war, Russia could simply easily cut off supplies and literally leave the Ukrainian army without petrol, electricity or food. Nevertheless, the pretext of “fighting the Russian Federation” is actively used to suppress the internal Ukraine opposition. Bans and sanctions are expanding every month, but in February there was a real breakthrough in this sphere due to active attempts to please the new US administration. Western media stubbornly fail to see the suppression of opposition and media in Ukraine, focusing instead only on Belarus, and Alexei Navalny in Russia.