By Anton Rozenvayn and Elena Baibeckova, published on Russia Insider, April 21, 2015
Two Ukrainian journalists in Donetsk chronicle Kiev’s out-of-control hunt for “terrorists” and “separatists” — and the grim future of a country torn apart by civil war and mass paranoia
“Maxim called us again,” says Anna Grindyuk, press secretary of the Ministry of Communications of the Donetsk People’s Republic. “He spoke through a speakerphone, and I heard whispers in the background. He said, as was instructed, ‘Only you can help me,’ which he repeated a couple times monotonously.”
In February, Anna’s brother Maxim Grindyuk was arrested by the Ukrainian authorities for disseminating information by attaching flyers critical of current government authorities and rising prices on lamp posts, which are hard to censor. The Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) indicted him for aiding “terrorists,” but this charge was dropped, and Maxim was released. He was allowed to leave the court as long as he did not leave the country. However, he did not leave the court a free man. Before he had a chance to return home, he was kidnapped, and since then all communication with him has been only via phone conversation with unidentifiable phone numbers.
Until 2014, Ukraine was a relatively prosperous eastern European country. Although the wages and pensions were lower than average in Europe, inflation remained low as did prices of food, goods, utilities, and membership in social organizations. Even with a relatively low GDP, the government was able to maintain subsidies on many items. There had been protracted negotiations in Moscow to reduce the price of gas, which had been established by political predecessors during long-lasting political and trade squabbles that harmed Ukrainian industry.
President Viktor Yanukovych was actively criticized in the media as an enemy of civil freedoms. The press ridiculed every blunder in the head of state’s speech, referring to him as a former convicted criminal. Regarding former criminals, however, things are not so clear: criminal cases against Yanukovych from the 1970s were revisited and sentences repealed. In the minds of many Ukrainians, nevertheless, the president was a tyrant. This view led to a set of complex and intricate reasonings based on false postulates. For example, Yanukovych was seen as a pro-Russian politician and therefore an enemy of civil liberties and European values. I will not debate here as to whether the concept of a “pro-Russian politician” is synonymous with “an enemy of civil liberties.” For Yanukovych, the term “pro-Russian” had a very conventional meaning related to his origins: Yanukovych is a native of Donetsk, which is a Russian-speaking region. Also, he promised to make Russian the second state language of Ukraine — not everywhere but only in Russian-speaking regions, and only in the framework the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In fact, President Yanukovych was the most “European” politician in the history of Ukraine, not on a declarative level but on a level that reflected his approach to managing the government.
Yanukovych’s status as a pro-Russian policymaker and criticism of him in the Western media did not prevent him from negotiating an association agreement with the European Union. Unfortunately, the European Union’s proposals were too demanding. Integration into the European Union and its economy required of Ukraine large-scale and costly reforms, which the country simply could not afford. This eventually intensified the conflict between a declarative commitment to Europe on the part of Ukrainians and real progress in that direction. Real progress toward Europe was sought by Yanukovych and his political associates. In November 2013, the president suspended negotiations with the European Union only because he was not able to achieve agreement on lending for the economic reforms or on transition to new manufacturing standards. This decision resulted in an uproar in the Ukrainian media. The president was declared the main obstacle on the road to the European Union, and the radicals who were further encouraged by the press spilled onto the streets of the country, including the capital of Kiev.
Shortly after the start of the protests, the leadership of the movement was captured by the most radical part: the ultra-right organizations, soccer fans, and members of popular opposition parties with an agenda of “we want to join Europe, and the money will be found.” Months of street confrontations ended in a coup-d’état supported by slogans that went far beyond normal pro-European ideas. These slogans included “Death to Communists,” “Russians should be thrown out of the country,” and “Down with Donetsk.” The natural reactions to this victory and slogans were the mass protests in Russian-speaking regions, primarily in the Donbass. It is the Donbass that was being addressed in the slogans and that received the lion’s share of insults and curses.
Theoretically, the winners had the opportunity to cement their legitimacy and to preserve the country’s territorial integrity. To accomplish this, it would have been enough to review the operating state system in Ukraine and to provide regions with greater autonomy by negotiating with the Russian-speaking elites who were influential in various areas. Yet, instead, the new forces that came to power during the revolution of radical ideas forced events in the opposite direction, toward reprisals against the rebellious regions, all the way to a full-scale war in the Donbass.
Anna Grindyuk was raised in Zaporizhia in southeastern Ukraine, which, during the demonstrations, saw an activist anti-Maidan movement that supported the legitimate authority of the democratically elected president. She participated in these rallies, handing out St. George ribbons. (These ribbons symbolize the highest Russian military award for valor. They were given to all civilian and military participants in World War II in opposition to fascist memorabilia.) She also wrote on social networks about the dangers of a fascist coup in Ukraine. When the government structures in the capital were seized by the Maidan activists, and the streets of the cities of the southeast were swarming with militants, Anna began to receive threats at her home address. She was forced to leave her family and to move to Donetsk. Now Anna works in the Communications Ministry of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
On February 6, Anna’s brother, Maxim Grindyuk, was arrested and placed in a Ukrainian prison on charges of aiding terrorists and creating a terrorist organization. The reason given for his arrest was that on the flyers he pasted on walls and lamp posts he expressed “his gratitude” to the Maidan and its supporters for the rise in prices and the collapse of the Ukrainian currency. The SBU announced that the flyers contained “anti-Ukrainian propaganda material . . . formed by the representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic.” The only piece of evidence confirming these allegations that Maxim cooperated with representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic was his “relationship with a separatist,” who also happened to be his sister. This fact was regarded by investigators as clear proof that Maxim Grindyuk had not acted on his own initiative and was recruited and received assignments from the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic. They said his goals included the spreading of ideas and symbols of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Novorossiya; spreading information on the failure of the campaign of army mobilization; and the creation of a mood of protest in the whole of society. No other claims against Maxim were necessary for the SBU. His posting the flyers was enough for him to be detained. The court made a decision about what to do with Maxim Grindyuk: to keep him in custody for 60 days with the prospect of extending his detention until his trial and, in case of conviction, imprisoning him for up to fifteen years.
On March 23, a repeat hearing was held about the use of “suppressive measures”. The charge against Maxim was changed from assisting terrorists to the lighter one of “providing or promising assistance to participants of criminal organizations and the concealment of their criminal activities by the provision of premises, storage facilities, vehicles, information, documents, technical equipment, money, securities, and the promising of the implementation of other actions to create conditions, contributing to criminal activity” under article 356, part 1 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine. His punishment was also changed, and he was released as long as he promised not to leave the country. Maxim was released from the courtroom, but he never returned home. He was kidnapped on his way out of the building.
“My brother disappeared immediately after the trial,” says Anna Grindyuk. “His lawyer cannot answer the question of where Maxim is. The SBU says that he is in the hands of the ‘security forces.’ Who these ‘security forces’ are remains a mystery. Maxim is not a part of the military, but we were ready to trade him as a prisoner of war. Only there is no hurry to exchange Maxim. He calls us periodically, but the conversation always takes place on the speakerphone and in the presence of the kidnappers. They know that I work at a ministry of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and they attempt to put pressure on me. They either demand that I arrange the exchange of my brother for six Ukrainian military captives or that I remind [leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic] Zakharchenko, that he needs to fulfill his promises. What promises were given to them by Zakharchenko they do not explain. They say that he knows. I, in turn, try to explain to them that I work as a press secretary and am in no way capable of fulfilling their demands. They do not believe me. In my opinion, they do no treat Maxim as an arrested person or a military captive but as a bandit or hostage. In essence he has become a hostage of the SBU.”
Unfortunately, this blatant case of Maxim Grindyuk is not the only one of its kind in Ukraine. A double standard now prospers in the state. Speaking on the one hand about the European freedom of choice, the Verkhovna Rada on the other hand passes one law after another that runs contrary to the basic norms of civil rights and liberties: the prohibition on promoting communist ideology, the prohibition on advocating nonparticipation in the army mobilization, the forbidding of denial of Russian aggression.
Repressions are of an unprecedented nature. People are jailed for having a torn portrait of the president; the police have arrested whole processions of antiwar rallies — last week, during an antiwar rally in Odessa, more than fifty people were arrested; and representatives of the Right Sector militia patrol the streets of the cities of the southeast. Finally, militias loyal to the police have the right to carry weapons, and their faces are often hidden under balaclavas. Performing police functions, these openly ultra-right factions sport neo-Nazi chevrons and other fascist paraphernalia. According to the testimony of local residents, these thugs can stop, beat up, and/or kidnap anyone whom they just do not like as they pass by. There are hundreds of missing Odessites, Cossacks, and other residents of towns in the southeast.
In Kiev, opposition politicians were hit by an epidemic of “suicide,” which has now smoothly transformed into unabashed murder. Among the victims are politicians, businessmen, and journalists. (The most recent and famous is that of journalist and Ukrainian intellectual Oles Buzina outside his Kiev apartment.) The government powers explain these murders as “Putin’s provocations,” but citizens tend to believe such assertions less and less. It is understood that in a country where there is widespread terror, every word spoken could cost you your life. In this type of environment, it is especially ironic when the label “terrorist” is used against the residents of Donbass and by members of the Ukrainian press. Everyday reporting sounds more like a satirical Jon Stewart television show: the “terrorists” have restored the Debaltsevo train tracks; the “terrorists” have begun to pay pensions in rubles; the “terrorists” have rebuilt a destroyed school.
Ukraine calls itself a democratic European country, but this has nothing to do with talk of democracy. The conspirators, who came to power through a coup d’état, are not even trying to build a dictatorship but rather a territory of chaos, where armed “security officials” deal with dissent by all available means. It is a territory where death squads are no longer made up of secret police but are an everyday, open phenomenon, and the state does not react even to open hostage situations, as in the case of Maxim Grindyuk. And, no wonder, because the authorities in Ukraine are the real terrorists. They are those who seized power by terror and spread it throughout the entire country through the killing of peaceful protesters and by firing on their cities with artillery.
Anton Rozenvayn is a journalist and columnist from Kiev. He has worked as a writer for top Ukrainian media, such as magazines “Telekritika”, “Glavred”, “Public People”. After the coup d’etat moved to the DPR.
Elena Baibeckova is a journalist from Donetsk. She has worked as a writer & editor at “Moj Mir” publishing house (Moscow),and the newspaper “Segodnja”.
Translated from Russian for RI by Aleksei Tatu. Edited by Katy Meigs.
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