Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected in 2019 as the antithesis of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko.
73 percent of the voters were so pissed off with Poroshenko that they chose an “anti-Poroshenko” – the opposite of a corrupt career politician who used pompous pseudo-patriotic rhetoric as an excuse for stealing, sabotage of reforms and economic disaster.
Poroshenko also bet on dividing the country and pandered to a nationalist electorate to stir up war hysteria. He was seen as out of touch with reality as he catered to a small hysterical bubble of Facebook users while a vast majority offline didn’t care about his bombastic rhetoric.
In contrast to Poroshenko, Zelensky, an outsider who had never been a politician before, seemed to be easy-going, laid-back, modern and not losing contact with reality. He bet on uniting the country by appealing to common values – economic prosperity, anti-corruption reforms and the rule of law.
Zelensky also promised that Poroshenko and his allies would be punished for corruption.
The irony is that, almost two years later, Zelensky has turned into a Poroshenko on steroids. It goes without saying that Poroshenko and his friends stay unpunished.
On February 2, Zelensky imposed sanctions that included a sweeping ban on three Ukrainian television channels owned by Taras Kozak, an associate of pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk. The channels – NewsOne, 112 Ukraine and ZIK – went off the air immediately.
The channels allegedly “threatened national security.” No evidence was given, and no explanations were provided. All the proceedings were entirely secret.
On February 16, the SBU – Ukraine’s Security Service – charged exiled pro-Russian blogger and politician Anatoly Shariy with committing high treason by spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda in the media. No evidence was presented for Shariy receiving orders or money from Russia or spying for the Kremlin.
By shutting down the media that criticize him, Zelensky – just like Poroshenko before him – aimed to prevent his approval rating from plummeting even further. It halved from about 40 percent in May 2020 to around 20 percent in February 2021.
Along Poroshenko’s lines, he also sought to whip up a pseudo-patriotic hysteria by targeting “enemies of the state”, thus diverting attention from the real problems – omnipresent corruption, lawlessness and disastrous poverty. In fact, his supporters made the argument that Zelensky “out-Poroshenkoed” Poroshenko himself – he closed the channels that his predecessor did not dare to crack down on.
Thus, Zelensky is trying to attract the nationalist voters whom Poroshenko has courted and at the same time stop losing his pro-Russian voters by destroying the opposition media that cater to them.
There are several reasons why this is an extremely flawed, stupid and dangerous policy.
First, this is outright censorship – more radical than anything Poroshenko has ever done. Any censorship uses benign excuses such as national security and children’s welfare.
It’s true that the banned channels have spouted pro-Russian propaganda and featured unsavory guests and questionable journalists.
The freedom of speech consists exactly in allowing the most virulent, most unpleasant and most unpopular speech: it is essentially the freedom to offend. If freedom only applied to the speech that most people like, the concept of free speech would become redundant since few would oppose it.
There’s an argument that Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine justifies banning pro-Russian propaganda. No, it doesn’t.
Where are the limits of such “propaganda”? Nobody defined those limits when banning the three channels, which means that any media may be arbitrarily shut down without any criteria or standards.
The Zelensky administration will surely be tempted to censor any media that criticize it using the slightest excuses even if such media are the most patriotic and pro-Western. This happened before under Poroshenko, when he and his supporters labeled his pro-Western critics as “Kremlin agents.”
Furthermore, even from the pragmatic standpoint of countering Kremlin propaganda, such bans are often useless because in the modern world there are lots of ways to bypass censorship unless the state controls everything – like in North Korea. Pro-Russian voters will simply use Internet news sites, VPNs to circumvent blocks and satellite TV (in that case they will resort to the even more virulent Russian channels instead of the banned Ukrainian ones).
Second, an arbitrary ban without any procedural safeguards or due process is a disastrous blow to the rule of law. Lawless actions by Zelensky and his cronies – primarily against his critics – will only increase from now on.
Moreover, this infantile policy will definitely lead to Kozak and Medvedchuk winning a case against Ukraine at the European Court of Human Rights.
This childish public relations stunt will most likely result in pro-Kremlin politicians and journalists presenting themselves as martyrs and increasing their popularity among the pro-Russian electorate. They will likely launch new channels that may eventually come back with a vengeance and destroy the remnants of Zelensky’s rating.
Instead of the lawless ban on the critical channels, Zelensky’s law enforcement bodies should have vigorously prosecuted Kozak and Medvedchuk to the fullest extent of the law – with due process, proper evidence and valid court verdicts. There is plenty of evidence implicating them in wrongdoing, and such cases would be a correct and adult response to their activities.
However, Ukraine’s impotent, corrupt and unprofessional law enforcers are incapable of this.
Third, this policy is dangerous because it tries to eliminate the symptoms rather than the disease.
Zelensky’s publicity stunt diverts attention from the real problems that prevent Ukraine from becoming a successful Western liberal democracy and winning the war with Russia.
For instance, Zelensky is helping the Russian aggressors by blocking a bribery case against his deputy chief of staff Oleg Tatarov. Zelensky is also helping the Russian aggressors by trying to fire Artem Sytnyk, head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine – a body that is attempting to investigate Tatarov and other top presidential allies.
Moreover, Zelensky is helping the Russian aggressors by refusing to reform Ukraine’s corrupt judiciary. Due to his reluctance to pursue judicial reform, the International Monetary Fund had to suspend talks with Ukraine on a $700 million tranche on February 13.
The way to win the war with Russia is to create a stable Western democracy with the rule of law, zero tolerance for corruption and a vibrant free economy. These are exactly the values that are being destroyed by Zelensky.
The hypocrisy of Zelensky’s claim to be an anti-Russian crusader is also obvious.
Zelensky’s loyal Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova has appointed Maxim Yakubovsky, a close associate of Medvedchuk, as one of her deputies.
Andrey Kholodov, a lawmaker from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, is also an associate of Medvedchuk. In 2018, Oksana Marchenko, Medvedchuk’s wife, became the godmother of Kholodov’s son. Medvedchuk was at the ceremony too.
In 2019 Zelensky’s friend Ivan Bakanov, the head of the SBU, attended a birthday party of Medvedchuk’s associate Grigory Surkis and received a $539 gift from him, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
In the same year, Zelensky also appointed pro-Russian official Vitaly Komarnitsky as governor of Lugansk Oblast. Komarnitsky has called for uniting Ukraine with Russia and allegedly supported a resolution by Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas in 2014, although he denies the second assertion.
Yermak and Zelensky
Meanwhile, Zelensky’s chief of staff Andrey Yermak also has ties to Russia and a good working relationship with Putin’s deputy chief of staff Dmitry Kozak.
Yermak used to be an aide to a representative of the Ossetian Tedeyev family, which has ties to both the Russian government and ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Party of Regions.
In 2020 Yermak also triggered a controversy by announcing plans to include representatives of the Kremlin’s proxies in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Donbas in a negotiation group. Later he was also accused of foiling a Ukrainian security service operation to arrest Russian mercenaries, although he denies the accusations.
His statements and background have prompted speculation that Yermak favours getting Ukraine back into the Kremlin’s orbit.
Zelensky himself, a former comedian and film producer, has been doing business in Russia for many years, including long after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Ironically, Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 studio sold a comedy show to a Russian television channel just before the pro-Russian channels were banned, prompting parallels with Poroshenko’s Lipetsk confectionery factory in Russia.
Regardless of Zelensky’s hypocrisy, it is true that enemies of a free society – such as the Kremlin in Ukraine’s case – can use its free media to spread their lies and promote their interests. It’s an inevitable cost of a free society.
But if a free society does relinquish this freedom in the fight, then what is it fighting for?
By trying to turn into a smaller copy of the semi-totalitarian Russian state that stifles free speech, Ukraine is losing the moral battle.
If Ukraine does want to become part of the free world, it should reject the Soviet legacy of empty publicity stunts like the closure of the channels.
Ukraine will only become immune to Russian propaganda when it becomes a powerful, prosperous and civilized country – and the only way to do that is through promoting liberty and the rule of law.
Then and only then Ukraine will have defeated the Kremlin both militarily and morally.
This is why Europe should not be deceived by Zelensky’s public relations show. Brussels should help Ukraine create Western institutions rather than the Soviet circus that Zelensky is building.