Troubles in Ukraine
Pres. Viktor Yanukovych is moving his country closer to Russia, both strategically and in terms of political culture.


George Weigel

Kirill, who would not have been elected Patriarch in 2009 without at least the tacit consent of Vladimir Putin and who, like other Russian Orthodox prelates of his generation, once had close ties to the KGB, has not hesitated to insert himself into internal Ukrainian affairs under Yanukovych’s new order. When the controversial nomination of Dmytro Tabachnyk as minister of education got stuck because of protests from parliamentarians of Yanukovych’s own party who questioned Tabachnyk’s integrity, Patriarch Kirill personally lobbied President Yanukovych to see through the nomination. Tabachnyk has slandered Cardinal Husar’s Greek Catholics and has been known to claim that western Ukraine (the heartland of Ukrainian Greek Catholicism) isn’t really Ukraine, linguistically or culturally — which may or may not be a cultural assertion in service to a political agenda, namely, the hiving-off of western Ukraine from a Ukraine that would move towards the kind of de facto reconnection to Russia that has been effected in Belarus.

As education minister, Tabachnyk is expected to bring the teaching of modern history in Ukrainian schools into line with Putin’s efforts to restore the narrative of the “Great Patriotic War” of 1941–45 in Russian schools — an effort that ignores 1939–1941, the years of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and Stalin’s alliance with Nazi Germany. This is hardly surprising; Tabachnyk has denied that the Soviet-enforced Ukrainian terror-famine in the 1930s — a pivotal drama in Ukrainian history in which perhaps as many as 6 million people were deliberately starved to death — was a genocide.

The Ministry of Education has also indicated that it plans to jettison the SAT-type standardized tests that were introduced in order to lessen the role of corruption — as in bribes — in the process of students’ admission to university-level studies. Standardized testing has its limitations, as those who introduced this reform in Ukraine well realize, but in this particular context they serve as a barrier to the politicization and corruption of the admissions process. A government that can control admissions through bribes and political favors is a government that can control the future of intellectual life while further securing its own electoral base.

The SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) is the successor to the Ukrainian KGB. President Yanukovych appointed as its new director Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, a media magnate. One of Khoroshkovsky’s first acts in office was to ask for the files on his media competitors — perhaps, it is feared, as a first step toward the kind of governmental media takeover that Putin managed as president of Russia.

With or without SBU pressures, Ukrainian analysts say that freedom of the press has been set back 20 years in the three months since Yanukovych’s inauguration. These concerns are shared by independent-minded reporters and editors. In early May, journalists at two Ukrainian television stations charged that political “censorship is occurring again at the country’s commercial TV stations,” according to reports from the Ukrainian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. According to the RFE/RL bulletin, “journalists allege some topics are ‘closed’ and some reports are edited ‘upside down’ or banned altogether since the election of Viktor Yanukovych as president earlier this year. The journalists said proscribed topics included ‘Holodomor,’ the Ukrainian word for the 1930s mass famine in Ukraine instigated by Soviet leader Josef Stalin; the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist rebel militia that fought both the Nazis and the Soviets during World War II; as well as any criticism of the authorities, investigations about politicians’ personal finances, and even reports about Yanukovych’s wife.”

The SBU has also shown disturbing signs that it is adopting some of the practices of its predecessor organization. The rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv, Father Borys Gudziak, a Ukrainian-American with a Harvard doctorate in history, recently received a visit from an SBU agent evidently concerned about possible student participation in political demonstrations. The agent presented Father Gudziak with a one-page letter and asked the rector to read the letter and then signify his familiarity with its contents with his signature — after which the agent would take the letter back. Father Gudziak replied that any letter addressed to him became his property and should remain with him, at least in the form of a copy, and that it was only under these conditions that he would read, much less sign, the letter. The agent’s superiors refused permission.