27.05.2010 | Halya Coynash

That Vital Component of Constructive Proposals


            Good to read so many nice words on the President’s website about how “criticism from opponents is a vital component of democratic society” and how he is awaiting constructive proposals.

            No problem with nice words only how are you to determine which proposals are constructive when they don’t let you hear them?

            In a democratic country people gather where they’ll be heard not, as the Minister of Internal Affairs would like, “in some big field on the outskirts of Kyiv”. On 11 May 2010 many Ukrainians from various regions were prevented from exercising their right to take part in a demonstration in Kyiv. The traffic police [DAI] one way or another stopped them. Coach rental companies were given to understand that if they took the protesters, they could have their licence taken away. Cars were stopped on the road, while those trying to get to the capital by train also had problems.

On the eve of the demonstration viewers of only one TV channel (STB) got to hear of this, though it’s hard to imagine any democratic country where such a story would not be breaking news and an almighty scandal.  According to Vitaly Haidukevych, from “1+1”, the first channel whose journalists protested over censorship  the story was killed twice although journalists had wanted to run it.  “The journalist comes and says that he has a story, that there are reports of a huge number of cars on the roads being stopped by traffic police. But the Chief Editor says, “no that doesn’t have any content”.

Traffic police officers used the same methods throughout the country which refutes any claims that this was a creative initiative by individual officers who had it in for the opposition and raises certain questions.  It was, after all, officers of the Traffic Police Department, part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs [MIA] who prevented citizens from expressing that same “vital component of a democratic society”, i.e. their attitude to the government. They also violated a whole range of constitutional rights.

It turns out that both Ukrainians and the international community were misled about the demonstration on 11 May since a lot of those who wanted to attend were stopped by MIA employees, while this vital information was concealed by most television channels.

The information, incidentally, should be of interest to most foreign visitors and potential investors from democratic countries for at least two reasons. They assume that the traffic police are there to ensure safety on the roads, and not to carry out political tasks. Secondly, they understand all too well that any law enforcement officers who today undertake one such order, may carry out another tomorrow, this time against them.

Criticism is indeed a vital component of a democratic society. So is strict division of power, but you can’t help feeling that some high-ranking public officials have serious difficulty in understanding what their powers are – and are not – in modern-day, non-Soviet Ukraine.  Interference by the SBU [Security Service] in the work of the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Council elicited protests not only within Ukraine. Now another aspect of SBU activities is being discussed in many countries, and almost all commentators point out a worrying analogy both with Russia’s FSB and the Soviet KGB.

It should be noted that students from the Transcarpathian and other regions, particularly those protesting against the new Minister of Education, have for some time complained of being under pressure.  At present this is on the level of “preventive chats” in the Dean’s office, yet these are laced with threats of expulsion if the students don’t give up protest activities.

It would seem that the students also fail to understand what opposition is “constructive”. They do, however, know what they stand to lose as a result of their civic position, and some have already fallen silent.

It would be nice to assume that some deans have simply taken criticism of unconstructive opposition too literally, but a recent event suggests otherwise..

On 18 May the Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Fr. Borys Gudziak was visited by an SBU officer.  “The agent related that certain political parties are planning protests and demonstrations regarding the controversial (and in some cases inflammatory) policies of the new Ukrainian authorities. Students are to be engaged in these protests. There is a danger that some of these manifestations may be marred by provocations. He stated that, of course, students are allowed to protest but that they should be warned by the university administration that those involved in any illegal activities will be prosecuted. Illegal activities include not only violent acts but also, for example, pickets blocking access to the work place of government officials (or any protests that are not sanctioned by authorities)”(;4693 )

All is seemingly well and the right to protest acknowledged, yet the words are disingenuous. Blocking access will be understood as they see fit, while what are we to understand by “sanctioned” if picketers are only obliged in law to notify the authorities of a planned gathering?

The SBU officer asked Fr. Gudziak to read and sign a letter which he would however take away, without leaving even a copy. The UCU Rector refused which obviously knocked the agent sideways. We can assume that other rectors caused fewer headaches.

Fr. Gudziak’s act was indeed, as the UCU Vice-Rector and former political prisoner, Myroslav Marynovych writes, an important precedent.  There was no such precedent, of course, in the attempts by the authorities to put pressure both on university staff and students. There is little new as well in other signs that the old ways are making a comeback. Mr Marynovych is right in saying that it’s time to shed once and for all such relicts of the totalitarian era. They have nothing in common with words about commitment to democratic values, nor with the reality of a pluralistic democracy.

The Soviets foisted the notion that those who criticized the State were harming it and were, effectively, traitors. They did everything to conceal the real state of affairs in the Soviet Union and to punish those who refused to stay silent.

Those days have gone. Ukraine is harmed when its citizens are treated like mindless fools to be conned and controlled. In a democratic society it is not for politicians, but for the public to decide who is offering constructive proposals, and who simply more empty words.

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