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12.10.2010 | Halya Coynash

Ukraine’s SBU strikes again – through “inertia”

   

There are ways of gaining fame and respect in the world.  There are also roads to notoriety. Ukraine’s new regime, particularly its Security Service, have opted for the latter. 

Correspondent from the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Konrad Schuller stated publicly in August that Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] had questioned at least two people he had contacted in Ukraine while preparing material about the Presidential elections. The meetings with SBU officers took place in April 2010.

Mr Schuller stated that he had written to the Head of the SBU, Valery Khoroshkovsky, asking for an explanation but had received none.  He is also recorded as informing the President of this SBU activity when, during a press interview to German journalists at the end of August, Viktor Yanukovych suggested that he did not ever receive specific information about pressure on journalists.

At the time the SBU denied Konrad Schuller’s allegation, calling it provocation.

On Sunday 10 October, Schuller interviewed Khoroshkovsky for FAZ, and, with regard to the SBU activity, was told: “I have checked it and yes, it did happen”.  This was, Khoroshkovsky claimed, because of a problem with Schuller’s accreditation. “Therefore the officers ascertained whether he was there as a journalist or in some other capacity”. 

Khoroshkovsky asserted that the surveillance had begun under President Yushchenko, and that it was merely due to the “inertia of the system” that it had been carried out under the rule of Viktor Yanukovych.

If you want to be believed, it is desirable to get your story right.  In August the SBU denied the allegations, in October Khoroshkovsky confirmed them, while maintaining that the impetus had come from the previous President’s regime.  Now while we can’t, obviously, set a time limit on inertia, if the first checks happened in April and were of people whom Schuller contacted over the presidential elections in January – February this year, the demands on our credulity would seem excessive.  Yet the SBU on Monday again issued a statement concentrating on the claim that this was all supposedly set in motion in 2009 and conveniently ignoring the small detail that it only happened in April 2010.

We might also ask why the SBU which is supposed to have considerably more important tasks should be dealing with a clearly administrative hiccup.  Whether or not Mr Schuller had accreditation, it was quite clear which newspaper he worked for. Why seek out people he contacted?

The questions are becoming increasingly rhetorical, as the heavy-handed methods for demonstrating “vigilance” become all too avert. Mr Schuller had previously, under Yanukovych’s last period as Prime Minister, been much less than complimentary in his coverage. Nico Lange, Director of the Kyiv Office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, who was held at Kyiv airport for around 10 hours on SBU instructions in late June had at the beginning of June written an article in which he spoke of authoritarian tendencies emerging under President Yanukovych.  The crass stupidity of measures aimed at showing muscle to those who express views the regime doesn’t like does not make the measures any the less worrying. 

It is frustrating that Ukraine, which badly needs support and investment, is being so ill-served by the present regime.  The full interview with Khoroshkovsky began with him being introduced as “one of the most powerful men in Ukraine. You own a media empire. You head the Security Service SBU with 30,000 employees and occupy a seat in the High Council of Justice which oversees the justice system and lawyers. Of the three branches of power, you have control over two of them, the Executive and the Judiciary, as well as the “fourth power”, the media”. 

Khoroshkovsky’s claim that he controls nothing, that he is simply a member of these institutions, is less than convincing.  Concern over his position, and the inevitable conflicts of interest, as well as over methods used by the SBU has been expressed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as well as many other western observers.

Frankfurter Allgemeine notes that it is unclear why the Head of the SBU suddenly admitted to the surveillance.  The degree of ineptitude required to notch up quite so many scandals over the last seven months does give rise to the suspicion that subterfuge and secrecy are not the name of the game.

The trouble with this game is that it seriously risks Ukraine’s reputation. Nor is only political reputation at stake since if this is the road Ukraine’s present regime is taking, it is not only forthright journalists, but all those with business or other interests in the country who should be concerned.

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