• Topics / Freedom of expression
• Topics / Law enforcement agencies
Spooked by spooks
Ukraines security service, the SBU, has been both an ally and a rival of Russias security and intelligence establishment in recent years. But As Paul Goble notes on his excellent Window on Eurasia site, the rapprochement between Kyiv (Kiev) and Moscow is seems to be changing the picture in the most sensitive bit of Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsular. The SBU, writes Goble, has
signed a five-year agreement that will allow Moscow again to put intelligence agents in Crimea, from which 19 such Russian officers were expelled at the end of last year for attempting to recruit Ukrainians as spies.
That may jangle nerves among those who worry that Russian influence in Ukraine is already ascendant. But given the way the SBU has been behaving of late, the difference between its tactics and those of the Russias FSB seems to be narrowing.
Here is an edited version of a lengthy account of a recent visit by an SBU representative to the Ukrainian Catholic University rector, Fr Borys Gudziak. It is a good thought experiment to ask oneself in which European countries this sort of thing would be inconceivable, in which it would be possible but outrageous, and in which it would be all too likely.
Memorandum Regarding the Visit to UCU of a representative of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) (former KGB)Mr. [name withheld] responsible for contacts with Churches) 18 May 2010, office of the rector, 9:50-10:34
At 9:27 in the morning Fr. Borys Gudziak received a call on his private mobile phone from a representative of the Security Service of Ukraine requesting a meeting. The meeting was scheduled for 20 minutes later at the rectorate of UCU. In a polite manner the agent related that certain political parties are planning protests and demonstrations regarding the policies of the new Ukrainian authorities. 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).
After his oral presentation the agent put on the table between us an unfolded one-page letter that was addressed to me. He asked me to read the letter and then acknowledge with a signature my familiarity with its contents. He stated that after I had read and signed the letter it would be necessary for him to take the letter back. Since I could see that the document was properly addressed to me as rector (I also noticed that it had two signatures giving it a particularly official character) I replied calmly that any letter addressed to me becomes my property and should stay with me -- at least in copy form. Only under these conditions could I agree to even read the letter (much less sign).
The agent was evidently taken back by my response. It seemed that the situation for him was without precedent because in my presence using his mobile phone he called his (local) superiors to ask for instructions on how to proceed. The superior refused permission to leave me either the original letter or a copy, saying that the SBU fears I “might publish it in the internet.” I questioned this entire procedure and the need for secrecy and refused to look at the letter and read its contents. The young official was disappointed and somewhat confused but did not exert additional pressure and did not dispute my argumentation.
Our conversation also had a pastoral moment. I cautioned the agent of the fact that the SBU as the former KGB, with many employees remaining from the Soviet times, has a heavy legacy of breaking and crippling people physically and morally and that he as a young married person should be careful not to fall into any actions that would cause lasting damage to his own identity and shame his children and grandchildren. I sought to express this pastorally as a priest. To his credit he both acknowledged the past and declared his desire to serve the needs of Ukrainian citizens. He also asked that I indicate to him if I feel that he is exercising improper pressure.
Finally, I expressed my and the general population’s profound disappointment that the work of the SBU is so uneven, that security and police officers live lavishly on low salaries because they are involved in corrupt activities, and that the legal rights of citizens and equal application of the law are severely neglected.
Besides noting the SBU’s solicitude for stability in Ukrainian society there are a few conclusions to be drawn from the encounter and the proposals that were expressed:
Signing a document such as the letter that was presented for signature to me is tantamount to agreeing to cooperate (collaborate) with the SBU. The person signing in effect agrees with the contents of the letter and their implication. In KGB practice getting a signature on a document that was drafted and kept by the KGB was a primary method of recruiting secret collaborators.
Such methods have no known (to me) precedent in independent Ukraine in the experience of UCU and of the Lviv National University whose longtime rector (and former Minister of Education, 2008–10) Ivan Vakarchuk I consulted immediately after the meeting.
As Fr Borys rightly points out, such a document when signed can have all sorts of consequences
a.) In case of the arrest of a student the SBU could confront the rectorate and charge that the university was informed of the danger to students and did not take necessary measures to protect them from violence or legal harm. In this case the university administration could be charged with both moral and legal responsibility.
b.) After a hypothetical arrest of a student or students the students and their parents as well as other members of the university community could be shown the document with which the administration was warned and counseled to curb student activities. Since the administration did not stop the students from the activities that became the pretext for the arrest, parents or others could draw the conclusion that the university does not have adequate concern for the welfare of its students. This would be a most effective way of dividing the university community and undermining the university’s reputation among its most important constituents–students.
The apparent genuine surprise of the agent at my refusal to do as requested could mean that he is not used to such a reaction. He had explained to me that he works with clergy on a regular basis. It could be assumed that other clergy (who work with youth, students, etc.) have been approached and that they have not refused to sign such documents.
Measures of this nature create apprehension and unease. They are meant to intimidate university administrations and students. They are part of a whole pattern of practice that is well known to the Ukrainian population. The revival of such practices is a conscious attempt to revive the methods of the Soviet totalitarian past and to re-instill fear in a society that was only beginning to feel its freedom.
It can be expected that UCU will be subject to particular attention and possible pressure in the coming months. The solidarity of the international community, especially the academic world, will be important in helping UCU maintain a position of principle regarding intellectual and social freedom.
Speaking and writing openly about these issues is the most peaceful and effective manner of counteracting efforts to secretly control and intimidate students and citizens. As was apparent during this incident, state authorities are particularly sensitive about publicity regarding their activity. Information can have a preemptory, corrective and curing role when it comes to planned actions to circumscribe civic freedom, democracy, and the basic dignity of human beings.
Please keep UCU and all the students and citizens of Ukraine in your thoughts and prayers.
Fr. Borys Gudziak, Rector, Ukrainian Catholic University 19 May 2010
Anyone worried about Ukraines wider future must hope that this is a one-off and not part of a trend. If anyone from the SBU wants to contact us and give their side of the story, we would be delighted to hear it. They (presumably) know where to find us.