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More than three years have passed since Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution, in which protestors took to the streets and ousted their corrupt leader Viktor Yanukovych. But reform has been slow in coming. To be fair, President Petro Poroshenko faces a Herculean task: protecting Ukraine from Russia’s ongoing aggression in the east while reforming the country in a way that is in keeping with the ideals—democracy, transparency, and rule of law—that united Ukrainians during Euromaidan. So far, however, Poroshenko has not handled this dilemma very well. He has used a heavy hand in cracking down on anything Russian and seems, ironically, increasingly determined to adopt Moscow’s authoritarian methods even as he speaks the language of Brussels in advocating for democratic change.
Of course, Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine is not limited to the fighting at their borders. Russian propaganda plays an even greater role in influencing Ukrainian politics than it does in Western countries. One false report that has been recently circulating, for example, claims that the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) is using drug addicts as spies in the country’s east. Another alleges that Ukraine’s newest public holiday, known as Volunteers Day, “glorifies” the killing of separatists in the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Poroshenko’s approach to countering Russian propaganda, however, has been blunt and ineffective. Rather than demonstrate to disillusioned Ukrainians, especially in the east, that the postrevolutionary state represents their interests, he has sought to censor any content associated with Russia under the guise of national security.
Last month, Poroshenko issued a decree banning a number of Russian sites, including the social networking platform Vkontakte and search engine Yandex—the Russian equivalents of Facebook and Google. It also banned the mail service Mail.ru. All three were among Ukraine’s most widely used websites on the eve of the ban. In 2016, Vkontakte, for instance, was used by 70 percent of Ukrainian Internet users. The ban followed a similar measure implemented in January when Dozhd (TV Rain), the independent television station known for its critical coverage of corruption in Russia and the wars in Ukraine and Syria, was blocked—for no apparent reason save that it is Russian. Ukraine is now the second country—after Russia—to repress Dozhd.
Some Ukrainians have since made the move to non-Russian social media, such as Facebook. But given the lack of public confidence in the office of the president—viewed unfavorably by 76 percent of Ukrainians, according to a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.—Poroshenko’s decision to block major online platforms through executive power alone appears especially brazen.
The ban on Russian content and online services has been widely criticized, both within and outside of Ukraine. Euromaidan organizer and parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko wrote on Facebook that it represented an effort to “move the focus of public debate from the fight against corruption to pseudo-patriotism.” Memorial, Russia’s preeminent human rights NGO, also spoke out against the decree, warning that it represented “a step not toward Europe but in the opposite direction.” Reporters Without Borders stressed that “the huge security challenges facing the Ukrainian authorities … in no way justify censorship of this kind,” calling the ban “neither proportionate nor justified in light of the stated aims.”
The ban’s defenders, including parliamentarian Volodymyr Ariev, have reasoned that since Russia’s security services can use sites like Vkontakte—which was effectively acquisitioned by the Kremlin in 2014—to access the data of Ukrainian users who work in government and in the military, drastic action is required. But the scope of the decree’s ban on Russian social media sites undermines that argument, since it is far too broad and extends to ordinary Ukrainians who are not involved in matters of counterintelligence.
Poroshenko’s moves to limit freedom of expression may have drawn international condemnation, but Ukraine’s worst setbacks have been on the anti-corruption front, where activists and reformers have been punished for their efforts to expose graft.
Ongoing proceedings against Roman Nasirov, Ukraine’s tax and customs service chief who is charged with stealing $100 million in tax revenues, are widely viewed as a test of Ukraine’s commitment to fighting corruption since he is one of the first senior-ranking officials to go to trial. But the government has made life exceedingly difficult for anti-corruption activists. In April, Oleksandra Ustinova of the Anti-Corruption Action Center had the flight details of a vacation she had taken—information made available to Ukraine’s security services by a recent law—leaked to pro-government activists. The same month, Vitaly Shabunin, a colleague of Ustinova’s, accused the SBU of organizing a picket near his house. Other activists’ homes have been raided by the SBU, one of several trends made all the more striking by the security services’ inaction regarding, and even apparent involvement in, high-profile murders like that of investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet in July 2016.
Those fighting corruption from within the government have not been spared, either. In April, Valeriya Gontareva, a former governor of Ukraine’s central bank whose economics reforms have been called “fantastic” by the International Monetary Fund and who oversaw the reduction of central bank bureaucracy, quit her job after what she described as “three years of sustained harassment” that included death threats from oligarchs impacted by her nationalization of Ukrainian banks. In her words, these institutions were fraudulent, and ranged from “zombie banks without any assets … only liabilities” to “money laundering machines.”
There has been little progress, moreover, in the pursuit of justice against the allies of former president Viktor Yanukovych, such as Yuriy Boyko, a former vice prime minister and energy minister accused of embezzlement, and Yuriy Chmyr, a deputy chief of staff to Yanukovych under investigation for his involvement in state repression during Euromaidan. Worse still, some anti-corruption activists say that backroom deals are being made between those allies and the prosecutor-general’s office—the same office that recently lashed out at Transparency International, accusing its Ukrainian branch of attempts at “discrediting the whole country” for its coverage of the government’s failure to prosecute Yanukovych-era crimes. The IMF, for its part, sided with Transparency International, noting in a November 2016 report that “tangible results in prosecuting and convicting corrupt high-level officials and recovering proceeds from corruption have yet to be achieved.”
The Ukrainian government’s preference for fighting anti-corruption activists, rather than corruption itself, has not gone unnoticed by the EU. Hughes Mingarelli, the head of its delegation to Ukraine, recently cautioned Ukraine that it was exhibiting “a worrying trend reminiscent of past and gloomy times for the country.”
To be sure, Ukraine is closer to EU membership than it was at the end of Yanukovych’s presidency. Since the provisional application of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area in January 2016, which opened parts of the EU’s internal market to Ukraine, Kiev has adopted several legislative acts that have brought its trade-related legal framework closer to that of Brussels. Only last month, its efforts in meeting all the benchmarks under the Visa Liberalization Action Plan were rewarded with visa-free travel throughout the Schengen Area for Ukrainian citizens. In a speech celebrating the long-awaited visa-free regime, Poroshenko declared that it represented the “conclusion of [Ukraine’s] break with the Russian empire and of that of the democratic Ukrainian world with the authoritarian Russian world.”
The West should continue to support Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists in the east and in its efforts to reform the country. But it must also use all means necessary to prevent Ukrainian democracy from falling victim to Kiev’s imitation of democracy. This includes finding ways to push Poroshenko and his government harder, making any future aid conditional on the development of effective administrative and judicial systems, and providing additional support to civil society. As it stands, Poroshenko’s behavior threatens Ukraine’s European future and risks a return to its illiberal past.