Pro-presidential PR targets European deputies
Kyiv Post (Ukraine) - 15 November 2010
by Halya Coynash
While even access to information about Ukraine’s murkiest elections in five years was carefully doctored in Ukraine, several members of the European Parliament in Brussels were fed a quite different line - literally.
The expensive dinner hosted by Security Service Head Valery Khoroshkovsky at the Maison du Cygne restaurant in Brussels on Nov. 9 received considerable coverage on Ukrainian Internet sites following a report by Andrew Rettman.
Questions were rightly raised about who financed the event, as well as how the conversation, rather than the cuisine, went down. It is hard to entirely share the satisfaction expressed by some commentators, such as Mykola Knyazhytsky from TVi, that the European parliamentarians do not appear to have been either duped or bribed.
It is most unlikely, after all, that the aim was for them to leave, replete and conned. They were invited for “an exchange of views with guests on reforms of the security sector of Ukraine ….as well as on recent developments in Ukraine after the local elections.” This all sounds reassuringly democratic as do the phrases another member of the European Parliament, Elmar Brok, who met the SBU chief earlier in the week, commented: “He says things like: 'I understand. I see your problem. I will take this into consideration'.
President Viktor Yanukovych and his administration were equally full of such phrases to foreign audiences back in May after the Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University published a memorandum regarding a visitation by an SBU officer. Khoroshkovsky, on the other hand, effectively justified such measures in an interview to a Ukrainian newspaper.
There was roughly the same scenario over the attempt on SBU orders to stop Nico Lange, director of the Kyiv Office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, from returning to Kyiv some three weeks after an article in which Lange spoke of the new regime’s authoritarian tendencies. Germany, and the West in general, were fed the line that this had all been a misunderstanding. A meeting with rather menacing words of warning issued to members of foreign NGOs and formal statements from the SBU for domestic consumption, suggested justification of such measures.
Khoroshkovsky may say “I understand” very convincingly, but the tactics of the security service under his command are increasingly reminiscent of those used by the KGB. These include “prophylactic conversations” with people involved in civic or political activities, surveillance methods, including against foreign journalists and those they have contact with, wrenching a signed undertaking from a blogger not to express criticism of the President in “extreme” form, and the notorious detention and criminal investigation brought against historian, Ruslan Zabily.
It is worth noting that in the first years of his rule Vladimir Putin’s image in the West was also largely positive, while at home his regime stifled freedom of speech and placed Security Service associates in the main positions of power.
There is no information to indicate that questions were raised over dinner about the above-mentioned SBU activities, however British parliamentarian Charles Tannock did apparently suggest that there is a conflict of interests where the head of the SBU is also a media magnate and a member of the High Council of Justice. Now obviously a conversation over hors d’oeuvres hampers debating style, but approval of Khoroshkovsky’s “politician” response and no further questions seems hardly sufficient.
Khoroshkovsky may well not directly run his media holding however his main channel is one of the two most potent pro-regime channels in the country. It also takes a dubious lead, together with the state-owned First National TV, with regard to infringements of journalist standards of independence and truthful reporting. Concerns over the head of the SBU having power over the appointment and dismissal of judges, have been expressed quite unequivocally by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Ukrainian websites were swift to report Khoroshkovsky’s supposed “promise,” reported by Charles Tannock, that he would resign from the Council if this were demanded by the “international community.” It is quite unclear how much more protest is required, yet even less explicable why outrage from within Ukraine to such a serious threat to judicial independence is ignored. .
Tannock states that he was a guest of the Ukrainian Embassy, yet the latter on Nov. 13 denied that they had funded the event. Presumably the “Brussels-based PR firm Glocal Communications” which, according to Andrew Rettman, sent out the invitations, knows who is paying for its services, and what these entail.
Attention has been drawn and quite rightly to the question of efforts by this obscure PR outfit and the present Ukrainian regime to launder its image, presumably at taxpayer’s expense. Those same taxpayers whose votes were rendered meaningless through rigging and obliging court rulings.
It would be well for the MEPs who attended to also ask a question or two, since if the event was funded by Khoroshkovsky, this was most certainly from funds not received as Head of the SBU. Tannock is right that there is more politics involved in Ukraine’s Security Service, than in European countries, yet this is neither at the wish nor for the benefit of the Ukrainian public.
It is not only members of the regime who have focused their attention on Europe as the EU-Ukraine Summit approaches. Despite a steady stream of words like “I understand,” and “we fully support access to public information,” parliament, more specifically Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, show very little willingness to pass a vital draft Law on Access to Public Information. A number of prominent journalists have therefore sent a petition to the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy asking him to raise the issue of this draft bill which is part of Ukraine’s commitments to the Ukrainian public and the Council of Europe.
Members of the European Parliament will help Ukraine far more by avoiding events aimed at providing democratic gloss where none is due, and supporting the Ukrainian people in upholding their right to information and to democratic choice.
Halya Coynash is a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group.