Ukrainian oligarch and lawyer Victor Medvedchuk (left) and poet Vasyl Stus, one of several dissidents Medvedchuk “defended” in the former Soviet courts. Source: TSN
So far, pro-Russian or presidential officials in Ukraine have won none of the lawsuits filed against media that showed them in a bad light. This leaves a degree of optimism. However, the number of attempts to put restraints on media in Ukraine continues to grow with each new court proceeding launched against journalists, military volunteers, and historians.
The latest example is a suit filed against online magazine Bukvy by President Vladimir Putin’s crony and pro-Russian oligarch Victor Medvedchuk. The suit was filed several months ago but the first significant court hearings took place today, on 13 February 2020. The lawsuit concerns an article about the Ukrainian film Zaboronenyi. In the film, Medvedchuk is depicted as a soviet defence lawyer who facilitates the imprisonment of Ukrainian dissidents. This, in fact, was the real-life role of Medvedchuk, as recorded in the testimonies of other falsely convicted dissidents, and in court protocols.
Generally, Ukrainian courts have become a battlefield on three fronts:
- On one front, subordinated to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. Officials are suing Ukrainian blogger Serhiy Pojarkov, Ukrainian military volunteer Marusia Zvirobiy, and are putting pressure on Ukrainian military officer Roman Kovaliov for their publications and posts that are critical of the president.
- On the second front, deputy head of ousted President Yanukovych’s administration (2010-2014). Andriy Portnov filed several lawsuits against former president Petro Poroshenko and other officials of the post-Maidan parliament and government. He accuses them of alleged state treason or corruption. These cases, however, are an act of vengeance for the Revolution of Dignity when the whole of Yanukovych’s administration, including Portnov, was expelled. Portnov is also filing lawsuits that may lead to prosecution of the political opposition at the time or to justify mass killings of protesters by police in 2014.
- Finally, on the third, Putin’s crony and pro-Russian oligarch Victor Medvedchuk. He has filed lawsuits against historian Vakhtang Kipiani, as well as media outlets, for publishing so-called “shameful” articles regarding Medvedchuk’s law career during the Soviet Union, when he ostensibly “defended” Ukrainian dissidents.
Although courts didn’t rule against freedom of speech, with some investigations and even more court hearings languishing for months, desolation sets in. The wrongly accused not only lose time, but are at risk of losing their creative passion. Moreover, the example of such cases could intimidate others from openly and truthfully expressing their opinions or political beliefs.
Victor Medvedchuk’s attitude toward Ukrainians
Victor Medvedchuk is a Ukrainian oligarch and people’s deputy (legislator) from the pro-Russian political party Opposition Platform — For Life. Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter — the significance of which should not be lost on anyone.
Opposition Platform, as Medvedchuk himself demonstrates, promotes a vision of Ukraine being closely affiliated with Russia. They advocate for dominance of the Russian language and culture in Ukraine, as opposed to that of Ukrainian. Party leaders, including Medvedchuk, visit Moscow often, regardless of the ongoing hybrid war with Russia. Party representative Yulia Liovochkina consistently votes in favor of Russia in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). She does so against the interests of Ukraine and contrary to all other voting members of the Ukrainian delegation.
In an interview with the BBC, Medvedchuk openly stated that his perception of most Ukrainians is negative, adding that 46% of them have a negative attitude towards him:
“Well, that’s ok. I have a bad attitude toward them as well. How could it be different … 60% in Ukraine consider Russia to be an aggressor, and I don’t think so. Should I be among that 60%? No, I will be in the other part.”
As outlined in detail in the previous article about Medvedchuk, during the dissident trials, only lawyers affiliated with the KGB were assigned the most important political cases. According to Hryhoriy Omelchenko, and archival materials provided by him, Medvedchuk loyally served the KGB.
Medvedchuk’s court actions in the Stus trial prove that he worked against the Ukrainian people and for the Soviet regime. During the hearings, Medvedchuk was required to defend Stus, but did nothing. He should have rigorously defended Stus, as was required by Soviet law. Even though that law was restrictive, it could have been manoeuvred to his client’s benefit. Medvedchuk, however, did not support any petitions made by Stus.
In the case against dissident Mykola Kuntsevych, not only did Medvedchuk fail to defend him, but he went so far as to request that the prosecutor add the previous term of conviction to the current one, making the full term 21 months longer.
What is Medvedchuk bringing as a new lawsuit
Ukrainian poet and dissident Vasyl Stus was commemorated with renewed vigor in 2019, with the release of two important works. These were a film in the genre of biographical drama, Zaboronenyi, and a history book, The Case of Vasyl Stus. The latter was based on archival materials by Vakhtanh Kipiani.
Both the film and book criticize the role of defence lawyer Viktor Medvedchuk in the final trial brought against Stus in 1980. Stus was sentenced to 15 years of forced labor in Siberia, during which he died under suspicious circumstances. His crime was to criticize the Soviet regime in his publications, culminating in his scathing collection of verses Cheerful Cemetery. The title perfectly reflects Stus’s attitude to the Soviet Union.
Following the release of the tributary film and book in 2019, Medvedchuk filed lawsuits, claiming the works contained false facts and thus caused damage to his reputation.
Initially, as revealed by the filmmakers, they were contacted by “Medvedchuk’s administration,” and warned that if they did not cut all the footage on Medvedchuk they would face serious consequences — provocations — and would not be able to complete their project. However, as soon as the threats were made public, civil society activists launched a protest and thwarted his attempts. As a result, the scenes with Medvedchuk remained in the film.
In October 2019, Medvedchuk filed the lawsuit against historian Vakhtanh Kipiani, demanding that he cut certain content from his book or face a total ban.
Filing a lawsuit is not an uncommon form of vindictiveness. However, much more harmful for Kipiani has been the delay for the actual hearing. It has now lasted half a year, despite the absurdity of Medvedchuk’s charges and his unconstitutional attempts to ban the book.
The same retaliation may await the online magazine Bukvy. On 6 February, Bukvy published an article affirming that Medvedchuk had filed a lawsuit against them as well.
The charges against Bukvy are just as absurd as in the Kipiani case. Medvedchuk was dissatisfied with the following sentence in the article on Zaboronenyi:
“During the trial, Medvedchuk violated a lawyer’s ethics by purporting his client’s [Stus] guilt, contrary to the client.”
Medvedchuk’s representative claims that in 1980 Medvedchuk conducted the case in accordance with the legislation of that time. He asserts that nobody could have opposed the “system” then.
However, the representative would have known that no lawyer was forced to partner with the KGB for personal benefits, and therefore be subject to their control. It was Medvedchuk’s personal choice to advance his career through such an affiliation. The responsibility lies with him.
People have the right to learn the truth about this oligarch who wields his power through the two Ukrainian TV stations he owns — not to mention the influence he can exert as a member of parliament.
Medvedchuk’s lawsuits against those journalists and historians who have exposed his role in the case against Stus, are not the only of his malicious lawsuits. Earlier, he reacted in the same manner, and sued other publications that had ostensibly “damaged his reputation.”
No case, however, has been as significant as this current one. Clearly, the fight between Vasyl Stus, a dissident, and a soviet lawyer is not yet over. Publicizing the truth still bears ramifications for journalists who — at the very least — are robbed of weeks and in some cases months of their lives and creativity that can never be regained.
The real blame, however, lies at the feet of parliamentarians and the president, who have neglected to create a court system that would reject such bogus cases outright. Recent lawsuits against Ukrainian blogger Vitaliy Pojarkov or military volunteer Marusia Zvirobiy are more indication of their failure to do so.
Zelenskyy’s team is also at fault. Despite his pre-election promises, the new president prefers to use the courts for political persecution rather than to reform them. Yet, this was exactly his criticism of former President Petro Poroshenko,
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