This is not what Zelenskyy promised in his presidential campaign of 2019, blaming former President Poroshenko for not reforming and personally controlling the court system. Today Zelenskyy bears personal responsibility for these recent notorious cases: he directly appointed both the Prosecutor General and the Head of Security Service of Ukraine. They define the policy of law enforcement agencies.
These proceedings have thus far not overly endangered the freedom of speech. Ukrainian law allows no imprisonment for posts in social media and recent court hearings already ruled in favor of Poiarkov on 29 January. However, such attacks have dealt a blow to Zelenskyy’s reputation.
Did they really threaten to kill Zelenskyy?
The search and proceedings against Marusia Zvirobiy, a Ukrainian military volunteer who had from the first months of the war in Donbas organized a training field for future soldiers, and then joined the ranks of the army herself, started on 28 November. Marusia Zvirobiy together with Ukrainian singer and opposition European Solidarity MP Sofiya Fedyna streamed a 45-minute-long video from a café in Lviv where they blasted Zelenskyy for many reasons, including his controversial decision to disengage Ukrainian troops at the frontline with the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” in eastern Ukraine. The decision was criticized by Ukrainians who believed this would make the Ukrainian troops more vulnerable while the adversary had no intention of making peace. Among others, the video contains the following words:
“The difference between you and Poroshenko is that those who disliked Poroshenko wanted him in jail while those who dislike you want you to perish… Do you understand that there were people shelled in the war while you were laughing here at the values of Ukraine? They were dying there for these values, losing arms and legs. They will blow you up there, I promise you. I wish you would visit the frontline often…. There, a grenade can explode, and you know, shellings happen there absolutely by accident. And honestly speaking, it would be best if you visited during the Moscow shellings…”
As well, Sofiya Fedyna expressed her indignation with Zelenskyy’s scandalous conversation with war veterans in Zolote in October 2019, where Zelenskyy had an emotional outburst directed at a veteran of the Azov military regiment who protested the disengagement of Ukrainian troops. In the video, Fedyna says that the president behaves as though he thinks he’s immortal, noting that “not even all the separatists” allowed themselves to speak this way with the Ukrainian military.
“Somebody thinks he’s immortal,” Fedyna summed up.
Political positions may differ, but such words are not a reason for criminal proceedings. As Serhiy Poiarkov also commented on Marusia’s and his cases:
“A person can say everything about their attitudes or wishes. Attitudes or wishes differ dramatically from real intentions or preparations to do something. A desire for somebody to perish? Excuse me, many people say similar things to each other every day. This doesn’t mean they commit a crime.”
Following the logic of the Prosecutor’s office and State Bureau of Investigation, everybody can be accused of “threatening to kill the president” after harsh political critique or even jokes (jokes about death are quite popular in Ukraine). That is precisely what happened to Serhiy Poiarkov, Ukrainian artist, blogger, and master of political satire.
Poiarkov has criticized all of Ukraine’s presidents in his jokes. “Yet it seems Zelenskyy wants to outmatch Yanukovych [who was exiled during the Euromaidan Revolution – ed]”, says Poiarkov, recalling the period of 2010-2013 when he also had to protect his freedom of speech in the courts.
On 27 January 2020, Poiarkov told publicly that charges were brought against him by the Security Service. He was outraged that the Security Service has no more important tasks than to monitor jokes on his blog. On 29 January, court hearings already took place: luckily, the prosecutor’s absurd claims were rejected by the judge.
“When the prosecutor was reading the charges, the whole court laughed,” Poiarkov recalls. “They accused me of threatening to kill the president because in October I made a video where I play a parody on Liashko [radical Ukrainian politician]. Liashko in this comedy said that he will tear Zelenskyy into pieces if Zelenskyy sells Ukrainian land. That’s all. It wasn’t even my personal statement but a spectacle.”
Such jokes are child’s play compared to comments regularly made by Ukrainian politicians. For instance, pro-Russian former MP Mykhailo Dobkin, for instance, called to hang ex-President Petro Poroshenko, ex-NSDC secretary Oleksandr Turchynov, former Parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy, and Svoboda party leader Oleh Tiahnybok on the air of the ZIK TV channel. These unequivocal claims were left without any reaction by the authorities. The comedy club that Zelenskyy led before becoming president, Kvartal 95, is also no stranger to inflammatory rhetoric. As Poiarkov himself said while commenting on the criminal case against him, his joke is a “light version, like 20%” of what Kvartal 95 did.
Another incident of criticism of Zelenskyy did not result in criminal prosecution, but On 30 January, Roman Kovaliov, an officer in the Ukrainian army, received an official reprimand over a Facebook post critical of Zelenskyy. The post was later deleted, but the reprimand was nevertheless issued. It says:
“the officer … Roman Kovaliov, on 14 January 2020 posted on his Facebook page a message of a negative character directed at President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in which he expressed dissatisfaction with the results of the work of the President of Ukraine and called on him to leave his office.”
While military personnel is obliged to perform the orders of the Commander in Chief, there is and can be no limitation on the freedom of expression outside of service.
“So this is how much Zelenskyy fears criticism… You boys are going too far. You can wind a spring only so far,” wrote Ukrainian veteran Oleksandr Pohrebytskyi while sharing this story.
As soon as this story went public, higher military personnel directly under Zelenskyy’s control started to put pressure on Roman Kovaliov, the officer, and prevent him from moving higher in his career. Also, state-controlled bots started to disseminate negative information about himself, Roman claimed.
Why does Zelenskyy fear criticism?
Neither Zelenskyy nor officials he appointed him commented about any of these cases. Marusia Zvirobiy even asked Zelenskyy for a personal meeting, claiming that such criminal proceedings against veterans are “a matter of national security.” This received no reaction from the president or his office. Only MPs from Zelenskyy’s ruling Servant of the People party commented on the issue while discussing whether to allow the probe against Sofiya Fedyna, the MP from the oppositional European Solidarity who filmed a video together with Marusia Zvirobiy (on 5 February, Fedyna was also informed of charges being brought against her, which European Solidarity called a “persecution of the opposition”). In particular, Vasylevska-Smahliuk said on 29 November,
“It seems to me that we have such a strong freedom of speech in our country that now would be the time to muffle it a bit, to filter your speech out of respect to the institution of the presidency.”
These words hinted that Zelenskyy and his Servant of the People party are unprepared to face criticism, which is an essential quality for anybody doing politics in a democratic state. Even an ideal president will have some kind of opposition in society since it is impossible to satisfy everyone. However, recent facts show that the new authorities attempt to limit freedom of speech.
Article 346 of the Criminal Code, which both Serhiy Poiarkov and Marusia Zvirobiy are accused of violating, envisions five years of imprisonment for threatening to kill a statesperson. These cases demonstrate that Zelenskyy perceives criticism or jokes against himself as a threat.
Serhiy Poiarkov claims that Zelenskyy’s officials attacked him because they realize that there are millions of people who are not so brutal and open but thinking the same way he does. And authorities want to frighten others. Poiarkov also explains Zelenskyy’s anxiety about any criticism by professional distortion:
A person who has always seen an applauding public cannot accommodate another role. It disorients him. Politicians,… they also have professional distortions. They should have thick skin for any criticism. They should react decently, not as an abused child, but as an adult, experienced politician.”
As Marusia Zvirobiy said, such cases lead to a radical loss of support for Zelenskyy, referring to her regiment, where almost half of the soldiers supported Zelenskyy during elections, but nobody trusts him anymore. Trying to advise Zelenskyy, Marusia said that the difference between Ukraine and Russia is that when police attack people in Russia they scatter, while in Ukraine, they gather together.
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