Ruslan Kotsaba talks to journalists in June 2015. Image still via YouTube.Last Thursday, Ruslan Kotsaba addressed journalists in a west Ukrainian courthouse, tears running down his face. “This is a sign that that madhouse, that chaos that’s happening the east, will soon come to an end.”
Little over a month after the first wave of conscription began in Ukraine in early 2015, the activist blogger was arrested in his hometown of Ivano-Frankivsk. Kotsaba had addressed Ukraine’s president in an “anti-mobilisation” YouTube video a few weeks earlier. Here, he railed against the prospect of traveling into “the hell in the east” to kill his fellow countrymen while the fat cats in parliament and central command grew ever fatter.
Kotsaba’s videos could not have come at a more delicate time. This voice — pacifist, unconventionally patriotic and scandalous — was unwelcome as shocking images emerged from Donetsk airport and Debaltseve. The blogger was charged on suspicion of harming Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and military capabilities, cooperating with the enemy during a period of armed conflict and espionage. In May 2016, Kotsaba, who has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, was sentenced to over three years in prison for obstructing the Ukrainian army.
Kotsaba is far from a cause celebre in post-Maidan Ukraine, but, amid cries of disbelief, he was unexpectedly released from prison under domestic and international pressure on Thursday. Looking back on the past 18 months, it’s worth asking the question: what was Kotsaba really guilty of?
In conditions of undeclared war and an increasingly polarised public sphere in Ukraine, Kotsaba’s action were tantamount to treason — his videos were, apparently, “playing into the hands of Putin”, and that was that.
Soon after Kotsaba was arrested in February 2015, online activists dug up evidence of the journalist’s involvement with Russian federal media. (Indeed, it was a local civic activist from Ivano-Frankivsk who informed Ukraine’s security services of Kotsaba’s treasonous actions in the first place.) Public opinion quickly made it clear that Kotsaba was one of Putin’s “useful idiots”, if not a paid agent of the Kremlin, and Ukraine’s “patriotic majority” soon decried him as “pro-Russian”, or even “neo-Soviet”. As Oles Petik and Halyna Herasym point out, even journalists who highlighted the “Soviet” nature of Kotsaba’s trial were themselves accused of “Soviet sympathies”.
A cursory look at the blogger’s recent history complicates this picture. Kotsaba was active in Ukrainian student protests during the 1980s, and in 2004 he was a local organiser of Orange Revolution protests in his native Ivano-Frankivsk. From materials available online, a picture emerges of a man in thrall to — but somewhat on the margins of — popular nationalist movements. Political analyst Yury Paliychuk described him as a radical nationalist who desperately wanted a place in politics, but at one point “went too far”. Nevertheless, as Tatyana Blizniuk noted at the time, Kotsaba always “had a problem with authority”.
These credentials didn’t matter much in February 2015. Instead, it was the appearances on Russian state media. The warm welcome Kotsaba received on the popular Russian talk show Special Correspondent in January 2015 became evidence of Kotsaba’s treachery — at least, in the public eye. In this interview, Kotsaba discussed his own story and opposition to the government’s “anti-terrorist operation” in the Donbas, describing the conflict as a “civil war” on the basis that he witnessed no Russian regulars, nor any other foreign fighters during his trips to both sides of the frontline in 2014.
For Russian state media, then, Kotsaba was an added bonus. He was a full-throated critic of the “Kyiv regime” — one from the heartlands of “Banderite fascism”, to boot — and one who did not confirm Russian state participation in the war. What’s more, Kotsaba gave soft affirmation to the idea of Donbas separatism, and confirmed various myths about who was fighting on the Ukrainian side.
Who are we to judge?
The story of Kotsaba’s Russian media appearances does not speak of treason, only poor judgment. It later emerged that Kotsaba allowed his YouTube videos, including those from a brief and ill-advised visit to Luhansk during a period of relative calm, to be republished by Russian state media. In one case, to his financial gain. Had Kotsaba suspected spin from his new friends in Russian state media, he was foolish in indulging them.
Instead, we should understand Kotsaba as one of those legion “political commentators” and “independent experts”, which Russian state media drag out of the closet when it suits them. Rightly or wrongly, these bloggers and contrarian analysts feel unheard, and Russian media gives them a voice.
Amid the pressures of war and political crisis, nuance and pluralism tend to get a poor hearing in Ukraine. As several contributors have made it clear on oDR, critics of the Ukrainian government (and more so of the Ukrainian army) are often caught in the binary of patriotism and treachery, and they have faced a shrinking space for critical discussion in recent months — in the case of bloggers like Kotsaba, no matter how clumsy their arguments.
With the exception of Halyna Coynash and the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, Kotsaba’s case — or rather, its implications for democracy — has not had a fair hearing in Ukrainian media. Kotsaba’s emergence as a minor cause celebre in fringe pro-Russian circles online only entrenched existing prejudices against him.
Nobody is perfect, not even prisoners of conscience. The overturning of Kotsaba’s verdict on Thursday should remind us that it’s not only heroes who deserve justice.
Update: in May 2019, a video of Ruslan Kostaba making antisemitic statements in 2011 was uploaded online. Though Mr Kostaba has distanced himself from these statements, the authors would like to make it clear that they in no way condone or accept his views, and reject them in the strongest possible terms.