On 3 June, the new Ukrainian government headed by Viktor Yanukovych celebrated its first 100 days in power. It marked this by banning opposition forces from making public demonstrations of dissent. The grand palace, from where Yanukovych addressed the nation that day, was cordoned off with perimeter fencing; and only supporters of his party were allowed inside. This was, of course, what happened when Parliament voted on a law that allowed the Russian Black Sea fleet to remain in Ukraine until 2042.
Ukraine, it would seem, is turning into a country of siloviks. A country of burly security officers, unashamedly trying to earn brownie points from their new paymasters. They want to keep them happy, so they develop new ways of protecting their seniors from any conceivable threat.
Is Soviet-style surveillance returning to Ukraine? Photo (cc) Antonis Shen
Occasionally this has scandalous results. One such incident took place recently in Lviv, when an employee of SBU, the Ukrainian Security Services, called on the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, Borys Gudziak. The purpose of this visit was, apparently, to warn the rector that it might, perhaps, be better if his students were to decide not to take part in acts of protest against the current government. The officer also wanted the rector to sign off on an unspecified document.
Demonstrating students, you understand, irritate Viktor Yanukovych and his team. His controversial pro-Russian Eductation Minister Dmitry Tabachnik has already been on the receiving end of a full-blown and theatrical campaign. The students’ "anti-Tabachny" movement [playing on "anti-tobacco" campaigns – ed] captured the imagination of many Ukrainians, and Tabachnik was apparently personally very offended by it.
Yanukovych and his team were due to visit Lviv the day after the SBU officer dropped by the Rector's office. It would seem that the officer was motivated by a desire to protect his immediate bosses from the unpleasant conversations with Kiev superiors that would undoubtedly have followed any student demonstrations.
Perhaps it is a conversation that the officer had with rectors of other universities, and only Borys Gudziak dared to say anything about it. His university has a religious focus, and its contacts with government are absolutely minimal, which might explain why he was prepared to go into such detail about the SBU officer's visit.
The Rector's text received great publicity in Ukraine. The head of the SBU, Valery Khoroshovsky has begun a damage-limitation exercise. In an interview with a leading newspaper, he claimed his subordinate was simply looking to carry out anti-crime initiatives. And on the matter of signing off on documents? Khoroshovsky insisted his officer "simply wanted to confirm that he had done his job properly". Aside from heading the SBU, by the way, Khoroshovsky also owns the popular TV channel Inter. It is already many months now since that channel's news networks have broadcast materials in any way critical of the government. -- A.B.
On May 18 at 9:27 in the morning Fr. Borys Gudziak received a call on his private mobile phone from a representative of the Security Service of Ukraine requesting a meeting. The meeting was scheduled for 20 minutes later at the rectorate of UCU. This official had had contacts with the UCU rectorate a year ago at the time of the visit to the university of the then President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko. He had visited the rectorate in the late afternoon on May 11 with regard to a request of the Ecumenical and Church History Institutes to sign an agreement to use the SBU archives. At that time members of the rectorate were away from the office. He had, what Dr. Antoine Arjakovsky, director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies, called a “very good meeting”.
Upon arrival on May 18 the agent politely explained that certain political parties were planning protests and demonstrations regarding the controversial (and in some cases inflammatory) policies of the new Ukrainian authorities. Students would be involved in these protests. There was a risk that some of the demonstrations might be marred by acts of provocation. He stated that, of course, students are allowed to protest but that the university administration should issue warning that anyone involved in illegal activities would be prosecuted. Illegal activities include not only acts of violence, but also, for example, pickets blocking access to the work place of government officials (or any protests that are not sanctioned by authorities).
After he had said his piece the agent put on the table between us an unfolded one-page letter that was addressed to me. He asked me to read the letter and then acknowledge with a signature my familiarity with its contents. He stated that after I had read and signed the letter it would be necessary for him to take the letter back. Since I could see that the document was properly addressed to me as rector (I also noticed that it had two signatures, giving it a particularly official character) I replied calmly that any letter addressed to me becomes my property and should stay with me -- at least in copy form. Only under these conditions could I agree to even read the letter (much less sign).
Father Borys Gudziak. From official site www.ucu.edu.ua
The agent was evidently taken back by my response. It seemed that the situation for him was without precedent because in my presence he called his (local) superiors on his mobile phone to ask for instructions on how to proceed. The superior refused him permission to leave me either the original letter or a copy, saying that the SBU feared I “might publish it in the internet”. I questioned this entire procedure and the need for secrecy. I refused to look at the letter or read its contents. The young official was disappointed and somewhat confused but did not exert additional pressure or dispute my reasoning.
Our conversation also had a pastoral moment. I said to the agent that, as the former KGB and with many employees remaining from the Soviet times, the SBU has a heavy legacy of breaking and crippling people physically and morally. I cautioned him that, as a young married person, he should be careful not to do anything that could cause lasting damage to himself and shame his children and grandchildren. I sought to express this pastorally as a priest. To his credit he both acknowledged the past and declared his desire to serve the needs of Ukrainian citizens. He also asked that I should tell him if I felt he was exerting inappropriate pressure.
Finally, I expressed my profound disappointment and that of the general public that the work of the SBU is so uneven, that security and police officers live lavishly on low salaries because they are involved in corrupt activities, and that the legal rights of citizens and equal application of the law are severely neglected. I gave the recent example of my cousin, Teodor Gudziak mayor of Vynnyky, who in February 2010 (three days after the election of the new president) was arrested on a trumped up charge of bribery. This was initiated through the regional and city police by a notoriously corrupt political rival and former policemen.
The SBU took no action, although two months before the fabricated affair the mayor (with the support of the Town Council) had given the SBU a video of plainclothes policemen breaking into his office and safe in City Hall in the middle of the night and using town seals on various documents. (The leadership of the Church, specifically Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, fears that this case may be manipulated to compromise the rector of UCU and the whole institution, which has the unique reputation of being free from corruption). I also related that I had reliable testimony and recorded evidence that my phone is tapped and has been for many months.
The population of Ukraine continues to fear and distrust both state security and police personnel: their track record of law enforcement is woeful, police intimidation of honest politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens is widespread and the security institutions and police wantonly extort money from small and medium businesses. I asked the young agent to convey these concerns to his superiors. I had the impression that he personally was open to moral argument but simply doing his job. It was clear to me that he was dutifully “obeying orders.”
During our conversation the agent asked me about the imminent (May 20-22) General Assembly of the Federation of European Catholic Universities (FUCE) that will be hosted by UCU in Lviv. He characterized it as an important event (it has received considerable publicity) and asked about the programme and whether it would be open to the public. It was clear that he would have been interested in participating in the proceedings.
I said that the main theme, “Humanization of society through the work of Catholic universities,” had been published in the mass media, as the outcome of the deliberations would be. The working sessions of the university rectors, however, are not open to the public. I explained that the 211 members of the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU) and the 49 members of FUCE follow the affairs of the only Catholic university in the former Soviet Union closely and are monitoring the welfare of UCU. This has come about because in March, at the annual meeting of the Board of Consultors of IFCU in Japan, I listed some of our socio-political concerns and the threats to the freedom of intellectual discourse. These include the imposition of Soviet versions of history, the rehabilitation of Stalinism and Stalin, to whom a new monument was unveiled in Zaporizhzhia 5 May 2010; also new censorship of the press and television that are incompatible with normal university life.
Subsequently, as had been arranged at the beginning of the meeting, I called in the UCU Senior Vice Rector Dr. Taras Dobko to whom the official repeated the SBU’s concerns.
Besides noting the SBU’s solicitude for stability in Ukrainian society there are a few conclusions to be drawn from the encounter and the proposals that were expressed:
- Signing a document such as the letter that was presented for signature to me is tantamount to agreeing to cooperate (collaborate) with the SBU. The person signing in effect agrees with the contents of the letter and their implication. In KGB practice getting a signature on a document that was drafted and kept by the KGB was a primary method of recruiting secret collaborators.
- Such methods have no known (to me) precedent in independent Ukraine in the experience of UCU and of the Lviv National University whose longtime Rector (and former Minister of Education, 2008–10) Ivan Vakarchuk I consulted immediately after the meeting. These methods were well known in the Soviet times.
- The confiscation of the letter after signature makes the letter and signature instruments to be used at the complete discretion of the SBU.
The possible scenarios for the exploitation of such a document include the following:
a) If a student were to be arrested, the SBU could confront the rectorate with the charge that the university had been informed of the danger to students and had failed to take the necessary measures to protect them from violence or legal harm. In this case the university administration could be held both morally and legally responsible. A charge with legal ramifications could become an instrument to try and force the university to compromise on some important principle (freedom of expression, forms of social engagement and critique, even religious practice, all of which have precedent in recent history). Furthermore, the authorities could use such a pretext to exert a high degree of pressure on the university to curb any and all student protest.
b) After the hypothetical arrest of a student or students, the students and their parents as well as other members of the university community could be shown the document cautioning the administration and counselling it to curb student activities. Since the administration did not ban the activities that became the pretext for the arrest, parents or others could draw the conclusion that the university does not have adequate concern for the welfare of its students. This would be a most effective way of dividing the university community and undermining the university’s reputation among its most important constituents–students.
The apparent genuine surprise of the agent at my refusal to do as requested could mean that he is not used to such a reaction. He had explained to me that he works with clergy on a regular basis. It could be assumed that other clergy (who work with youth, students, etc.) have been approached and that they have not refused to sign such documents.
Measures of this nature create apprehension and unease. They are meant to intimidate university administrations and students. They are part of a whole pattern of practice that is well known to the Ukrainian population. The revival of such practices is a conscious attempt to revive the methods of the Soviet totalitarian past and to re-instil fear in a society that was only just beginning to feel its freedom.
Since only two of the approximately 170 universities of Ukraine have voiced protest regarding recent political and educational developments and many rectors have been marshalled/pressured to express their support regarding the turn of events, it is clear that in recent months fear and compliance with these kinds of requests are rapidly returning to higher education. It can be expected that UCU will be subject to particular attention and possible pressure in the coming months. The solidarity of the international community, especially the academic world, will be important in helping UCU maintain a position of principle regarding intellectual and social freedom.
Speaking and writing openly about these issues is the most peaceful and effective manner of counteracting efforts to secretly control and intimidate students and citizens. As was apparent during this incident, state authorities are particularly sensitive about publicity regarding their activities. Information can have a preemptive, corrective and curing role when it comes to plans to circumscribe civic freedom, democracy, and the basic dignity of human beings.
It should be noted that on 11 May 2010, when Ukrainian students were organizing protest activity in Lviv as well as Kyiv, a representative of the office of Ihor Derzhko, the Deputy Head of the Lviv Regional Administration responsible for humanitarian affairs called the rectorate. He asked for statistics on the number of students participating in the demonstrations. UCU's response was that the university does not know how to count in that way.
Please keep UCU and all the students and citizens of Ukraine in your thoughts and prayers.
Father Borys Gudziak is Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University,Lviv