With its crucial May 25 presidential election just days away, Ukraine is in the throes of a human rights crisis, with serious violations on both sides. Rumors and deliberate misinformation are only making the situation worse.
Russia could use its influence with insurgents in eastern Ukraine to stop their abuses, but instead has used wild exaggeration to further other political aims. For their part, foreign governments and international organizations that are influential in Kiev need to do more to ensure that Kiev addresses human rights violations in a number of areas.
The insurgents who have effectively seized power in parts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions are seeking to silence or drive out people who oppose them. They have kidnapped, beaten, and threatened dozens of people, from local officials and people who took part in the Maidan protests to people affiliated with far-right nationalist parties and outspoken journalists. Now that Ukrainian paramilitaries have formed and are active in the area, there is a further risk of abuses.
Russia has insisted that it has nothing to do with the insurgents in eastern Ukraine. But it’s clear that Russia has been very actively exacerbating anxiety among Ukrainians who don’t trust Kiev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 18 speech contained several crucial exaggerations. For example, he claimed that Kiev was trying to “forcefully assimilate Russians” and “deny them historical memory,” but that was only the beginning. On several occasions high-level Russian officials and state media have publicly misused the term “genocide” in describing the situation for Russian speakers in Ukraine, ignoring and distorting the facts on the ground. There is plenty to criticize in Kiev’s failures to address human rights abuses and crimes committed by ultranationalist paramilitaries. But any attempt to pass this off as genocide is simply scaremongering at its worst.
Russian officials and media liberally refer to Kiev’s counterinsurgency operations in the east as “punitive operations.” Kiev’s forces may indeed have committed violations in these operations. But to call the operations “punitive” conveniently ignores the fact that there is an armed insurrection in the east. Moreover, as Russia may remember from its own experience in the 1990s, states have the right to use proportionate force to put down such challenges.
The events in Mariupol on May 9 illustrate another propaganda battleground. At least seven people died when Ukrainian security forces fired into an unarmed crowd and earlier in the day tried to dislodge insurgents from a police station. Some Russian state media, however, immediately started saying that “hundreds” had been killed. That’s the lens through which Russian state television has portrayed recent events in Slovyansk. In a recent news broadcast, a reporter described the killing of a man allegedly by the Ukrainian National Guard, intoning that “every day civilians are dying.” But the segment used footage from a 2012 shootout in the North Caucasus as the backdrop. The network head said it was a simple mistake. In a recent report, the Russian human rights group Memorial said that Russian state television’s Channel One reported on May 14 that Kramotorsk, a town in eastern Ukraine, was being shelled daily and that people’s only hope for survival was their basements. Yet Memorial was in Kramotorsk all day on May 14, and there was no shelling or shooting at all. It’s no wonder propaganda tracking has become a cottage industry.
The White Book published by Russia’s foreign ministry is another case in point. It is a compendium of genuinely frightening incidents, perpetrated allegedly either by the Kiev authorities or Ukrainian ultra-nationalists. But it is almost completely lacking in documentation. It is one thing to compile a compendium of allegations. But it is another to claim, without supporting documentation, that it “clearly demonstrates…widespread and gross violations of human rights and freedoms on the part of the self-proclaimed [Kiev] government and its supporters” that “may erupt into a serious threat to regional peace and security and lead to further escalation.”
The propaganda hasn’t been all one-sided. A recent Moscow Times article compiled the top 10 myths that have cycled through the media, each one ratcheting up panic. Two examples worth noting are the statement by the Ukrainian security service that insurgents in Donetsk planned to blow up a local water reservoir, and a Russian foreign ministry statement alleging that migrant detention centers under construction were in fact “fascist concentration camps.” There is also no shortage of doctored photos, videos, and the like to support each side’s distortions.
Despite Russia’s claims not to have influence on insurgents in the east, the role Moscow played in the release of the captured military monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) suggests otherwise. Russia needs to use its influence to persuade the insurgents to stop the kidnappings, beatings, and threats.
At the same time, Russia’s distortions should not distract from the urgent need for Kiev to address its own human rights violations and hold accountable those responsible for violence against anti-Kiev protesters. All too frequently in recent months, the interim authority has done very little to try to calm the situation as pro- and anti-Kiev demonstrators and activists attacked each other.
The most violent incident was on May 2 in Odessa, when a pro-unity rally descended into violent mayhem, with both sides attacking each other with wooden bats, chunks of asphalt, Molotov cocktails, and firearms. The pro-Kiev side eventually attacked a group of anti-Kiev protesters who had been camped out for months and had sought cover in a nearby building. The building was set on fire, probably by a Molotov cocktail, which resulted in the deaths of at least 42 people. The government has started an investigation, but its tendency to absolve the pro-unity side of wrongdoing does not inspire confidence, to say the least. The United Nations and the OSCE, whose human rights entities have been on the ground in Ukraine, as well as the European Union and the U.S. government, which have obvious influence in Kiev, should closely scrutinize the investigation and make sure that the people responsible for these deaths face justice.
Similarly, the Ukrainian authorities’ responses to human rights violations by law enforcement agencies and to nationalist violence suggest that it is not serious about addressing either. For example, Kiev has yet to account for how a lurid photo of Igor Kakidzyanov, the “defense minister” of the eastern “Donetsk People’s Republic,” appeared on social media after his arrest. Kiev also has yet to explain why the radical nationalist presidential candidate Oleh Lyashko appeared in the photo and whether an investigation has been opened into Lyashko’s claims that he “interrogated” Kakidzyanov.
Despite many promises by EU and U.S. officials to look into the matter, the silence from Kiev only raises questions about how many other cases the authorities in Kiev are ignoring. Nor is it clear what, if anything, key partners have said to Kiev authorities to persuade them not to go forward with unjust laws banning certain individuals from holding public office. These laws are both incompatible with Kiev’s human rights obligations and will go one step further toward alienating people in the east. Kiev needs to address many other problems, such as the detention and deportation of a number of Russian journalists.
For obvious reasons, Ukraine’s interim authorities are in a state of complete disarray. But its allies and partners will do Kiev no favors by giving it a pass on human rights.