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Authoritarianism should not be allowed to take root – no matter where it might appear

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to envision what the consequences could be

Vladislav Inozemtsev
Tuesday 14 September 2021 17:43 BST
Ukraine has sought to sanction a number of individuals
Ukraine has sought to sanction a number of individuals (iStock/Getty Images)

Democracy and a free media are under assault in many parts of the world – from Myanmar to Russia, from China to Latin America. The authorities in dozens of countries use arbitrary means to strengthen their grip over the people doing this with increasing sophistication.

In Russia – where parliamentary elections should be held from 17-19 September – the Kremlin implemented what it calls the "foreign agent" law claiming it is like the one established in the US by the Foreign Agent Registration Act. In fact, any NGO, media outlet, or even a private person may be designated as a "foreign agent" if it or they get any amount of "foreign financing" from anywhere.

Back in 2015, the Dynasty Foundation distributing grants for the young Russian natural scientist and set up by a well-known Russian philanthropist, Dmitry Zimin, founder of the nation’s largest mobile operator, Vimpelcom, was added to the list of "foreign agents" thanks to the bank accounts that supported it being based abroad. The foundation terminated its operations the same year). Golos [Voice], an election monitoring NGO, was also named "foreign agent" because it was awarded the $50,000 Sakharov Freedom Award by Norwegian Helsinki Committee in 2012. Golos said it had not accepted the prize money.

This year, at least 20 media outlets (among them Dozhd’ TV, The Insider website, business portal and Vazhnye Istorii [Important Stories]) were handed the "foreign agent" tag. The decision is made by the Ministry of Justice and can be (in theory) appealed at the court – but there haven’t been any successful case of this kind for years.

Media designated as "foreign agents" can work – but their articles and videos should be marked in a special way even if used by others; advertisers should mention they collaborate with the "foreign agent", the journalists and other employees can be denied participation in almost any public activity across the country.

But just across the border, in Ukraine, since February, 2021, up to one hundred individuals and around ten organizations have been put on a "sanctions list" – all by National Security and Defense Council. Currently these "sanctions" are applied to three Verkhovna Rada parliament deputies and to several media outlets, among which I would mention website with 24.5 million visits per month and three national TV channels (112 Ukraine, Zik and NewsOne). The three TV channels are connected to Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian figure – who made Russian president Vladimir Putin godfather to his daughter – and has been accused of spreading misinformation by the Ukrainian government. He has also faced sanctions from the US since 2014.

Like in Russia all this happens without either a judicial decision or an act of parliament: the "sanctions" do not follow court rulings – they are effectively substituting them. But what differs this situation from Russia's is that in Ukraine they are immediately disconnected from the broadcasting networks with their websites blocked (the journalists of have been changing their domain name). The judicial protection in all the existing cases appears as ineffective as in Russia: no decision of the kind has been overturned by courts so far.

I would not argue that Ukraine is turning into an authoritarian state resembling Russia – Ukraine has a right to protect its national interests – but I believe that "sanctioned" individuals can be held accountable if that is required under existing Ukrainian law.

My issue is about where this could lead – in terms of media freedom in general and the potential for authoritarianism. I see these moves as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky seeking to reinforcing his grip on power. This trend may – and should – rise certain concerns among Ukraine’s allies.

The UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan, raised concerns with Ukrainian authorities about the potential effect on freedom of expression in June of this year, meanwhile there were other calls for the matter to be raised in a recent meeting between Zelensky and US President Joe Biden, but there was nothing afterwards to suggest that had been the case.

For around twenty years the United States supported the government of Afghanistan which appeared to be so deeply and inefficient that it did not last long once the Taliban started its "march on Kabul" just several weeks ago. President Biden then made clear that the US would not engage in further attempts at nation-building abroad. But as Ukraine remains America’s and Europe’s most reliable ally in Eastern Europe, western governments should prevent it from slipping further down this road.

If the west doesn’t want to see its efforts aimed on transforming Ukraine fail in coming years, it should keep a careful eye on events. Russia’s recent history presents a perfect case what may happen if values and principles start to fall by the wayside.

Vladislav L Inozemtsev is a special advisor to MEMRI’s Russian media studies project

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