By Mykola Riabchuk
Within the past half year, the Security Service of Ukraine seems to have become the major national and, increasingly, international newsmaker. Every week they vigorously remind us that they do exist and do not waste the taxpayers money in idling. They boldly fight the enemies of the state, both domestic and alien. Their stated goal is to ensure ‘stability’ which, alongside ‘reforms’, is the much-trumpeted buzzword of the new Ukrainian president and his team.
Concerning the ‘reforms’, so far, we cannot say much – unless we count the increased taxes and tariffs as their most tangible proof. Yet, the ‘stability’ is quite noticeable and even praised occasionally by some Wesetrn leaders who are not much concerned with its price. It has nothing to do with law and order, as some Westerners may believe. Rather, it is a well-ordered lawlessness that in neighboring Russia has acquired the respectable name of ‘managed democracy’ and that in Yanukovych’s native Donbass is defined more colloquially as ‘poniatiya’.
So, if one guesses that the SBU fights the rampant corruption in the top echelons of power, or digs into obscure energy schemes that, like gangrene, have poisoned the whole of Ukraine’s body since independence, or tries to curb countless Russian spies and provocateurs that feel as comfortable in Ukraine as at home, one is definitely wrong. The main target of SBU is the national civil society and anyone from abroad who may support it. Hence, every week, on a regular basis, we get reports about the SBU agents’ assaults on NGO activists and opposition politicians, journalists and historians, rectors and students, political experts and disobedient businessmen.
There is no information about this on the major national TV channels subordinated effectively to the government and, ironically, to the SBU chief himself, Valery Khoroshkovsky, who de facto owns nearly 30% of the TV market. But the Internet is growling, statements are made, petitions signed, and the picketers regularly come to the SBU headquarters in different cities to protest against the apparent ‘KGB-zation’ of the new-old institution.
The authorities’ response is mixed and confusing. Sometimes they apologize for the alleged ‘mistake’ or ‘misunderstanding’, sometimes they downplay the incident as their opponents’ exaggeration or pure invention, sometimes – as in the recent story with historian Ruslan Zabilyi – they insist on the righteousness and legitimacy of the undertaken measures. This incoherence may well be a result either of the low competence of the SBU staff, or indicate serious hidden rifts between various centers of seemingly monolithic and monopolistic power. Or, most likely, both.
Yuri Butusov, a leading Ukrainian expert in the field, argues in Dzerkalo tyzhnia that poor professionalism and large-scale involvement in business activity (i.e., corruption, to put it bluntly) is only a part of the SBU’s problems. Another part, he suggests, is Khoroshkovsky. As a major Ukrainian businessman with no experience in security service but great talents of opportunism he might be well responsible for both the dilettantism of the SBU ‘undercover operations’ (‘prophylactics’, as they call it in KGB mode) and for its alleged involvement in murky business. All these features had been rather conspicuous in the SBU under all of his predecessors. What is new now, however, is Mr. Khoroshkovsky’s peculiar connections with Russian businesses, including notorious RosUkrEnergo, and with Russian politicians.
An unnamed insider from the Ukrainian counter-intelligence, cited by Yuri Butusov, says that the SBU policy looks illogical only from the ‘normal’ criteria, that is from the point of view of the national interest. «But if we take a look at the foreign policy priorities of the Ukrainian leadership, at the personal connections of the SBU head and his political status, at the kind of persons harassed by the SBU, you would find an iron logic in everything. Valery Ivanovych attends the president and submits his reports every second day. And every time he brings new proofs of his personal loyalty. The number of enemies of the regime grows up and the value of Mr. Khoroshkovsky as the security chief increases respectively… The SBU methods are shocking from the point of view of pro-western policies of the past years. But everything looks absolutely differently, if you look at them from the point of view of Russia».
So, Butusov sums up, if Khoroshkovsky has the strategic task to prove the closest integration with Russia and demonstrate full support for its policies in Ukraine, he fulfills this mission perfectly. A few months ago, an FSB colonel Vladimir Noskov who was detained along with his associates last year at the Transdnistrian border, during the armed attempt to kidnap a Ukrainian security officer, was released – despite the full and unambiguous evidence of a violent crime and without due court decision on the matter. A personal conversation between Mr. Khoroshkovsky and FSB head Aleksandr Bortnikov was all it took to undermine Ukrainian law and abuse a moral duty toward the officer who risked his life during the operation.
The personal role of the Ukrainian president in all these shenanigans, however, remains unclear. Many experts believe that Yanukovych has neither political will nor skill, neither vision nor competence to pursue an independent pro-active policy. And therefore he becomes the prey of a narrow clique who inform or, rather, misinform him in a manipulative way. The head of his staff Serhiy Liovochkin is believed to be an ally of Khoroshkovsky and Dmytro Firtash, a co-owner of RosUkrEnergo, which also signifies murky Russian connections, greatly facilitated now by the ‘friendship’ of the security services of both countries.
Whatever the real constellation of power, Yanukovych seems to be pretty comfortable with Khoroshkovsky, apparently unaware of how SBU policies tarnish his political image, both domestically and internationally. There are many signs, however, that not all his associates are satisfied with these policies and that factional infighting within the Party of Region may come to the surface. Such dissatisfaction might not be sufficient for a change of policy and is even less likely to bring about a change of regime. But, if combined with a popular dissatisfaction and mass pressure on the regime, then changes may happen.
Re-KGBization of SBU is definitely bad news, which seems to be the prevailing pattern today from Ukraine. But on the positive side, there is a surprising resilience in society, a growing resistance to intimidation and blackmail, and an impressive readiness of many people to report immediately the SBU pressure and to mobilize the public support for their cause.
Authoritarian rulers, and especially their security services, used to exploit people’s fear and carry out semi-legal activity in the shadows of silence. Now, Ukrainians seem to be learning how to switch on the light and expose the dirty tricks of the authorities before the public. In one sense, it is not the SBU that has become the major newsmaker under Yanukovych. It is the Ukrainian people, a common folk, who are the real newsmakers through their brave response to the KGB-like maneuvers of SBU agents.