Many of us strongly support the fight of Ukraine against the Russian invasion and have commended Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the heroic leadership that he has shown in the face of this unprovoked and savage attack. Yet, that support should not shield the country or Zelenskyy from criticism whether it involves filming POWs or cracking down on free speech. The latter concern has arisen after Zelenskyy banned Ukraine’s main opposition party and ten other parties. It is hard to criticize the actions of a nation facing annihilation at the hands of a tyrant. However, Putin is carrying out precisely this type of anti-free speech, counter-democratic crackdown in Russia. Ukraine has the moral high ground in this struggle and should not surrender that ground through its own acts of political censorship and suppression.
According to news reports, the decree bans For Life, Left Opposition, Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, Socialist Party of Ukraine, Socialists, Union of Left Forces, Party of Shariy, Opposition Bloc, Ours, State, and Volodymyr Saldo Bloc. All are suspended for at least “the period of the martial law.” This includes the the second most popular political party in Ukraine after Zelensky’s own Servant of the People party in the last election.
Zelenskyy is quoted as saying that “the activities of those politicians aimed at division or collusion will not succeed, but will receive a harsh response.”
Free speech is often attacked for spreading “division or collusion” with one’s enemies. It can take a huge amount of faith in free speech to overcome such impulses, particularly in wartime. However, this is a right that is essential to the guarantee of other rights from free association to the free press. It is the right that defines a nation.
Ukraine has had a turbulent history with democracy. The presidential election of 2004 pushed the country close to civil war. Putin-backed Viktor Yanokovych claimed victory in an extremely close election with claims of voter fraud on both sides. There was an alleged poisoning of his opponent (Yushchenko) by security forces and widespread irregularities. With the “Orange Revolution” protests, a new election was demanded and Yushchenko prevailed.
The country has struggled with free speech guarantees. Political opponents like Viktor Medvedchuk were put under house arrest by Zelenskyy (he later escaped). Zelenskyy also previously banned opposing television channels.
I recognize that it must be infuriating to watch parties expressly or tacitly support an invading power. Yet, that is precisely what should distinguish Ukraine from Russia at this historic moment. Putin supporters will, of course, miss that distinction. They will use their freedoms to seek to deny the freedoms of their fellow citizens. However, they should not be the measure of Ukraine. Free speech and other rights should be the measure.
Ukraine is not the first country to strike out at dissenters in wartime. This country has had its own checkered history in arresting those who opposed our wars. We were wrong then and Zelenskyy is wrong now.
53 thoughts on “Zelenskyy Bans Opposition Parties in Ukraine in Blow to Free Speech”
A simple free speech argument is not adequate when the fate of a nation is at stake. Lincoln recognized this and famously spelled it out in his letter to Hodges regarding the Emancipation Proclamation which said in part:
“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgement and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgement on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my primary abstract judgement on the moral question of slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government – that nation – of which that constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution, through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground, and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the Constitution, if, to save slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together. ”
That Zelenskyy is not a saint doe not justify Putin’s brutal aggression against Ukraine, done contrary to express assurances by the Russian government to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
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