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.