Action incompatible with democracy. Part 1: Kharkiv

Without sex, scandal or horrific crimes it’s hard to gain media attention. Unless you’re the President, of course, and they organize a grandiose show where, after 100 days, you can announce the beginning of reform and a whole package of good intentions. In front of your own people since those vociferous others are kept well about by Special Forces units.

Western observers were careful when commenting on President Yanukovych’s array of good intentions. Not, at the end of the day, surprising – they’re not about to interfere and they can afford to wait.

The price for Ukrainians may be too steep. In 100 days which saw none of the promised reforms, a lot happened which placed a question mark over all fine words about democracy and freedom. International organizations have finally begun expressing concern and Freedom House has warned that if the trend continues, Ukraine’s status could be lowered to “partly free”.

In short they’ve taken 100 days to come up with a speech about wrenching the country out of crisis and placed in jeopardy Ukraine’s fairly modest achievements on the road to democracy.

Shall we just continue to record the encroachments on freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, the worrying role of the police, Security Service [SBU], further threats to judicial independence and overt disregard for public opinion? The number of voices will diminish and what’s the difference when media owners, traffic and tax police know what’s expected of them, what kind of “order” is required?

At the moment there is a difference and it is considerable. The authorities respond to criticism. With words, yet those demonstrate that they cannot do without an imitation of democracy.

And if imitation doesn’t suit? A large number of journalists have already revolted against imitation of freedom of speech. To some extent successfully and now international organizations will be following developments. They, and hopefully European bodies, will have to pay attention if civic society does not let go and continues to assert its rights as publicly as possible, demanding answers to why these rights are being trampled.

100 days have generated, if not 100, then plenty of questions so for the moment I will concentrate only on recent events in Kharkiv.

It is our questions which must make the news since this story graphically demonstrates the problems encountered by those who don’t want either their rights or people themselves to be trampled. Although television coverage of the crushing of protest against the destruction of Kharkiv’s Gorky Park was not adequate, with certain entirely predictable exceptions, it would be hard to say with certainty that there was deliberate censorship. Western media outlets also showed scant interest in this issue of public importance.

In the absence of sex, serial killers or pop stars, you need to demonstrate the uniqueness of a situation. And this, like the woods, can be obscured by the trees. Not that I don’t consider it barbaric to cut down century-old trees in the city’s central park especially when there are grounds for suspecting that the road plans are merely a cover. However such barbarism occurs in many countries and it is concerned citizens, without any political motive, who try to oppose it. Even the methods are similar, with activists in Canada or the USA also defending the trees with their own bodies.

That, however, is the sum total of standard features, while the uniqueness of the events in Gorky Park for any country with democratic aspirations needs to be brought to the attention of both the authorities in Ukraine, and the international community.

Find 10 differences …

Here and in other countries they try to protect trees, here and there civic activists organize protests. And more often then not they fail. They are defeated, admittedly, not by thugs, but by permits, the courts and legal enforcement of the latter’s rulings.

Whereas in Kharkiv …On 19 May the Kharkiv City Executive Committee passed a decision to fell 503 trees in Gorky Park in order to build a road and hotel facilities on park territory. Armed with this decision and their saws, workmen began felling the very next day. There was one moment of irreproachable legality. Activists called the police who responded entirely correctly to the lack of necessary permits and stopped the tree felling.

The moment passed and from then on, clearly following instructions from above, the police no longer defended either the law or citizens endeavouring to counter lawlessness. The trees were felled without any of the permits required and during those first days without any safety measures or even a cordon around the area. These are already flagrant infringements of the law, not to mention the lack of public discussion as demanded both by domestic laws and the Aarhus Convention.

The Acting Mayor of Kharkiv, H. Kernes and Governor of the Kharkiv Region, M. Dobkin, claim that the tree felling was carried out legally, that all the relevant permits were in place and that the road is included in the city’s General Plan approved in 2004. In order to deflect attention from such arrant lies, they combine such assertions with defamatory allegations about the park defenders. They prefer not to dwell on the obvious fact that even if the activists were keeping night vigil in the park, risking their health, being beaten and / or arrested in return for some pittance, this would still not entitle the authorities to break the law.

They dwell even less on the danger to which they are subjecting peaceful protesters. In its first appeal, the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union writes:

“The large-scale felling of trees in Gorky Park between 20 and 27 May was accompanied by acts of violence by police officers against citizens endeavouring to stop the felling. There were flagrant cases where young athletic-looking men beat up protesters, while an excavator also injured several people. The police during all of this did absolutely nothing”.

All of this is documented, together with the confirmation from the Ministry for Environmental Protection that the work is unlawful. It is recorded on video and photographs how the authorities treated people defending their constitutional right to peaceful assembly and protest.

Here I would note only the culminating run-in between lawless authorities and peaceful citizens, that is, the attack on tree felling site in the early hours of 2 June. The video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C32xe43uVi4 shows how unidentified individuals in black, together with workmen holding their saws turned on charge the tree defenders. Several of the latter were injured. Despite the fact that it was the peaceful protesters who were attacked, that none of them committed any offences, and most certainly did not show resistance to the police, the latter only detained them.

If anybody still has doubts regarding the exceptional nature of this situation, I would suggest looking at the video of the TV STB report here http://www.telekritika.ua/daidzhest/2010-06-03/53400 One of the workmen cuts down a massive tree which has to fall on another holding a protester.

In democratic countries activists defend trees with their own bodies, since however little importance some give to the trees, human life is valued.

At the present time we have outrage from civic organizations which have already lodged complaints against the actions of the police and are planning to appeal against court rulings. From the leaders of the country we have only reports on the Internet claiming that the President gave an interview to the website “Ostriv” in which he supposedly promised to punish the Governor of the Kharkiv region and said that a “working group to study the conflict in Kharkiv has been created”.

Excellent, but let’s have some details since the price of sitting and waiting has become too high.

We would ask all those concerned to add their voices to our appeal with specific demands which can be found here khpg.org/index.php?id=1275869282 We are also asking people to send formal information requests to all relevant authorities and the police. In view of the lack of adequate response to appeals from human rights organizations, we are writing to the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammerberg. It is vital that hard-hitting questions and demands for response are heard from all sides so that the authorities finally understand that in a democracy you heed public opinion, not crush it.

Halya Coynash
http://www.telekritika.ua/media-suspilstvo/view/2010-06-07/53462

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