On 22 July member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group and former political prisoner, Vasyl Ovsiyenko, was removed from a Russian train heading towards the Perm region. He was told that he was on a list of people prohibited from entering the Russian Federation and sent back to Ukraine. Mr Ovsiyenko’s “crime” in Soviet times was classified as “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”. Why the Russian authorities found him objectionable was not divulged, however at home he is known for his research into Soviet repression, not for criminal activities. Ironically, he had been invited to attend an international forum at Perm-36, the site of one of the notorious political labour camps which now houses a museum. Vasyl Ovsiyenko is a former prisoner and on the Museum Council.
The whiff from a not-so distant Soviet past was palpable and the event received considerable media coverage in Ukraine. This was coupled with total silence from those in power and it is safe to assume that it was not on the agenda during the meeting on Saturday between President Yanukovych and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Quite some contrast from the extremely active response of the German government to Ukraine’s attempt to prevent Nico Lange of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation from entering Ukraine on 26 June. The new Ukrainian regime would seem hell-bent on reducing any contrast with the evermore Soviet methods of that northern neighbour.
Reminders of the Soviet approach to pluralism have been thick and fast lately, and it is galling to see how easily western countries have slipped into customary mode. On 23 July Igor Sutyagin’s call for people to remember many other political prisoners in Russia was posted on Ukrainian and Russian human rights sites. Maybe media outlets will take up his story, but thus far the English-language press has been disturbingly ready to ignore certain vital details in their coverage of the “spy exchange”. Igor Sutyagin was an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, and his conviction in 2004 prompted a joint statement of concern from many human rights organizations, as well as a damning Council of Europe report.
Is that regarded as an inconvenient “detail” for those pushing a “reset” of relations with Russia? With all due respect, political prisoners – and there are a number in Russia – are hardly more convenient, although they cannot be considered a detail. Valentin Danilov, to name but one, has also spent over 10 years imprisoned on charges seen as trumped up by human rights and scientific organizations.
Earlier this year unconstitutional elements in Yanukovych’s consolidation of power were ignored by Western countries allured by the promise of “stability”. Geopolitical and other considerations would seem to be at play in relations with the Russian Federation as well. With Ukraine’s new regime increasingly eager to follow Russia’s example, especially against those who speak their mind, the West would do well to consider what it can afford to turn a blind eye to. The stifling of democratic freedom and pluralism in the post-Soviet realm is too high a price to pay.