One of Ukraine’s most prominent politicians is facing a probe by Kiev’s successor to the Soviet-era KGB domestic intelligence agency, over claims he and his supporters worked to hand over the disputed Crimean peninsula to Russia.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) announced on Thursday that it has launched an investigation into Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of Opposition Platform – For Life, the largest non-government party in the country’s parliament. In addition, a number of his supporters and members of the ‘Ukrainian Choice’ pressure group are also facing potential charges.
In a statement posted to its website on Thursday, the SBU said that the group played an active role in organizing the 2014 vote in Crimea on whether to rejoin Russia. According to officials, its members operated election infrastructure and carried out “illegal persecution of Ukrainian activists and seizure of administrative buildings of the Ukrainian authorities.” The country regards the referendum as illegitimate and claims Russia has illegally occupied the peninsula.
The charges under which Medvedchuk and members of ‘Ukrainian Choice’ could be indicted include high treason and “encroachment on the territorial integrity and inviolability of Ukraine.” In July, Russian lawmakers backed a similar rule change, which would allow judges to imprison anyone found guilty of pushing for the breakup of the nation.
Medvedchuk was already under investigation as part of an ongoing probe into claims of financing terrorism, charges which could carry more than a decade behind bars, if proven.
In an exclusive interview with RT, the opposition leader dismissed those charges as arbitrary and politically motivated. “Unfortunately”, he said, “[prosecution for] crimes like treason and espionage is commonplace. Just as at one time there was a charge of hooliganism, now we can be charged with treachery or spying.”
Medvedchuk accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of behaving like an autocrat in the face of increasing public and political pressure. He said that “political repression, the establishment of a dictatorship, the closure of channels, the policy of discrimination against the Russian language, the policy of Russophobia and the policy of usurping power are the result of him struggling to maintain and increase his authority and his ratings.”
Earlier this year, Kiev moved to shut down a number of Russian-language TV channels and news sites owned by an ally of Medvedchuk. Mikhail Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, said that the ban was “not about the media and not about freedom of speech… It’s just about effectively countering fakes and foreign propaganda.” Without action, he argued, the opposition media would “kill our values.” It has since extended the bar on media to cover a number of Telegram channels.
The American embassy in Kiev wrote at the time that it “supports efforts… to counter Russia’s malign influence.” It described the shuttering of broadcasters as “in line with [Ukrainian law], in defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Notably though, the EU appeared to break ranks with Washington over the row, suggesting the decision was a challenge to basic human rights in the country. Brussels’ Diplomatic Service spokesman Peter Stano told Interfax-Ukraine that attempts to regulate against disinformation “should not happen at the expense of freedom of the media and should be carried out with full respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, and in accordance with international standards.”
Medvedchuk and others have rejected the idea that the news outlets were Russian propaganda. Instead, they maintain that the Russian-language programming is made in Ukraine, by Ukrainians and for the one in three citizens who has recorded Russian as their native language. While almost all in the country have a command of Russian, its use has become increasingly political in recent years.
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