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Crackdown in Ukraine sullies its democratic aspirations

Amid tensions with Russia, Kiev is not tolerating any 'pro-separatist' points of view in the press – which plays straight into the hands of Kremlin propaganda.

The rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which have been granted “special status” by Ukraine’s parliament, are essentially governed by a self-appointed military junta. It remains to be seen whether local elections slated for November will improve on that picture.

But under the impact of war and extreme social polarization, the democratic credentials of the pro-European Kiev government have been slipping as well. A crackdown on what authorities describe as “pro-separatist” points of view has triggered dismay among Western human rights monitors, and at the very least played straight into the hands of Kremlin propaganda.

For example, the Sept. 11 shutdown of the independent Kiev-based Vesti newspaper by the Ukrainian Security Service for “violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity” brought swift condemnation from the international Committee to Protect Journalists and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Ukraine has also shut down most Russia-based television stations on the grounds that they purvey “propaganda,” and barred a growing list of Russian journalists from entering the country. In July it banned the parliamentary faction of the Communist Party, which won 13 percent of the vote in 2012 elections, on the grounds that its members had spoken in defense of eastern Ukraine’s rebels.

As Ukraine heads into parliamentary polls, any questions touching on the country’s territorial integrity appear to have become an unspoken “red line” for all candidates. “Any politician who declares that Ukraine should be willing to sacrifice any part of its sovereignty might come to a hard end, very quickly,” says Viktor Zamiatin, a political expert with the Razumkov Center in Kiev.

In Zaporizhia, the state of lockdown is hard to miss. A self-organized, pro-Kiev armed militia of 800 men keeps order. “We won’t allow any expressions of separatism here,” says Sergei Ostapenko, the militia’s commander. “If anybody has an opinion that might lead to mass disorders, we’ll take measures to put it down.”

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