Ukraine has passed a new law banning the use of Soviet symbols, almost a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was quick to condemn the law, saying it threatened free speech in the country. The security organisation’s representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, said:
“It is discouraging for freedom of expression and media freedom advocates that the law has gone into effect, despite various calls to safeguard these basic rights”
Ukraine is embroiled in a seventeen-month conflict between government-backed forces and pro-Russian rebels in what has become the largest war in Europe since that of the Balkans in the 1990s.
Under the law, passed in mid-May, it is also a criminal offence to deny the “criminal character of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine”, in schools or in the media.
With over 7,000 civilians killed in the war in Ukraine and two largely failed attempts at a ceasefire, the issue of Ukraine’s Soviet past is highly contentious. Since the conflict began, the Crimea peninsula on the Black Sea was annexed by Russia, in a move sharply condemned around the globe, and two breakaway states have formed, both with open backing by Moscow.
Critics of the government in Ukraine, formed after the ousting of the pro-Russian government last year, say Kiev is officially severing ties with its Soviet past in an attempt to separate it from Russia.
Over 100 statues of the Soviet Union’s Founder, Vladimir Lenin, have been felled across the country in acts of protest against Russia since the conflict began. But there is also a much larger issue playing out in the backdrop of post-Soviet tensions: analysts have been quick to describe the conflict in Ukraine as a “propaganda war”.
On Russian TV screens and newspapers, Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine is seen as heroic and quashing the sort of fascist policies seen in World War Two; in the Ukrainian media, Russia is portrayed as nothing short of an aggressor.
With no end to the conflict in sight, we could expect more anti-freedom laws to surface.