Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 64

Freedom of the press is a painful issue in Ukraine. Self-censorship and tax pressure on opposition press were cited as the main problems by the U.S. Committee to Protect Journalists last year, when this organization included Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma on its “black list” of enemies of the press. With the appointment of national radicals to the government posts responsible for humanitarian policy (see the Monitor, March 15), a large portion of the Ukrainian press–this time the numerous papers coming out in Russian–may face new problems in the framework of “derussification” plans. Ivan Drach, chair of the State Committee for Information Policy and a member of the rightist Rukh Party led by Hennady Udovenko, believes that the Russian-language press should be suppressed as a major threat to Ukrainian statehood. “The more popular it [the Russian language press] is, the more dangerous it is for us,” he said in an interview to–ironically–a Russian newspaper, “Argumenty i fakty v Ukraine.” Drach would like to boost circulation of Ukrainian papers and complicate life for Russian ones through the introduction of a special tax “for the Ukrainian culture” on all newspapers and books published in Russian.

While deploring the “poor and noncompetitive” nature of Ukrainian publishing, Drach simultaneously complained about an “avalanche of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov” across Ukraine. Russian is historically the preferred language in eastern and southern towns, as well as in Kyiv. These being the most densely populated areas, it is no wonder that the circulation of Russian-language newspapers is high. At the same time, the Ukrainian-language press is preferred in the west of the country.

Drach’s views, as he himself pointed out, are not shared or supported by the center-right parliamentary majority. Without naming Drach, Yevhen Marchuk, the powerful secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, whose duties include supervision of the media, warned in a recent interview to “Den” against the temptation to “forcibly Ukrainianize the information field.” Because Drach’s party–Udovenko’s Rukh–is a constituent part of the government coalition and of the pro-Kuchma majority in parliament, Drach’s statements could be mistaken for an official government stance on the issue. Home to the largest number of ethnic Russians among non-Russian former Soviet republics, Ukraine has been one of the few among these republics to preserve ethnic peace. Even if the provocative statements of Drach do not directly affect the state information policy, they may irritate the Russian radicals at home and in Russia, and thus threaten this peace (Den, March 10, 24; Argumenty i fakty v Ukraine, No. 12, 2000).