On Tuesday, Feb. 2, as the world’s attention was largely elsewhere, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shut down three pro-Russian TV channels which represent the views of the Opposition Platform political faction headed by pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk. Striking decisively and using a legal pretext, Zelensky announced five-year long sanctions on the Opposition Platform MP Taras Kozak, who is the nominal owner of the three televisions news channels that pipe pro-Russian political viewpoints into Ukrainian homes, spreading an unabashedly pro-Russian message widely viewed by many as propaganda. While endorsed by the U.S. State Department and the British, the government’s move was seen by critics as a systematic attack on freedom of speech in Ukraine, even if it was also something that many Ukrainians had long ardently called for.
The broadcasting licenses of the television stations were suspended based on the argument that Kozak was engaged in “funding terrorism”—i.e., that he was making money off the illicit coal trade with the so-called “separatist republics in the Donbas.” The timing of the move was clearly politically motivated: Zelensky’s political ratings have been declining rapidly, and his government is viewed by many observers as having lost momentum. Some recent polls have indicated that disappointment with Zelensky is so acute that he would lose a head-on presidential election to the opposition bloc. Something therefore needed to be done about Medvedchuk, who had been tolerated for a long time despite being objectively on the side of Moscow in the conflict.
Yet Medvedchuk’s ties with Russia have at times been useful to Ukraine. Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had relied on Medvedchuk to transmit messages to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and seemed to have arrived at some sort of private understanding with him. The nature of that arrangement remains unknown, even to the best-connected analysts of Ukrainian politics. The argument that Medvedchuk’s television stations constitute a literal and existential threat to the integrity of the state—while arguably true—remain in direct tension with legitimate concerns about the right of freedom of speech, including of the ethnic Russian minority inside Ukraine. Yet the American Embassy in Kyiv publicly backed the move, which indicates that it was made in consultation with the Biden administration and the State Department.
That the banning took place without recourse to a public set of justifiable procedures and escalating warnings, let alone anything resembling an appeals process, means that the decision will doubtlessly be challenged in the courts.
On Wednesday, Feb. 3, the day after the announcement of the television station ban, the leadership of the Opposition Bloc formally accused the Ukrainian government of fascism. Standing on the podium of the Ukrainian parliament and flanked by Medvedchuk himself, MP Vadim Rabinovich, a leader of the Opposition Platform-For Life party, declared war on the government. Speaking in what one could only suspect was purposefully and artfully mangled Ukrainian, Rabinovich announced that the pro-Russian faction of the Ukrainian parliament would be “initiating impeachment procedures against President Zelensky, for his mockery of the voters of Ukraine!”
The threat of impeachment being bandied about by Rabinovich and the pro-Russian factions was almost certainly an empty one—they hold slightly more than 10% of the seats in the Rada, which is far short of the numbers that they would need to impeach a sitting president. On the other hand, there was the remarkable fact that one of Ukraine’s highest profile Jewish politicians, the president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, was accusing the president of Ukraine—himself a gentleman of Jewish descent—of being a modern day purveyor of the National Socialist creed.
To the cackling of the assembled Ukrainian parliamentarians, Rabinovich delivered a flamboyant screed composed of one part bathos, one part nostalgic Soviet resistance rhetoric, and two parts slapstick comedy routine:
Today, the face of Fascism in our country has shown its true color: Green! Our fathers and grandfathers, in their own time, they stopped fascism! Now it is we their descendants who will do the same! We will triumph! No Pasaran! Fascism will not pass!
Rabinovich’s reference to the color green is a pun on Zelensky’s name, which is rooted in zeleny—the Russian and Ukrainian word for green.
At that point Rabinovich began gesticulating wildly in the direction of the assembled Ukrainian parliamentarians, and threatening them theatrically: “And you will all die! You are the devil! Fascist devils!”
With a final flourish before turning away from the podium he began belting out the first couplet of the booming World War II anthem “The Sacred War”: “Stand up our great country …!”
The bravado performance brought the house down.
Rabinovich is admittedly one of the most colorful politicians in a nation where the competition in that department is extraordinarily steep. He was banned from entering the United States for many years. He received 2.25% of the national vote during the 2014 presidential elections, during which, ironically, he ran on a campaign platform of proving to the world that Ukraine was neither anti-Semitic nor fascist. During the course of that election campaign he created a television station called Rabinovich TV. The channel reported on the news with special commentaries on almost every segment made by Rabinovich himself. It was all very amusing. In 2002, German news magazine Der Spiegel publicly accused Rabinovich of selling a shipment of T-62 Ukrainian tanks to the Taliban. He denied it, of course.
While the theatrical presentation of the grievances of the pro-Russian fraction were very funny, they certainly presage the start of a new round of political crisis for the country. Zelensky took the opportunity to strike against the Russian proxies while Russian President Putin was distracted with the trial of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Relatedly, the day before the banning of the pro-Russian television stations, Zelensky’s party voted to expel lawmaker Oleksandr Dubinsky who had been placed on the U.S. Treasury sanctions list for his role in meddling with the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Having a U.S.-designated Russian agent as a member of his parliamentary political party certainly did not make Zelensky any more popular in Washington, D.C. Dubinsky, who is seen to represent the interests of oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, then publicly and embarrassingly fought the expulsion.
But Rabinovich’s speech belongs in a category of its own—one that sounds more like the punchline from a hitherto-undiscovered short story by Sholem Aleichem: Where can a Jewish parliamentarian call his country’s Jewish president a Nazi in the name of Mother Russia? Only in Ukraine, my children, only in Ukraine.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.