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Ukraine’s Newest Threat? A Renegade Security Service

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The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has a decades-old reputation for strong-arm tactics, but its silencing of dissent has become especially brazen over the past several weeks. At the end of August, SBU officers ejected a number of journalists from the country, including two Spanish reporters removed for anti-Ukrainian “propaganda” after reporting Ukrainian government shelling of civilian areas in the fight against separatists.

Just a few days later, a Russian journalist Anna Kurbatova was (according to Russian media) bundled into the back of a car after being grabbed off the street close to her home and deported. Confirming Kurbatova’s expulsion, an SBU spokesperson chillingly warned that anybody following in her footsteps would suffer a similar fate. Human rights and press freedom campaigners have been quick to criticize the media crackdown: Human Rights Watch calls the Ukrainian government’s penchant for ejecting journalists a “serious violation of its international human rights commitments.”

Despite clear evidence the SBU harasses and expels journalists and activists while attacking foreign companies and domestic NGOs on false pretenses, the European Union and the U.S. have remained largely circumspect on the actions of Ukraine’s domestic spy agency.

That is not in itself surprising. Both European and American policymakers are heavily invested in Kiev’s fight against corruption and push for political reform. To avoid antagonizing or undermining their Ukrainian counterparts, Brussels and Washington have hesitated in pressuring the SBU and powerful entrenched interests within the political and economic elite. That, in turn, has given those actors greater license to go after Ukrainian journalists and civil society actors with extreme prejudice.

Just a few years after Maidan, activists and civil society groups operating in the most corrupt nation in Europe face pernicious targeting and victimization. Josh Cohen of the Atlantic Council has highlighted the sustained campaign of abuse suffered by prominent Ukrainian anticorruption campaigner Oleksandra Ustinova of the Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC). The AntAC recently called on all SBU staff members to file financial disclosures, as required under Ukraine’s e-declaration legislation. In response, Ustinova’s email account has allegedly been hacked and her home staked out by pro-government “reporters” (the activist and her colleagues claim these reporters were in fact SBU personnel).

In one particularly telling episode, Ustinova’s personal flight details were allegedly leaked to the media by the SBU, which has had access to passenger flight information since a new aviation security law passed earlier this year. As a result, a mob of the same “journalists” descended on her when she returned from a trip to Sri Lanka. In the scrum, they accused Ustinova of betraying Ukraine for daring to leave the country while conflict raged in the east. Her colleagues have had similar experiences: AntAC leader Vitaly Shabunin was also the target of a “protest” which was in fact directed by SBU officer Roman Matkovskiy, as well as a bizarre fake news report accusing him of misusing U.S. donor funding.

According to the campaigners of the AntAC, their organization has been targeted because the financial disclosures they demand threaten to expose corrupt dealings inside the ranks of the SBU. Those dealings also help to explain why the security agency has turned its attention toward healthcare organizations like the Patients of Ukraine and the Coordination Council of the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV. Angered by reforms that resulted in the loss of millions of dollars for the country’s so-called “pharma mafia,” which is said to include high-ranking SBU members, the agency initiated prosecution against the two healthcare reform NGOs… again for misusing foreign grants. In doing so, the SBU gave the country’s Prosecutor General’s Office access to documents held by the Patients of Ukraine and the Coordination Council, as well as the right to wiretap members’ and access their emails.

The SBU is hardly alone in this; corruption seems to be woven into every strand of the Ukrainian healthcare sector. Even Ukraine’s U.S.-born health minister, Ulana Suprun, faced threats and smears while seeking to close off channels used for kickbacks that deprived hospitals and doctors of millions of dollars in funding.

NGOs are not alone in receiving special treatment. Private companies that run afoul of the SBU, whether for supporting anticorruption campaigners or being based in the wrong country, have similar issues. In April, SBU agents raided the offices of investment bank Dragon Capital after accusing it and a number of other companies of using Russian spyware. Dragon Capital CEO Tomas Fiala suggested the raids could be an effort to pressure the bank to climb down in a corporate conflict with Oleksandr Hranovsky, an ally of President Petro Poroshenko. Separately, the SBU has accused online business information firm YouControl of hacking government data and illegally using Russian hardware and software.

Russia is unsurprisingly a common theme, but multiple companies unconnected to the ongoing tension have still been caught up in the dragnet. Having previously expropriated the Zaporozhye aluminium smelter from Russian aluminum giant Rusal, the Ukrainian government slapped sanctions on the company last October over vague accusations that the firm threatened the country’s “national security.” Rusal initiated international dispute settlement proceedings against the illegal expropriation of its smelter and is demanding the return of its stake in the plant, as well as damages and interest. The SBU has responded to those proceedings by going back to its tried and tested playbook. The agency is accusing Rusal of deliberately sabotaging the expropriated Zaporozhye smelter and has initiated criminal cases against the company’s management, apparently seeking to exert pressure on the company through its employees.

These cases have one key factor in common: neither the SBU nor the Ukrainian government produced any solid evidence to back up their claims.

The EU and the U.S. are obviously aware of these abuses, but mild, non-specific criticism has done little to push Petro Poroshenko in the right direction. Just a few months ago, the Ukrainian president signed into law amendments that will require anti-corruption NGOs, journalists and activists to publicly declare their income and assets – making transparency the burden of civil society instead of the government. Europe and America need to take far firmer stances, lest Ukraine slide back into corrupt, undemocratic territory and the sacrifices of the Maidan Revolution go to waste.

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