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Dmytro Tabachnyk makes no secret of his pro-Russian sympathies. That is precisely why he sits in the cabinet, critics say.Pусская версияby Ivan Lozowy 7 October 2011
KYIV | President Viktor Yanukovych’s government has plenty on its plate, including continuing economic woes, the government’s falling popularity, and international criticism of the trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych might be forgiven for not paying much attention to the gathering swell of protest aimed at one member of the government.
Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk is probably Ukraine’s most controversial government official. Tabachnyk himself is quoted on the ministry’s website as saying, “If a ranking was compiled of officials who are most often mentioned in the press then Dmytro Tabachnyk would definitely be near the top,” but the reasons for his (often negative) press are largely unknown outside the country.
So when European education ministers met for a summit in Kyiv on 22 September, they hardly expected to see their host get hit in the face with a bouquet of flowers. But that is what happened when university student Daria Stepanenko approached Tabachnyk during the summit and, following a brief discussion, smacked the minister with an armful of flowers. After being detained by police, Stepanenko said her gesture was a form of protest, delivered on behalf of all of Ukraine’s students, against the minister’s policies.
Tabachnyk, 47, served as press secretary and chief of staff to former President Leonid Kuchma and was twice a deputy prime minister during governments headed by Yanukovych. Tabachnyk carried controversial baggage with him when he took over the minister’s job 19 months ago.
Several newspaper articles had set the tone for his tenure as education minister. A September 2009 article for the major Russian newspaper Izvestia titled “From Ribbentrop to the Maidan” – the latter a reference to the Orange Revolution of 2004 – said the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was “standard European practice.” He likened the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to the Munich Agreement, the 1938 pact by which Britain and France acceded to Germany’s demand to annex part of Czechoslovakia.
Tabachnyk also claimed that western Ukrainians “have practically nothing in common with the people of ‘Great Ukraine’ [its central and eastern regions], not in the psychological, religious, linguistic, or political areas. We have different enemies and different allies. More than that, our allies and even brothers are their enemies.” The last is a reference to Russians, who had been depicted in school textbooks as occupiers of Ukraine under the Russian empire and the Soviet Union.
Vadym Karasyov, a political analyst in Kyiv, said Tabachnyk is “convenient for the government as a lightning rod because all potential criticism of the government is drawn away and directed at Tabachnyk instead.” Opposition lawmaker Lev Biriuk sees Prime Minister Mikola Azarov as the key individual who lobbied through Tabachnyk’s appointment and serves as his protector in the government. “There is a clear link between the two. Azarov supports all of Tabachnyk’s initiatives,” Biriuk said. Karasyov agrees that Azarov and Tabachnyk are “people with the same post-Soviet mentality.”
Tabachnyk was appointed in March 2010, a month after Yanukovych took office. At a meeting with the president shortly after being appointed, Tabachnyk gave assurances that his personal views would not color his policies as a member of the government. In the eyes of his critics, however, Tabachnyk has taken his own writings to heart and embarked on a wide-ranging campaign to reverse changes to Ukraine’s education system introduced over the past 20 years following the country’s gaining independence in 1991.
The status of the country’s two main languages lies at the heart of several of his most disputed decisions. Students can now take the standardized university entrance exam in any of four languages, including Russian, not solely in Ukrainian as before. A number of Ukrainian-language schools have been closed down in the largely Russian-speaking east of the country, and classes in Russian have been added in some Ukrainian schools.
Soviet-era terms such as “Great Patriotic War” in place of “World War II” have returned to history textbooks on Tabachnyk’s watch, and references to some historical events have been removed, such as the battle of Kruty, when 300 students from a military lyceum tried in vain to defend Kyiv against an assault by a Bolshevik army in 1918 led by General Mikhail Muravyov, who later laid waste to the city.
Tabachnyk has also introduced a bill that would curtail the autonomy of Ukrainian universities by centralizing decision making on university curricula in the hands of the Education Ministry.
Tabachnyk’s former subordinate for a brief time, Maksym Strikha, appointed deputy education minister by the previous administration of Viktor Yushchenko, said Tabachnyk’s motives are as clear as they are simple: “To unite Ukraine with the ‘Russian world.’ ”
Serhiy Kvit, president of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, which traces its roots back to a Kyiv university from the 17th century, is one of Tabachnyk’s most outspoken critics. According to Kvit, Tabachnyk is a “Ukrainophobe” and Tabachnyk’s policies “harm Ukraine’s national interests because these are attempts to keep Ukraine in the post-Soviet space. That is, Tabachnyk’s actions are addressed not to Ukrainians, but rather to an internal Russian audience, in support of the imperial policies of Putin and Medvedev.”
Small wonder that Tabachnyk’s policies have stirred up numerous demonstrations and protests.
In Makiyivka, a city in the Donetsk oblast in eastern Ukraine, parents staged hunger strikes earlier this year to protest the closure of three Ukrainian-language schools.
Parents also protested in other parts of eastern Ukraine over planned school closures. In February, parents in the city of Krasniy Luch went on hunger strike and parents in another town in Donetsk oblast threatened to set themselves on fire if their Ukrainian-language school closed.
Yuriy Kolomiyets, a father in Makiyivka whose son attended one of the closed schools, said in September that he and other parent-protesters were promised that the schools where their children were to be transferred would offer better conditions than the one to be closed. “[B]ut when our children got there we found the classes there to be overflowing and even the furniture there, for our kids, was taken from our old school. So we went ahead and repaired our own [school] at our own expense, we painted it, replaced equipment down to the curtains on the windows. Still we were prohibited from sending our children to this school.” Kolomiyets and other parents have attempted unsuccessfully to overturn the closures in court.
During last month’s summit of education ministers several hundred university students defied a court order banning demonstrations in Kyiv and organized a “counter-forum” protesting Tabachnyk’s policies at which four students were arrested.
The student protesters carried signs saying “Down with the Ukrainophobe Tabachnyk,” “Tabachnyk is the executioner of Ukraine’s education system,” and “Shame on Tabachnyk.”
Even some prominent members of the governing coalition have been publicly critical of Tabachnyk. In an interview in 2008 for the news site Obozrevatel.com, Borys Kolesnikov, now a deputy prime minister, called Tabachnyk – at the time a fellow Party of Regions lawmaker – a “cheap clown” and “embezzler from the state treasury.”
Yanukovych adviser and former press secretary Hanna Herman has criticized Tabachnyk for his “anti-Ukrainian statements” and called for his resignation.
Tabachnyk is not without his supporters. His promotion of the Russian language is supported by groups such as Russian-Speaking Ukraine, run by Vadym Kolesnichenko, a legislator from the ruling Party of Regions. One of Kolesnichenko’s colleagues in Russian-Speaking Ukraine, Serhiy Provatorov, said, “The forced Ukrainization of the educational system carried out for all of the 20 years of Ukraine’s existence as a state is, we are deeply convinced, a serious violation of the constitutional, legislative, and natural rights of the country’s Russian-culture population as well as the citizenry as a whole, since it narrows their right to choose.”