Zelensky suspends media and opposition parties

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has suspended the activities of 11 opposition political parties in Ukraine's parliament and issued a decree that combines three privately owned television networks into one media platform controlled by the government, according to media reports.  Zelensky accused the opposition parties of colluding with Russia and trying to divide Ukrainians while claiming that the television networks spewed Russian propaganda.  The exigencies of war, as so often happens, impel so-called "democratic" governments to impose undemocratic measures in the name of defending democracy.

Western media and commentators, and many Western political leaders, have portrayed the Russia-Ukraine War as an existential conflict between autocracy and democracy — as Vladimir Putin against the "free world."  We are repeatedly told by David Frum, Max Boot, Bill Kristol, and the crowd at MSNBC that our failure to defend Ukraine is a failure to defend "democracy."  Those war hawks will undoubtedly defend Zelensky's moves as necessary steps to ensure the survival of an independent Ukraine.  And they may indeed be necessary in wartime.  Political opposition in wartime can hamper a nation's war effort.  That is why Putin, for example, is cracking down on protesters within Russia (which his government does as a matter of course, war or no war).  That is why American presidents like Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt cracked down on dissent within the United States during the wars they presided over.

Fortunately for us, the United States had deep democratic roots (independent courts, separation of powers, federalism, etc.) that sustained our democracy after the exigencies of war faded.  Ukraine's democratic roots, however, are thin.  If Zelensky's government survives this war, will the war measures be lifted?  Will the opposition political parties be free to oppose Zelensky's government?  Will a free press be permitted to criticize government policies?

The great American political philosopher James Burnham in his book The Machiavellians (written during the Second World War) emphasized the importance of political opposition to the cause of freedom.  "It is only when there are several different major social forces, not wholly subordinated to any one social force," he wrote, "that there can be any assurance of liberty, since only then is there the mutual check and balance that is able to chain power."  Burnham warned against relying on any single leader or group of leaders to preserve freedom.  "There is no one force, no group, and no class that is the preserver of liberty," he explained.  "Liberty is preserved by those who are against the existing chief power."  "Not unity but difference, not the modern state but whatever is able to maintain itself against the state, not leaders but the unyielding opponents of leaders, not conformity with official opinion but persisting criticism," Burnham continued, "are the defenses of freedom."

It may be in America's strategic interest to continue aiding Zelensky's government and armed forces in the current war, but we would be well advised to refrain from portraying the war as an existential struggle between autocracy and democracy and applauding Zelensky's government as a champion of freedom. 

Image: Pres. Administration of Ukraine.

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