Ukraine’s state security service on Thursday opened a criminal probe against a museum director on suspicion of preparing to divulge secrets in what appeared to be a toughening of policy on declassifying historical documents.
Under former President Viktor Yushchenko, old KGB archives in the ex-Soviet republic were opened up in 2009 and thousands of documents spanning the Soviet period were declassified.
But a new state security (SBU) chief, appointed when President Viktor Yanukovich came to power in February, has come out against free public access to KGB-era files and said the job of Ukraine’s SBU service is to guard secrets, not leak them.
On Thursday, the SBU said it had opened an investigation against Ruslan Zabily, director of a museum in Ukraine’s western city of Lviv, for preparing to divulge state secrets.
Zabily — whose museum is dedicated to the tens of thousands who died in western Ukraine under Soviet and Nazi rule — had illegally gathered material containing state secrets, and intended to pass this on to other people, an SBU statement said.
He denied any state secrets were being compromised and said the historical documents on his laptop, which was seized by SBU agents on Wednesday, were publicly available.
Zabily, speaking at a Kiev news conference on Thursday, said the move was part of a drive by the Yanukovich leadership to play down the role of the Ukrainian nationalist movement in the nation’s history and cover up Soviet-era abuses.
"I demand my computer back quickly. There were only copies on it of historical documents, my own research and personal information," he said in a statement.
DARK STALIN YEARS
Public access to KGB-era files was relaxed under Yushchenko, allowing many Ukrainians to find out what had happened to relatives who disappeared during the dark years under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Yanukovich’s power base is in the Russian-speaking east where many Ukrainians view history through a Soviet prism and share Russia’s unease at overt criticism of the Soviet past.
Critics say restricting access to old KGB files reflects the strong pro-Moscow slant in Yanukovich’s policies.
"Playing games with the memory of whole generations is fairly dangerous," Zabily later told Reuters. "Politicians should not get involved in these questions. That is the prerogative of historians."
New SBU chief Valery Khoroshkovsky reversed Yushchenko’s policy on the KGB archives after taking over earlier this year and said:
"The job of the secret service is primarily to guard its secrets, guard the laws that created these secrets."
Volodymyr Vyatrovych, a former SBU archives chief who played an energetic role in opening up historical files until he was sacked when Yanukovich took over, said the action against Zabily seemed like a "witchhunt against historians".
"SBU agents not only are trying to cover up the crimes of the Stalin regime, but use his methods today as if it is not 2010 but 1937," Vyatrovych said in a statement. The SBU said compromising material had been found on Zabily when he arrived in Kiev from Lviv on Wednesday.
Its statement said action was under way "to identify the circle of people to whom the secret information had been intended."