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Tkachenko dismissal: Why was Ukraine's culture minister controversial?

by Elsa Court and The Kyiv Independent news desk July 27, 2023 4:20 PM 6 min read
Minister of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine Oleksandr Tkachenko at a briefing in the Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War on July 13, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Vitalii Nosach/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)
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On July 27, Ukraine's Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, dismissed Oleksandr Tkachenko from the post of minister of culture and information policy in a vote of 321 to 2.

The issue came to a vote after the Parliamentary Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy rejected Tkachenko's resignation on July 26.

On July 20, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that he had asked Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal to consider replacing Tkachenko.

Later that evening, the minister himself announced that he was resigning from his position, claiming there was a “wave of misunderstanding about the importance of culture in wartime.”

In his resignation statement, Tkachenko highlighted the importance of culture during the war and added that funds spent on culture “are no less important than on drones, because culture is the shield of our identity and our borders.”

His words drew a mixed response on Ukrainian social media, with one Ukrainian soldier tweeting, sarcastically, that his fellow fighters should be grateful to Tkachenko and saying that drones are not necessary in the trenches: "What do you really need? That's right. A good movie!"

Who is Oleksandr Tkachenko?

The minister was an unpopular figure for many in the Ukrainian cultural sector and his resignation comes after months of complaints. A petition calling for his dismissal reached 25,000 signatures in June, the minimum amount needed for consideration by the government.

On June 19, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in response that there were currently not enough grounds for his dismissal.

Tkachenko was appointed minister of culture in June 2020, after becoming an MP for the Servant of the People party in the parliamentary elections of July 2019.

Prior to joining politics he held influential positions in the media, including as director of 1+1 Media Group. The company is owned by Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and 1+1 channel regularly screened Zelensky's comedy shows during his acting career. During his presidential campaign, the channel aired his shows more frequently, arguably trying to give his campaign an extra boost.

Tkachenko wrote a letter of resignation in November 2021, in part due to his dissatisfaction with the allocated budget for culture for 2022. He stayed in his post, however.

Calls for dismissal

Tkachenko's tenure was marked with a few scandals, each of them leading to calls for his dismissal.

In August 2022, protests erupted when it was announced that the Dovzhenko Center, an organization that houses Ukraine's largest film archive, would be reorganized and moved to a new location. Tkachenko was blamed in role in this decision, but he claimed the State Film Agency had moved forward without consulting the Culture Ministry.

According to Open Democracy, opponents to the reorganization claimed the choice "had been influenced by property development interests," as the center occupies a lucrative area of Kyiv that the state film agency can exploit for rental income.

The President of the International Federation of Film Archives, Frédéric Maire, wrote a letter to express his concern to Tkachenko, Zelensky, Shmyhal, and Maryna Kuderchuk, Head of the Ukrainian State Film Agency. He stated the decision undermines "the country’s national interests" and labeled it a threat to Ukraine's moving image heritage.

In October 2022, a petition calling for the decision to be reversed reached over 25,000 signatures, but the government refused to intervene.

At the Arsenal Book Fair in Kyiv on June 23, protesters interrupted an event Tkachenko was participating in by holding up placards that read "Tkachenko must go" and "Tkachenko destroys culture."

According to Suspilne, Tkachenko met the protesters after the event to discuss their concerns. They referred to frustrations at instances where cultural workers were refused official permission to leave Ukraine for professional reasons.

The Dovzhenko Center and the lack of protection of monuments and museums during the war were also brought up as concerning issues.

Protesters interrupt an event at the Arsenal Book Fair in Kyiv on June 23, calling for Oleksandr Tkachenko to be ousted as the minister for culture. (Bohdana Neborak)

Tkachenko's budgets

Over recent weeks Tkachenko received increasing backlash for his decisions on what the Culture Ministry should be focusing its time and budget on during wartime.

Much on the criticism was towards the ministry's television policy. Since the first day of the full-scale invasion, the state has financed a national telethon for disseminating information in wartime. Tkachenko stated that the telethon will end only when the war ends. However, the fact that the state is running television programming in such a way has created concerns about freedom of information and expression.

Hr 1.94 billion ($52.8 million) has been set aside for "production and broadcasting of television and radio programs for state needs" and Ukrainian state broadcasting for 2023.

On July 19, Tkachenko’s ministry announced that it will spend Hr 448 million ($12.19 million) on the production of Ukrainian television series, again drawing criticism.

The ministry released a statement that television series production is “a matter of state information and cultural security.” It claimed that Ukraine must produce “high-quality domestic series and films,” or else risk that viewers chose to watch Russian-made content.

However, the subject of one of the series in the works – a comedy on two IT workers from Kharkiv who try to escape to Lviv, but end up in a village in Kirovohrad Oblast – drew criticism, as well as its Hr 33 million ($898,000) budget.

Tkachenko also defended his decision to allocate a Hr 500 million ($13.54 million) budget to finish the construction of the National Memorial Museum of Holodomor, which had also criticized as exorbitant spending during wartime.

On June 13, the State Inspection of Architecture and Urban Planning revealed that the Culture Ministry had approved the new trident design for the Motherland Monument's shield. In early May, Tkachenko announced the Soviet hammer and sickle the statue would be dismantled.

The project is set to cost Hr 28 million ($762,000). The minister stated that the funding for the project comes from private businesses and the state budget will not be used.

State approves plans to replace Soviet emblem on Motherland Monument with Ukrainian trident
The State Inspection of Architecture and Urban Planning announced on July 13 that it issued a permit to replace the Soviet emblem on the Motherland Monument, one of Kyiv’s most significant landmarks, with the Ukrainian trident.

Reasons for dismissal

Zelensky stressed that his decision was related to the minister’s decisions on allocating state funds.

"I would also like to appeal to all local authorities in our country: people should feel that budget resources are used fairly and properly," Zelensky added. "Everyone understands what we are talking about. Paving stones, city decorations, and fountains can wait till after the victory."

Zelensky proposed that funding for cultural projects that are “genuinely necessary” should be found from private sources “as there are potential supporters around the world.”

Ivan Kozlenko, a former director of the Dovzhenko Center, claimed that Tkachenko had been fired "not for incompetence", or failure to evacuate museum collections in wartime, but for "insufficient loyalty" to the President's Office. He wrote on Facebook his fear that "Tkachenko will be replaced by an even more unprincipled" minister, who will be incapable of forming a coherent policy for the cultural sector.

Mykyta Poturaev, an MP and Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy, said in an interview with Glavkom that the situation was a "perfect political storm."

Poturaev believed that Zelensky's decision came from the deep disapproval of Tkachenko's budgets among the general public. He ultimately wanted to calm the increasing tension that arose from Tkachenko's unpopular policy decisions.

For Tkachenko, Poturaev said, when he considered how he was to do his job amidst the growing calls for a stop to his spending. "Why work as a minister," he posed, "if you cannot do anything in this position?"  

This Week in Ukraine Ep. 15 – Why culture matters during war
Episode #15 of our weekly video podcast “This Week in Ukraine” is dedicated to Ukrainian culture, the important role it plays in war, and why it has been a target of Russian dictators for decades. Host Anastasiia Lapatina is joined by the Kyiv Independent’s culture reporter Kate Tsurkan. Listen to
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