Projecting Ukraine. A View from Inside and Outside
Where Does Ukraine Stand? Bohdan Nahaylo asks Information Policy Ministry Adviser, Julia Kazdobina, and Atlantic Council Fellow living in Ukraine, Brian Mefford
Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main issue. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, and here’s a look at some of the stories that were in the news this week.
FOCUS INTERVIEW: Where Does Ukraine Stand? Bohdan Nahaylo asks Information Policy Ministry Adviser, Julia Kazdobina, and Atlantic Council Fellow living in Ukraine, Brian Mefford.
CULTURE and MUSIC
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FOCUS INTERVIEW: Where Does Ukraine Stand? Bohdan Nahaylo asks Information Policy Ministry Adviser, Julia Kazdobina, and Atlantic Council Fellow living in Ukraine, Brian Mefford.
Nahaylo: Hello again, and welcome to our discussion. This week on Ukraine Calling we are going to be speaking about the challenges facing Ukraine in this complicated set up of the international scene, where there seems to be not only “Ukraine fatigue,” but also this enduring problem of countering fake news, standing up to Russia in a hybrid war that is going on. It’s about time we take a look where we stand, look at the problems and challenges, but also look at what’s being done to address these issues. I have invited two eminently qualified people to talk about these issues. I invite them to introduce themselves.
Kazdobina: My name is Julia Kazdobina, and I work for the Ukrainian Centre for Independent Political Research. I am also a volunteer advisor to Ministry of Information Policy. There I work on communication strategy for Crimea.
Nahaylo: Excellent. You are right in the thick of things.
Mefford: I am Brian Mefford. I am a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. I have lived and worked in Ukraine for 18 years.
Nahaylo: Wonderful. Let’s start by saying how good or how bad are things. It seems that when the Maidan was happening, and shortly afterwards, there was a lot of international attention focused on Ukraine. But for various reasons we [Ukraine] do not seem to figure as much now in the headlines, in the coverage. And some of the news that we do get is not all favourable, or at least seems very confused. Would you agree with this assessment, Brian?
Mefford: There is a sense that Ukraine has lost the momentum it had after Euromaidan. There are reasons for that. Prior to Euromaidan, people talked about “Ukraine’s fatigue” but it meant something different. “Ukraine’s fatigue” was a sense that Ukraine can never get it right, that they are only saying the right things, but never doing the right things. Governments change. Presidents change. But nothing really changes. That was the old “Ukraine fatigue.” Now there is a new “Ukraine fatigue,” which is somehow different. The new “Ukraine fatigue,” at least in Washington and Brussels, is “too many Ukrainian politicians going there to pursue their own agenda on a weekly basis.” There is a whole parade of parliamentarians going to Washington now. Part of it has to do with a new presidential administration in Washington. But there has been just a steady flow of overlapping different factions, different MPs and so forth, going to Washington. To the point that when you talk to people on the Capitol Hill, they are basically saying, “We got it. Ukraine is important, but now let us do our work because we can’t constantly be meeting this parade of parliamentarians, all of whom think that their agenda is the most important on the planet.” It is important, but they are also pursuing their own agendas.
Nahaylo: And presumably it is also happening in Brussels and Strasbourg. Julia, how do you see the situation?
Kazdobina: I cannot really comment on what Brian is saying, because I am not really aware of that problem. I am looking more at the communications, and what’s happening inside the country. I think one of the reasons why things are like that on the outside, is that we don’t really have an agenda formed on the inside. We have been through very difficult times, and many challenging things have happened to us. Starting with Revolution of Dignity, then Russian aggression, the occupation of Crimea, and then Donbas and so on. It is a lot to digest. To be able to understand it ourselves, to understand where we are going, and also to put things in a global context. You see what is happening in the European Union, you see the trends in the US, which look very confusing. At some point it was clear that we were going towards integration with the European Union, but now there is no wholesome entity to integrate to. I can understand that there are a lot of confusion and a lot of uncertainties…
Nahaylo: Conditions have changed…
Kazdobina: Many things have changed. We are finding our way, and also we are going through a transformation inside Ukraine, where people are learning that a “lose-lose” situation is not a way to go forward. We need to learn to communicate on a “win-win” basis.
Nahaylo: It is interesting what I am hearing from you. You started by saying, yes, we’ve got this uphill struggle against Russian propaganda aimed at us. You’re saying that the problems stem from issues inside the country, and how we project ourselves abroad. Or don’t project ourselves abroad. But let’s look at who we’re standing up to in the Fake News efforts, the hybrid warfare that’s going on. Are we as Ukrainians, whether living here or abroad, are we holding up in this difficult situation?
Kazdobina: Well, I think that Russia is helping us immensely. Because it’s not interfering only in Ukraine, it’s now interfering in the West as well. So, initially when we were talking about information warfare launched by the Russians, I think that the West mostly thought about information warfare as cyber warfare. So nobody really thought about information warfare disinformation campaigns and the absolutely deliberate lying that Russia’s doing. So now Russia is helping us immensely, by going to Western countries and doing the same thing. And so people in the West are beginning to realize that Ukraine’s not making it up, this is what’s really happening.
Nahaylo: But we hear that Russia is succeeding by blurring the issues, by blurring the distinction between truth and fake. And a lot of people who may be tangentially interested in Ukraine seem to be confused. ‘Well, it’s a local issue, let the Russians and the Ukrainians sort it out, it’s far away from us.’ They seem not to have grasped the international and legal implications for the entire international system, of what this behaviour of Russia’s occupying Crimea and intervening militarily in Eastern Ukraine amounts to. Brian?
Mefford: Well, I don’t like to give the Russians credit very often, but they have launched a very sophisticated series of attacks, not only the hybrid warfare and on the battlefield itself, but in terms of informational policy. And of course in the Information Policy Ministry you have your hands full on a daily basis of combating this, and pushing back against these fake news stories. I recently wrote a column about not only fake news but fake opinion pieces. Where articles are put on websites under a certain name, even though the named person didn’t write it. So this whole phenomenon has taken on a new life. And look, people get their information in different ways now than they used to do twenty years ago, where you had three main television networks. Now people are getting their news from Face Book, they’re getting their news from twitter, they’re getting their news from yahoo news. Everything’s changed. And that’s affecting Ukraine dramatically as well. Fortunately, Ukraine is very quickly adapting to the new rules of the game, so to speak, pushing back, and countering a lot of this propaganda. But in the early days of the Euromaidan, the Russian narrative was THE primary narrative out there. Now, fortunately, as Julia points out, the international community is getting wiser to it, they see that things are not as TASS or the Kremlin News Service puts it. So that’s a good thing. But it has taken time to develop.
Nahaylo: TASS and Russia Today, and let’s not forget the huge budgets that Russia is able to afford to pay people to troll, and to put out stories and the opinion they want. But how are the Ukrainian authorities reacting? Julia, you’re an adviser to the Ministry of Information Policy. What is the capacity of the Ministry to deal with this? Does the government, does the leadership of the country, devote enough resources, enough attention to this problem?
Kazdobina: Well, the Ministry was formed at the end of 2014. So we’ve been around for two years. In the first year there was not enough funding at all, there was barely enough to pay salaries. But I think it’s a very dedicated team, and a lot of the people on the team are communication professionals. And also the Ministry is trying to take a strategic approach. We’re not just trying to counter every single fake news story out there, I think that’s not really the job for the Ministry. The Ministry is working on developing a strategic system of communication, working with foreign partners. We’re developing a foreign broadcasting capacity, and participating actively in international forums, trying to bring the Ukrainian vision there. And also our position is that Ukraine shouldn’t be complaining and asking for help everywhere. We should be trying to contribute, and share our experience. And tell people in the West who, fortunately, have not seen the same kind of aggression as we’ve seen, to try and warn them about certain things. And share our experience and work together with them and try to find solutions together.
Nahaylo: Okay, Julia, could you give us a few examples of what the Ministry is doing as part of its strategy? Let’s take the example of Crimea. How is it addressing this issue of the occupation of Crimea and its consequences for the Crimean Tatar population?
Kazdobina: We have a deputy minister who is a Crimean Tatar, and she is very dedicated to Crimea and to Crimean Tatar causes as well. When we talk about promoting Crimea internationally, she participates in many international events and she is also very active in the information sphere in Ukraine. We’re trying to develop a strategic approach also to communicating in Crimea. The first stage was developing the broadcasting capability to broadcast into Crimea. Because you probably know that when Russia occupied the peninsula, they basically cut all of Ukrainian broadcasting, and they block access to Ukrainian websites. And so, several radio stations received licenses [from Ukrainian authorities]. Now we’re trying to develop the best content, what needs to be conveyed to the residents of Crimea, what needs to be conveyed to the residents of Ukraine about Crimea, and what and how to convey to western audiences information about Crimea.
Nahaylo: Is the Ministry drawing on external expertise, people like Brian, or people from the outside, professional journalists, commentators, analysts, to raise the professional level?
Kazdobina: We try to do that. And a couple days ago we had a group discussion with a number of journalists and analysts residing here in Ukraine. And I was very grateful for the opinions and the information that people shared. Because they gave me some very good ideas about what we can do, and what are the better way to do it.
Nahaylo: Okay, Brian, you’ve been living here quite a few years, and you’re an analyst a Fellow of the Atlantic Council too. What would your tips be for both Ukrainians within the country that would who would like to project Ukraine’s image more truthfully, accurately abroad. And also if you have any tips for people listening out there who might belong to the diaspora, or may be concerned about the situation in Ukraine. What role can they play more effectively than, perhaps, they already are?
Mefford: Well, one thing to address, what I was talking about earlier with Ukraine fatigue, is there needs to be more of a unified voice. Just as after the Orange Revolution, now after Euromaidan, everyone feels like ‘okay we got rid of the bad guy, but now we can resume our old internal conflicts that have gone on for hundreds of years and so forth.’ And that’s a path to failure. It led to failure after the Orange Revolution, and it will lead to failure after Euromaidan. So, Ukrainians need to speak with a unified voice. General Wesley Clark use to say that whenever you leave American soil, you’re no longer a Republican or a Democrat, you are an American. And that would be a wise foreign policy move for Ukrainians. As they project in Washington, then Brussels, and other capitals is you are no longer for Tymoshenko, or Poroshenko, or Lyashko, or some other opponent. You are a Ukrainian, and you speak with a united voice. That would be a wise foreign policy move for Ukrainians. Now the government obviously is making some efforts on that. But of course, politics is going to be politics. People are going to try and promote their own image, and advance their causes. We saw that with Tymoshenko’s intercept of Donald Trump on the way to the men’s bathroom. There is always going to be the political factor to it. You can’t take that out. However, the battle for Ukraine is not done. Yes, the war is frozen for now, as we say, I mean there’s hostilities daily, but let’s say the boundaries are not shifting at the moment. But, there’s still the battle against corruption. And as former U.S. Ambassador [to Ukraine] Geoffrey Pyatt said, “Ukraine faces two enemies, one on the battlefield and the other one being corruption.” That is what Ukraine has to show some results on. If you show results, the messaging part is easy. The hardest part for anybody in communications is when you have no message and no results.
Nahaylo:Julia, perhaps you could just add for those representatives of the diaspora living in North America, or Britain, or Australia. What else could they do at this stage to help you, to capacitate your efforts?
Kazdobina: Well, one thing is English [language] ability. We do need help with English very often. Although there is a lot of effort being put into not only English but foreign languages generally. We get criticized a lot. There is this state-owned news agency UkrInform, which tries to supply news in different languages. But we get criticized very often for the language [quality]. But then again with the amount of funding that we have we can’t really hire the best professionals. Unfortunately, that’s the situation. So I think that this is where the diaspora could really be helpful.
Nahaylo:Are you uniting your efforts, synchronizing them with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or other Ministries that might be relevant?
Kazdobina: We’re trying to work together. In some instances it’s successful, in some it’s not. But we’re building cooperation. I thinks it’s going to take time.
Nahaylo:So it’s still a learning curve.
Nahaylo:Though time is of the essence. Any final thoughts? What would you say have been the most promising moves forward in this area that have been made? The setting up of the Ministry? The fact that the diaspora is behind you? Or that you have a lot of good people, solid analysts in the West prepared to speak up about Ukraine?
Kazdobina: I think it’s the understanding, if we’re talking about the information sphere. I think it’s the understanding at the level of the Ministry that change is not going to happen overnight. That it’s going to be a long, uphill struggle. And there is a lot of work that is to be done to change the approach to communications in this country. Communications between government and society, and inside society, and actually [to learn to] appreciate the value of communication. Because in the Soviet Union that was not the case. We were just told from the top what we need to be doing. There was no communication. There were just orders and instructions. So this is going to change. And there is an understanding, and there is a plan where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there.
Nahaylo: Good. And Brian, you were mentioning that Ukraine shouldn’t just harp on about being a victim, being aggressed, as it is, but to project a positive side, to show that it’s contribution and it’s place in the scheme of things. Apart from being effective in delivering on reforms, fighting corruption that you mentioned, what else could it do? How can it get across to the broader international public the gravity of the issues, the complexity of the issues? And, how in the longer term, this affects other countries?
Mefford: Well, one thing in addition to achieving reforms and fighting corruption is to avoid this constant cycle of elections. There’s even some talk that maybe elections will take place in the autumn. That would be a disaster for Ukraine right now. The government needs time to govern. And this constant cycle of elections serves only the politicians, not the Ukrainian people. That would be something that they could do concretely. But also Ukraine now is on the forefront on the battlefield. The advances of the Ukrainian military are huge over the last two to three years. And on the information policy side, the information war, Ukraine is on the front lines. And that experience is valuable, because other countries will be experiencing the same problems Ukraine has. Today it’s Ukraine, tomorrow maybe its Georgia again, or it’s Moldova, or it’s the Baltics. So Ukraine’s experience is unique. There’s no better experience than going through something yourself. So that experience can be shared, and Ukraine will no longer be the victim, but somebody that can teach, and share that experience with other countries.
Nahaylo:Well, obviously a lot more can be said on this subject. Our experts, I think we got across to our audience the challenges, the complexities that we face, but also the hard work that some of our colleagues are doing, both in the country and outside, to set the record straight, and to illicit the support, and to move forward. So I want to thank Julia Kazdobina, an advisor with the Ministry of Information Policy, for speaking with us. And Brian Mefford, an independent political analyst, also a Fellow of the Atlantic Council. Thank you for your contributions today.
Kazdobina: Thank you.
Mefford: Thank you.
The Blockade to the Occupied Territories now Official
The Ukrainian government has blocked the movement of all goods in and out of the region that has been seized by Russian-backed separatists. The decision to do so was made at an urgent meeting of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. This had been preceded by two months of a blockade of rail lines and roads into the occupied territories in Eastern Ukraine by war veterans and activists.At first the government had not supported this blockade, arguing that Ukraine would incur losses more than several billion dollars due to blocking of coal delivery. Also, that half of Ukraine’s power plants needed anthracite coal to produce electricity.The war veterans and activists had insisted that doing business with the occupied territories amounted to financing terrorism. And that a blockade would stimulate a reform of the energy sector in Ukraine.But now Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council had decided to implement the blockade due to an escalation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and due to the seizure of Ukrainian businesses in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by separatists. And presumably, under pressure from protesters in the streets.Having blocked the movement of goods officially, the government is expecting that this will reduce the tension in the region. Opponents of the decision have maintained that this will reorient the Ukrainian businesses towards doing business with Russia, and facilitate the movement of the separatist region away from Ukraine. France and Germany are among those who have criticized the decision.
Sanctions against Russian banks
Ukraine put sanctions in place against 5 Russian banks this week, which are functioning in the Ukrainian market. The banks are Sberbank, VS bank, Prominvestbank, VTB bank, and BM Bank.The decision had followed days of protests by activists across the country. Activists even bricked up the entrance to a major Russian bank, Sberbank, in central Kyiv. The protests started after Sberbank said it would recognize passports issued by Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Earlier, Russian President Putin had ordered Russian authorities to recognize identity documents issued by the separatists.
Meanwhile, in the East of the country, there has been shelling in all sectors of the front line this week. The situation has been particularly tense around Avdiyivka. Due to non-stop shelling attacks, the town of Avdiyivka is once again without electricity, and cell-phone coverage is intermittent Humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross, have been distributing bottled water and candles.According to the Ministry of Defense, all across the frontline and zone of conflict, 2 soldiers have been killed in action, and 27 wounded.
There’s been an update to our story from last week, about the arrest of the Chief of Ukraine’s Tax Agency, Roman Nasirov. He has has been released from jail on a bail of 100 million Hryvnia, or about $3.7 million USD, and is awaiting further decisions in his case. We reported last week that he had been detained and charged with fraud and embezzlement. This has been a landmark achievement for Ukraine’s Independent anti-corruption bureau, NABU. In the meantime, the government attempted to appoint an auditor for the National Anti-corruption Bureau, but the proposed candidate met skeptically, and with opposition from other parties, and did not gather enough votes in the Parliament.
Ryanair enters the Ukrainian Market
On a more positive note, Ryanair has entered the Ukrainian market. This week Europe’s biggest low-cost airline(Ryanair) officially announced its entry into the Ukrainian market. Ryanair intends to open up nine new flights, connecting Kyiv and L’viv with European destinations starting from October 2017. Tickets have already gone on sale. Another low-cost air carrier, Wizzair, had also said it will be starting 4 additional flights to Ukraine this year. This comes at a time when demand for air travel is rising and Ukrainians are spending more on travel. According to the State Aviation Service of Ukraine, Ukrainian airlines saw a 31% rise in international passengers over the past year, while domestic flights in Ukraine saw a 27% increase. The number of passengers was even 2% more than in 2013, which would indicate that the market has come out of the recession of 2014-15.
Special Parliamentary Meeting
And, there has been a special Parliamentary meeting on Friday 17 March, to commemorate the Centenary of the Ukrainian Revolution. The first independent Ukrainian government, the Central Rada, was formed one hundred years ago. This government led the national movement, and with its four Declarations, went on to lead the country from autonomy to full sovereignty. In 1918 it set the precedent for a parliamentary democracy that was the basis for today’s independent Ukraine.
An important retrospective exhibition of Tetiana Yablonska is taking place at the National Art Museum in Kyiv. Yablonska was a painter, who started out working in socialist realism, but had a tendency towards impressionism. Many of her works were awarded prizes, although at the same time her major works ran into controversy with the authorities for not conforming enough to socialist realism. Yablonska explored some eternal themes and developed with the best traditions of Ukrainian painting. The National Art Museum has the largest collection of her works, and this exhibition is an opportunity to see some pieces that are Ukrainian classics. Meanwhile, also this week in Kyiv, several works by the scandalous (as some regard him), avantgarde (as others see him), cutting edge (as still others see him) Ukrainian writer, playwright, and dramatist Les’ Poderevians’kyi, have been on stages in Kyiv. I saw his riotously unconventional play, or rather musical, Animals (Звіри) the other night. We had the bizarre, if not grotesque, spectacle, of Stalin and Hitler dancing together.
Here’s an improvisation on a theme. Vira Bondar is a Ukrainian classical/rock guitarist. Here she teams up with Crimean Tatar legend Enver Izmailov to give you their take on Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water.’ Enjoy! https://hromadskeradio.org/programs/pora-roku/pora-roku-efir-12-bereznya-2017-vira-bondar
Next week we will be following the main stories in Ukraine again. Tune in for a new episode. And we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at [email protected]. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko, Nykole King, Ilona Sviezhentseva, and Marta Dyczok. Headlines and Culture by Oksana Smerechuk and Bohdan Nahaylo. Music selected by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Natalia Kucheriava.