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13 June, 2014

About Us Without Us

Live reports for foreign TV are much like navigating a minefield of alien stereotypes, alien influences, alien prejudices and alien interests. Things are further complicated by the spiteful foreign language that just keeps picking all the wrong words out of memory, as you feverishly fish for the right ones.

"Kyiv most learn the example of the neutral Austria", "to keep Putin calm Ukraine should never join the European Union", "Finlandization would be a good solution for Ukraine"… Such calls happily picked up and reproduced by the western media never seem to envisage an active position of Ukraine itself. Instead the country is given the role of a child quietly watching the adults, as they settle things among themselves.

So you begin to explain, object and resent. You argue that right now Ukraine finds itself in a completely different context compared to the post-war Austria or Finland. You argue that direct military aggression of a neighboring state calls for resolute defensive actions, for seeking allies where they can be found. And, first and foremost, you argue that negotiating to determine Ukraine's future with a country that has just brazenly annexed a part of its territory, while may be in-line with the legal standards of the 16th century, certainly isn't in-line with the 21st century ones. "So why have the right wing radicals been appointed ministers in the interim government?", condescendingly interrupts a French colleague. It is in moments like these when you fully realize how detached the reality of the Old Europe from ours actually is.

In recent months the population of "experts" in all-matters Ukraine has increased beyond reason. Keeping track of all the speakers invited to share their wisdom in TV discussions is becoming a struggle. Most of them, of course, have never been to Ukraine, but they know absolutely everything about the country, its past, present and future. These sociologists, political analysts from private consulting, professors and a whole bunch of other folk have become the consumers, carriers and transmitters of the mythology hastily fabricated behind Kremlin walls in what is essentially wartime.

The situation on TV is mirroring what transpires in big politics. Moscow is actively pushing its agenda, according to which, the future of Ukraine has to be discussed "directly between the global superpowers", as it was put by the pro-Russian Jacques Sapir during one of his TV appearances. Therefore the inclusion of Ukraine itself in such talks is seen as undesirable. At the same time there is a push for participation of Russia in the negotiations on the EU-Ukraine agreement. One of the prominent lobbyists of such an approach is Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a former Interior Minister and current French Foreign Ministry's Special Representative for Relations with Russia. The entire ploy of Kyiv belonging to "Moscow's sphere of influence" is being played out on every possible level. "Ukraine for Russia is just like Mali for France", noted the Liberation correspondent Jean Quatremer. What must have been intended as witty remark one could play down as a bad joke, if it wasn't just another piece of manipulation that keeps popping up in one talk show after another.

Talking about Ukraine is now in vogue. It is on television, radio, at conferences… This is a relatively novel topic for the French expert community. And the selection of speakers picked for western audience often reflects that primeval fear of the so far unknown culture and identity that has been infixed in the public conscience by the descendents from the white immigration together with the red commissars of Comintern. Fears seek embodiment and demand drives the supply.

"Neo-Nazis at Maidan", "fascists in the interim government" … Ukraine has never professionally worked on a state level to form its international image, and that's where a neighboring state has been glad to fill in. And although the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has produced a number of smart press releases over the last few months, these were merely a response. When it comes to own initiatives, the successful ones, the ones to prevail, Ukrainian initiatives in the realm of communication are of much deficit.

The invitation of Petro Poroshenko to Normandy for the D-Day 70th anniversary celebration (see p. 9) came as a welcome exception to the rule. The idea spawned within the Ukrainian community in France found its realization. Thanks to Bernard-Henri Lévy and other pro-Ukrainian intellectuals in France, President François Hollande agreed to break the old stereotype, according to which Russia had to be the sole representative of the former Soviet Union among the winners of the World War II. Fortunately in this case the Ukrainian logic based upon clear-cut calculation of losses proportional to the overall country's population had the upper hand. Our country, while not without struggle, is gradually stepping up to the international level where it can speak for itself.

Naturally, this situation doesn't sit well with the self-appointed "guardians" of Ukraine. Kremlin is not to end this information war while Vladimir Putin keeps the reigns. Plenty more battles are still to come. Thus Ukraine must learn not only to respond to the hostile initiatives of others, but to form and push own agendas and information strategies, to be proactive.


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