Interviewed by Yuriy Lapayev
Can you provide some overview and highlights of your research?
I research ‘strategic narratives’ – the stories countries tell about themselves and how these make a difference. I run a centre in London – the New Political Communication Unit – where we’ve been researching this for a decade now. I was also the lead advisor on the UK Parliament’s committee on ‘soft power’, looking to see how a country can create a compelling story about itself for the rest of the world so that other countries wish to cooperate with it. And for better or worse, since 2014 Ukraine has become a laboratory for studying how narratives might make a difference in politics. Russia and Putin tell one story about Ukraine, and about the dastardly West. European leaders tell a different story about Ukraine moving closer to Europe and NATO. We are conducting research across Ukraine seeing what it’s like for ordinary Ukrainians to be caught in the middle of this ‘battle of the narratives’.
Three quick highlights from three projects we run. Our research funded by Marie-Curie actions shows that a lot of Ukrainians don’t want to choose between the EU and Russia. They feel close to Russia for religious and cultural reasons, but they want the economic opportunities that exist with the EU. Older people feel deeply attached to a shared Soviet history even if they don’t necessarily like the current Russian government. They resent this history being ignored or silenced. Younger generations don’t deny that history exists but they do not see it as central to their lives and future. It is a delicate balance.
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Our research funded by the European Commission shows that since 2014 young people in particular have developed a much more realistic and pragmatic expectation about what the European Union can do for them. They don’t expect the EU or its member-states to ride to the rescue in the conflict or help reform Ukraine overnight. They also recognise that overcoming corruption and having a democratic society – not just democratic elections every few years, but ongoing participation in politics – this is the responsibility of Ukrainians themselves. The EU can’t solve these problems for Ukraine.
Finally, the research we’re doing for the British Council and Goethe Institute about the power of culture to overcome conflict shows that, despite the pragmatism of young people, there is a new generation in Ukraine who have the skills and energy to make a vibrant civil society happen. But that generation must not lose faith and turn away from politics.
All of these projects show the society of Ukraine is not black and white. People hold complex feelings and loyalties. They distrust most news. They know they must take responsibility for their society while often feeling distanced and alienated by the political elite. From outside Ukraine, Russia and the West can think of the situation as an ‘information war’ or ‘battle of the narratives’ but that misses the messy reality.
How can the perception of the EU among Ukrainians impact further development of bilateral relations?
The EU cares deeply about how it is perceived, and our research can make a difference here. The European Commission asked us to find out how Ukrainians view the EU. Hence, when Ukrainians talk to us, we can relay their views to Brussels. This can contribute to realistic relations – that neither inflates expectations nor reduces optimism and hope.
It is also important for Ukrainians to maintain good bilateral relations with member-states and their societies – with Germany, France, the UK. This is why cultural and educational exchange, scientific and business ties, even sport, matter and I hope Ukrainians take full advantage of the visa-free regime to communicate their culture in towns and cities across Europe. It angers me how difficult it is for Ukrainians to get a UK visa but hopefully this will change over time.
Do you feel the impact of propaganda on the perception of the EU?
If you mean Russian propaganda, then there is not much evidence it has made any difference to the perceptions of Europe or the EU. There is lots of evidence of Russia trying to communicate negatively about Europe and stir up divisions. There is not much evidence of this working. But it doesn’t have to work much to still make a difference. If just one or two percent of a society become more open to far-right or anti-EU leaders, then this can make a difference at elections.
Propaganda rarely makes a difference. Eighty years of communication research shows this. The reason some populations have become more pro-Russia or anti-EU by about 5-6 percent over 2014-16 is because Europe went through crisis after crisis – we mishandled the refugee crisis, there were high profile terrorist attacks, and economic inequality has not improved in much of the EU since the financial crisis. It is not that people in the Baltic Ыtates or Central Europe suddenly love Russia because they were fooled by Russian propaganda. It’s that they feel let down by their own governments and look for an alternative.
Propaganda is sexy and everybody gets excited by it but it doesn’t explain why public opinion changes.
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In your opinion, can the visa-free regime really change the view of the EU among Ukrainians? How?
It is one factor. This is how it should work: Over a generation it will become normal for youth, business people, scientists and artists to travel and live in the EU. Equally, some Ukrainians will work in the EU in manual jobs. Certainly, their views of the EU will change: our research shows people in Ukraine often have a false view of what life in the EU is like because the Ukrainian media only report what happens in the EU when it affects Ukrainians. Ukraine is not a big story in the EU: our relations with China and the US are much more important. Once Ukrainians live in the EU they will see this. But my hope is that the best and brightest of Ukraine are able to move back and forwards between home and the EU, and that this will be beneficial for all.
What differences in the perception of the EU have you found between young and old Ukrainians?
The EU is simply more relevant to young people in Ukraine. They have their future ahead of them and their horizons are wide. But there is a generation in Ukraine which in 1991 would have been 30 or 40 years old. They would have had children and a place to live. They had some security at home. Suddenly the USSR no longer exists and there is a lot of chaos. Many people from that generation lost a lot in the 1990s. They look back to that time. But their children look forward. The 1990s are irrelevant to their children, who are now in their 20s. They lost nothing and it is quite realistic for them to expect to travel to the EU. So it is not simply that young or old are more or less pro-EU. It is that they were born into a different history, a different era, and Europe will play a different role in their lives.
What does Ukraine need to do to improve its image internationally?
Ukraine can make changes at home and abroad. At home, ordinary Ukrainians must not think politics is something only the elite does. Otherwise the elite are free to act as they please, fight each other, waste money, and never address corruption. Ukrainian citizens need to step up at all levels – street, town, city, region.
Abroad, Ukraine can promote its assets more clearly. The cuisine. The music. The vast and often beautiful nature. South Korea picked a handful of aspects of its culture to promote and pushed them hard - Taekwondo, K-pop, kimchi noodles. Ukraine needs to pick some things from its culture that are unique and attractive and start promoting them, so people’s image of Ukraine can improve.
Ben O’Loughlin was born in 1976 in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He received his Bachelor’s degree from the Northumbria University in 1998, and a DPhil in Politics at the New College, University of Oxford, in 2005. He carried out projects on media and radicalisation for the Economic and Social Research Council and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure. Prof. O’Loughlin is Co-Editor of the Sage journal Media, War & Conflict, an international, peer-reviewed journal that maps the shifting arena of war, conflict and terrorism in an intensively and extensively mediated age launched in 2008. In 2013, he and his colleagues published the book Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order. In 2013-2014, Prof. O’Loughlin was Specialist Adviser to the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and UK influence. He has authored numerous works on international relations, strategic communications and public diplomacy.
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