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25 June, 2018  ▪  Alla Lazareva

The Corrosion of Information

The shadow of Kremlin’s prisoners over the 2018 World Cup

 

Shock, anger, a feverish search for ways to mobilise colleagues, politicians and significant figures... Not that the verdict against Paris Ukrinform correspondent Roman Sushchenko was a surprise. Twelve years of maximum-security prison is fully consistent with the Kafkaesque logic seen in the sentencing of Oleh Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Mykola Karpyuk and the Kremlin's other political prisoners. Nevertheless, the news was stupefying: when you have known someone personally for years, the injustice is perceived many times more acutely.

 

According to Mark Feigin, Roman's representative in court, as well as Ukrainian Deputy Speaker Iryna Herashchenko, the verdict in Sushchenko's case could facilitate his exchange for a Russian held in Ukraine, as it marks a mandatory stage in the formal prisoner swap process. The FIFA World Cup, which is about to start, will attract additional interest to Russia from around the world. Therefore, in the context of this international event, there is a small extra chance for Ukrainian political prisoners to come into the spotlight of world attention and rouse the indifferent.

 

France has a large chance to play a special role in the case of Roman Sushchenko. He worked in Paris for the last six years before his arrest and this country is one of the four negotiators on the military conflict in Ukraine as part of the Normandy Format. Emmanuel Macron recently visited Saint Petersburg and moved onto "first name terms" with Vladimir Putin. In fact, not much is required: just for the French president to have the desire and find the time to take up the issue. Since Monday, the Élysée Palace and the website of the French head of state have been flooded with messages and appeals, open letters have been penned and signed, and a demonstration is being prepared to demand the release of Roman Sushchenko... Will this quantity of actions turn into a high-quality political reponse? Frankly speaking, there is no such certainty.

 

It cannot be said that Roman was not well known in Paris. Official accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hundreds, if not thousands of publications (from short news items to extensive analytical reviews and interviews), a huge number of press conferences, seminars, colloquiums, coverage of official visits and negotiations at various levels... Every day over many years, he crossed paths with hundreds of French colleagues. However, no more than 10 Parisian journalists joined his support committee. The savage, by the standards of the civilised world, verdict was reported by a dozen influential media outlets, including, of course, Le Monde, Radio France Culture and Le Point. But there could and should have been much more if there were the proper level of journalistic solidarity. If only international organisations such as the IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) and RSF (Reporters Without Borders) did not maintain a shameful silence for two days after Sushchenko's verdict was made public. If only over the last quarter of a century in Western Europe, and in particular in France, a vibrant and attractive Ukrainian narrative had been formed and established that would allow communities to quickly recognise Ukrainian challenges and react promptly to them.

RELATED ARTICLE: A World Cup Dripping in Blood

The general indifference that has overgrown the collective vision of Ukraine like abundant moss is fed by the world's insufficient awareness about our lives. "In order for Ukraine to stay trendy, a big American producer would have to shoot a blockbuster about the country," Michel, a Parisian engineer, jokes. "Then even every single French village would know that such a place exists." If you ask ordinary Frenchmen what they know about Ukraine, some mention chess player Anna Muzychuk who refused to attend the world championship in Saudi Arabia and others recall the Maidan, Crimea and the war, but no clear emblem, such as the Russian bear or Gallic cock, exists in the collective imagination. Where there is a lack of systematic knowledge, the void is filled with stereotypes from without.

 

A striking example is the response of the French media to the staged murder of Arkady Babchenko. Discussion of this truly non-trivial event did not die down for several days. After a long break, Ukraine returned to French TV, although not in such a favourable perspective. Everyone found time to make a comment: publicists and criminologists, specialists in geopolitics and writers, historians and law enforcers. "The Ukrainian intelligence services are not very serious," declared Jean-Dominique Merchet from new daily newspaper L'Opinionon the programme C'est dans l'air. "The Russian intelligence services, on the contrary, are serious"...

 

Such sentiments were ten a penny, no matter how much they contradicted common sense. Even if the communications of Ukrainian law-enforcement officers regarding the attempt on Arkady's life were not flawless, certain faux pas and the haste in Ukrainian actions by no means prove the "seriousness" of Russian intelligence. This can perhaps only be said about Moscow's consistency in eliminating its opponents – from Trotsky to Litvinenko and Skripal. According to Russian logic, Babchenko also belonged to this category of "defectors". Therefore, the danger to his life was and is real. But the French journalist did not look towards historical parallels. He only mocked the press conference in Kyiv and confidently identified the attempt to assassinate the journalist as a fake, although the investigation is ongoing and it is too early to judge the quality of the evidence.

 

It is noteworthy that Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists, in contrast to their reaction to Sushchenko's sentence, which corresponds to the best Stalinist traditions, commented on the Babchenko case twice. At first, as is the established pattern, they demanded an investigation and then got annoyed as they felt they had been cheated. The good old standards of the Cold War, when Western intellectuals actively fought for Soviet dissidents and political prisoners, have fallen into oblivion. The current human rights bureaucracy increasingly works on sustaining itself, basically transforming into PR agencies. Formality trumps expediency, the context of information warfare is virtually ignored and the right to propaganda is in practice equated to the right to freedom of speech.

RELATED ARTICLE: Oleh Sentsov’s lawyer: We have seen some reasons for optimism about the ongoing work that might lead to Oleh’s release

The Cold War years had a clear communicative style and recognisable symbolism. Hybrid warfare has erased the boundaries between ethical and immoral, between acceptable and inadmissible, between post-truth and reality, depriving the elite of its backbone. The four years of war in the Donbas should have been an argument for the emergence of a myth of Ukraine as a soldier country, a symbol of resistance to Russian aggression and despotism. But something has gone wrong, at least in France. The times when fifty countries boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow because of the war in Afghanistan have passed. The Western public, in anticipation of a festival of football, is getting comfortable in front of their screens and some are even going to the Russian Federation. As a result, no one is boycotting the Russian World Cup because of the war in Ukraine. A steadfast minority fights for the freedom of political prisoners, hoping that despite everything the quality of their efforts will overcome the widespread indifference.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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