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26 November, 2012  ▪  Alla Lazareva,  Bohdan Tsioupine

A War for the Neighbours’ Ears

The Party of Regions launches yet another campaign to whitewash the Yanukovych regime and discredit the opposition. Its members accuse international observers of violations and struggle to persuade the West that the election was democratic in Paris, and talk about threats from Svoboda in London

“Communication is first and foremost a war for the ears of your neighbour”, Czech writer Milan Kundera once said. This is especially true when it comes to political communication during elections. The Party of Regions’ mouthpieces were also competing for the ears of their neighbours, among them Western European researchers, MPs, senators and journalists. “The government must also explain its standpoint on the election”, a colleague in Paris once said. Indeed, the world has quite a few questions for the Ukrainian government after photos surfaced showing special Berkut police fetching ballots from polling stations in Pervomaisk and elsewhere.

The latest protection campaign for the ruling party unfolded in Paris, led by PR MPs Leonid Kozhara and Ivan Popesku. They held no press conferences or other public events during the first week of November, yet met with interested parties in personal meetings, a source claimed.

The PR has delegated its communications in France to Justine Gilles from Fleishman-Hillard Paris. She previously tried to arrange a visit of ex-president Viktor Yushchenko to Paris after placing a huge poster of Yulia Tymoshenko on the façade of the Paris mayor’s house. The attempt failed. Now she is offering interested parties the opportunity to meet with Leonid Kozhara, Deputy Head of the Verkhovna Rada Committee for Foreign Affairs, according to correspondence attained by The Ukrainian Week. The Presidential Administration is now relying upon Kozhara’s diplomatic expertise when it comes to its image in the West.

The Ukrainian Week has tried to contact Justine Gilles for a meeting to speak with the president’s advisor about his comments on election violations. In an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia (The News), Kozhara once stated, “International observers are breaking the law by saying that Ukraine’s parliamentary election was undemocratic”. “Mr. Kozhara’s schedule is full,” Gilles replied by email, while Kozhara left for London to talk about the threat of Svoboda at the UK House of Commons. In her communication with the press and politicians, the PR’s French aide introduces herself as an activist from a “Brussels-based NGO monitoring Ukraine and everything linked to Ukraine’s EU integration”, and not as an employee of the well-known public relations company whose email address she uses. The NGO she mentions is known as the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.

Its platform is centred on European integration, the establishment of direct connections between Ukrainian and European politicians, and dialogue with civic activists. However, its Ukrainian co-founders are all PR people, including Leonid Kozhara, Vitaliy Kaliuzhnyi and Yevheniy Heller. In its public declarations, the Centre seems to be all about democratic rhetoric, but its activities reflect Soviet propaganda practices. “I think I attended just one event of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine,” says an activist from the Ukrainian community in France. “It was a meeting with the Central Election Commission’s Mykhailo Okhendovsky this August. They publicized the election law and touted the virtues of the government, but they did it so unprofessionally! A history professor who was sitting next to me just wondered quietly, ‘Who are they kidding?’ The address on the invitation letter was proudly stated as Pantheon-Sorbonne University. When we arrived, a young woman redirected us to a building next door that had barely anything to do with the renowned university. It was on the fourth floor, with no elevator, and wobbly chairs.”

Another aspect of the Centre’s activities is its selective approach to informing its Western audience, such as a mailing on access to the media sent prior to the election on October 7-10. The note stated in English and French that opposition parties received more airtime on Ukrainian television than pro-government parties. This is true according to the State Radio and Television Committee, but its list of opposition parties includes Natalia Korolevska’s party, whose promotional campaign outspent all other parties running in the election.

UKRAINE’S RULERS WARN OF THE SVOBODA “THREAT”

On November 6, the outcome of Ukraine’s parliamentary election was discussed at the British Ukrainian Society roundtable at London’s Westminster parliamentary committee session hall. Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UK Volodymyr Khandohiy elicited grins from the crowd when he suggested that the Ukrainian and US elections had similarly unpredictable outcomes. However, the disparity between the two elections was clear the following day when the Americans had successfully completed their election and announced a winner while Ukraine was still counting ballots with the help of special police and mysterious burly men with journalist IDs two weeks after election day. Nobody else talked about similarities between the elections in Ukraine and the US that night.

Leonid Kozhara spoke on behalf of the PR at the London discussion sessions. He seemed perfectly happy with how the counting went in Ukraine and claimed that the longest delays were in first-past-the-post districts. According to Kozhara, his party barely had any problems in the election. His biggest concerns were about the opposition. With a worried expression on his face, he tried to look like a true European politician who cares about Western values of liberal democracy: “Two radical parties from the far-right and far-left wings gained a large share of Ukrainian votes. This means that the Ukrainian parliament will have a new flavour… We are all concerned about Svoboda’s statements, especially those concerning ethnic minorities. Svoboda lacks tolerance and we are particularly concerned about its anti-Semitic declarations… Nazi and fascist ideology is banned in Ukraine. Svoboda is a marginal party. I’d like to assure you that my party will never let Svoboda cross the red line.”

During the discussion, however, Kozhara was actually forced to admit that it was the actions of his party, including the passing of the notorious language bill, that pushed many voters to support parties promising to resist the government’s anti-Ukrainian initiatives.

Eventually, the overall impression was that Kozhara had failed to accomplish his key mission. British Conservative MP John Whittingdale who observed the Ukrainian election did not sound too concerned about Svoboda. He said that some people in Ukraine also told him that Svoboda follows a fascist neo-Nazi ideology, but he decided to draw his own conclusions based on what he saw and heard from people he considered reliable and trustworthy. “A man I know very well, who is fairly well educated and informed, accompanied me on my recent trip to Ukraine. He told me that he was voting for Svoboda. As far as I know, he is not a fascist or a neo-Nazi. He is undoubtedly a Ukrainian patriot, and he was outraged by the language bill. He wanted to manifest his patriotic feelings. I assume something similar takes place in the UK, too. There is frustration with the leading political parties, and the voters seek alternatives.”

Another issue at the London discussion was the assessment of Ukraine’s prospects of drawing closer to Europe. The prospects did not sound too optimistic. Participants who were not part of the Ukrainian delegation often mentioned “selective justice” and comments from the audience gave the impression that the West still sees Tymoshenko’s case as a symbol of the current government’s nature.  

Leonid Kozhara struggled to dispel this, referring to the trial over Romanian ex-premier Adrian Năstase on charges of corruption, and assured Europeans that Kyiv simply had not had enough opportunities to explain its position to Europe. In response, he was told that he was speaking at the British parliament at the moment, and that Ukraine is represented in a number of European organizations and institutions which have been calling on its government to stop antidemocratic processes in the country, and have mostly been ignored. Therefore, nobody in London risked rejecting the prospect of Ukraine’s escalating international isolation. Kozhara’s diplomacy seemed to fail once again. According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, the Presidential Administration is already looking for someone to replace him as its key mouthpiece in the West.

KOSTIANTYN HRYSHCHENKO AND HIS FRIENDS

On November 12, the Paris-based École Militaire hosted a conference titled “Ukraine: A Strategic Crossroads in Europe”, arranged by the Revue Défense Nationale (National Defence Review) magazine and Vienna-based Renner-Institut. Although the conference took place in Paris, the contacts for questions and references were Belgian.

Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kostiantyn Hryshchenko, was present at the conference. He appeared quite confident, assuring everyone in English and French of the Ukrainian government’s unfaltering will to lead Ukraine to EU membership: “Candidates did not debate on international issues at all during the election. Why? Because all participants of the political process in Ukraine have a common objective – future membership in the EU.” As he listed the government’s accomplishments on the path to bringing this objective to life, Hryshchenko mentioned the new Code of Criminal Procedure, the “biggest solar power station in the world under construction in Crimea”, and the Association Agreement “initialled and ready to be signed.”

Backstage, Hryshchenko had a nice chat with some Western visitors whose speeches were quite friendly towards Ukraine’s government. Ex-Chancellor of Austria Alfred Gusenbauer was one of them. “Democracy is the victory of the majority over the minority. Some of the defeated in Ukraine cannot come to grips with their defeat, hence the problems,” he said. Alexander Kwasniewski claimed that the mixed election system “is definitely not good for Ukraine or other countries with insufficiently structured political systems”. “You can offer any system to a country, and some people will still criticize it no matter what,” Gusenbauer responded. Meanwhile, voter bribery, voter coercion and abuse of administrative resources in FPTP districts were not mentioned. “He must be a lobbyist from the Party of Regions,” suggested an international observer who had worked at the Ukrainian election as he listened to Gusenbauer.

The conference went on as a sequence of speeches rather than a debate. No time was left for questions from the audience, so only the speakers had a chance to ask them. Sensitive or controversial issues were tackled very gently, with no reproach. “Imperfections or falsifications?” wondered Senator Hervé Maurey, Chairman of the France-Ukraine Friendship Group at the French parliament. Delivered in a somewhat worried tone, his speech seemed the most adequate reaction to the political developments in Ukraine.

“Is it possible to expect that Yulia Tymoshenko will be released soon?” moderator and journalist Gérard Sebag asked Hryshchenko. “I’m not God, I can’t say when Ms. Tymoshenko will be free,” he answered vaguely, adding “You know, her close friend, Ukraine’s ex-premier Pavlo Lazarenko, is currently in a US jail…”

Although held at the prestigious École Militaire, with well-known participants, high goals and political correctness, the conference lacked something important. “What did you expect?” a French journalist wondered. “Take an old Soviet car, fix it up and hire the best promoters in the world to sell it. Will they find buyers? I don’t think so. It’s the same thing with the Party of Regions. No matter who promotes it in the West, they will never hide its falsifications or stolen victories.” 


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