Foreign Ministry As Political Mouthpiece

18 February 2011, 09:17

When ministers, premiers, and other powerful European-scale officials start writing for the press, they have to driven by insightful ideas. In their texts, they typically offer their own vision of global and regional processes. For example, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski writes in European periodicals about the Polish vision of Eastern Europe and global challenges. Recently, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has joined the club and offered its views on ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and journalists who “incorrectly” report about Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine. Ukrainian diplomats have published rebuttals in various foreign periodicals which carried interviews with  Ms. Tymoshenko or articles critical of Ukraine. What has emerged as a result is something that has been talked about for a long time, but until now missing – a concerted government attempt at an image-building campaign abroad. But this current attempt has proven rather lacking – foreign journalists laugh or are sometimes shocked and European diplomats call the PR-campaign Soviet-style propaganda.

Petty revenge

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry quickly reacted to an interview Ms. Tymoshenko gave to La Croix. The interviewer was Alain Guillemoles, one of the few French authors who write about Ukraine in a professional manner. The interview was coincidentally published around the same time Piotr Smolar’s critical piece was carried by Le Monde. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko countered with an interview in La Croix. His interviewer complemented the minister’s comments with an account of the context in which political processes are currently taking place in Ukraine and wrote about serious human rights issues. Our foreign ministry was not exactly enthused about this balanced coverage, and the Ukrainian embassy in France issued a short press release which purported to describe what is really happening in Ukraine: “The criminal proceedings instituted against Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the Fatherland party, are a part of joint actions to combat corruption in Ukraine. …  It is evident that Ms. Tymoshenko is using the case opened against her and, in particular, her rejected request to be allowed to travel to Brussels in order to boost her party’s popularity.”

French journalists compared this press release with reports issued by Saddam Hussein's administration and noted the same self-assurance and claims to having the only correct view possible. Neither Mr. Guillemoles nor Mr. Smolar has received the above release. Mr. Guillemoles was registered for the embassy’s releases and had regularly received them prior to that point. It appears that the two journalists were simply scratched from the list. “I have conducted interviews with nearly all of the political leaders of Ukraine. I asked Viktor Yanukovych for an interview on numerous occasions, but we have failed to agree on one,” Mr. Guillemoles said, explaining that he as a journalist is ready to listen to and report what everyone has to say. For some reason, the Ukrainian embassy refused to share the press release with Ukrainian journalists who asked to receive it, saying that it was intended for the French audience. Why was it so exclusive?

This communication provides interesting facts: 300 cases are open against Ukrainian officials and a mere 70 against BYuT members. The article “Anti-Yanukovych ‘fantasies’ aim to harm reform,” authored by Oleg Voloshyn, director for information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, and published in EUobserver on 8 February, is even more interesting: 350 cases against government officials and 73 against BYuT members. Mr. Gryshchenko’s article “Ukraine Is Progressing After Orange Revolution's Failure” carried by The Wall Street Journal on 12 February mentions 360 investigations into officials’ misdeeds and 30–50-percent cuts in the bureaucratic apparatus. The Ukrainian audience was given only the lower limit — 30%.
Thus, it appears that foreign audiences are better informed about the fight against corruption in Ukraine than Ukrainians themselves. Specific stories about national-level investigations into large-scale bribery in the government, except for the story of ex-Speaker of the Crimean parliament, Anatolii Hrytsenko, are nowhere to be seen or heard. The government is either failing to inform the Ukrainian society or has nothing to report.

One-way street

The above article by Oleg Voloshyn is the answer of a “Ukrainian patriot,” to quote from the text, to journalist Anatoliy Martsynovski who attempted to “delegitimize the new government” in his piece “After Belarus sanctions, what about Ukraine?” Mr. Voloshyn does not beat around the bush and begins with the main thing — accusations against the journalist who “dared” write and publish an article in Internet-based EUobserver with scathing criticism of Mr. Yanukovych.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was miraculously diplomatic and reserved in other cases, such when Russian officials took actions against Ukrainian organizations in the Russian Federation and the Ukrainian library in Moscow or Russian consul in Lviv Yevgeny Guzeev made his scandalous statements. The correctness, restraint, and common sense of all reactions, statements, and comments were presented as hallmarks of diplomatic professionalism. Mr. Guzeev’s mention of “'project Ukraine' run by Austrians for Ukrainians in order to cut them off from Russia and Rus'” was not, evidently, deemed by official Kyiv to be as harmful as Ms. Tymoshenko’s statements and articles. Proof of this is that, among other things, Mr. Gryshchenko reacted to her article in The Moscow Times with an article of his own. Entitled “Tymoshenko’s Bad Advice,” it contains a perfect example of a diplomatic faux pas: “Just like Che Guevara probably wouldn’t have made a good plumber or construction worker, Tymoshenko did not do a good job as prime minister.” The article also says that the people passed a vote of no confidence in Ms. Tymoshenko at the most recent elections. The reader, however, will remember that she got 45.47% in the run-off, while Mr. Yanukovych polled 48.95%. If her level of support is “no confidence,” then what the president won is extremely weak confidence.

Another likely component of the government’s informational demarche is an interview with Bruce Jackson, a noted American lobbyist and president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, published by The Day. “Looking at the streets, towns, universities, and stadiums,” he discerned a “huge transformation” in Ukraine. In particular, he found it “touching” the way Mr. Yanukovych was “talking about this corruption, how hard it was, and that the security forces couldn’t cope with it.”

In contrast, our foreign ministry has not expressed a clear-cut position on truly important strategic issues, such as the OSCE resolution on Belarus, which calls on Council of Europe members that are outside the EU to join the EU sanctions against Minsk, and the closing of Ukrainian associations in Russia. We also remember its vague reaction to the revolutionary events in Tunisia and Egypt, when an assessment was called for, and to the brutal crackdown on protesters in Minsk on 19 December 2010, when our ministry barely managed to express its “concern over the disproportionate use of force.” The ministry has been dragged into political confrontations and turned into a mouthpiece that does nothing more than make the world laugh as it resorts to Soviet-style methods in the Internet era.

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