24.08.2008 | Halya Coynash

Independence Day: Many happy returns!


Ukraine on 24 August is celebrating the seventeenth anniversary of independence.  Hard perhaps to explain to people of other countries whose path to statehood was less painful why the day is of significance for Ukrainians wherever they are.

This year’s celebration is clouded, and not, for a change, because of the motley bunch of politicians too concerned with their power games to govern the country.  The reason almost doesn’t need to be spelled out. That “almost “is worrying many Ukrainians fearful that the world does not understand their legitimate anxiety. Or that it does understand but will sit back and watch anyway.

Russia’s insistence that it is entitled to send troops in to “protect” Russian nationals cannot fail to alarm Ukraine with a large percentage of Russians in the Crimea, and in fact throughout the country.  That is clear to the world, however the nature of the threat and the types of weapons used are, I suspect, less apparent.

The conflict over South Ossetia came only a few months after President Putin made sneering comments about Ukraine supposedly not being a real country.  I don’t know how much has been reported in the world media but in Ukraine similar or more extreme comments from people like Moscow’s Mayor Yury Luzhkov are disturbingly common. Suggestions have been made quite openly that the borders should be re-examined.

It is unfortunately true that a very large number of Russians are liable to laugh at the “idea” that going to Ukraine is travelling abroad.  This is not necessarily the stuff rabid chauvinism is made of but simply something they have not become accustomed to.  And it is something which is now being aggressively questioned by people in high places in Russia.

The bellicose antagonism towards Ukrainian statehood is also being flogged by the Russian media and by certain Ukrainian media outlets, generally with strong Russian links.  The highest-circulation paper in the Crimea, Krymskaya Pravda has headlines today which present Russia as the liberator, the USA as fuelling Saakashvili, and reports implying persecution of people holding two passports – Ukrainian and Russian.

The newspaper’s tone with regard to dual citizenship is unbalanced however there have been checks and somewhat exaggerated comments on this from politicians and in the media.  This is understandable, yet unfortunately plays right into the hands of those most eager to undermine Ukraine’s independence. The number of people freely given Russian citizenship, in South Ossetia, unlike many with far more justification, but less geopolitical significance for Russia, is suspiciously high. Such behaviour by the Russian authorities needs to be carefully studied in Ukraine and conclusions drawn.  They must not be knee-jerk responses suggesting that ethnic Russians living in Ukraine are some kind of “fifth column”.  This is not a moral statement, nor naïve hiding my head in the sand. It is a desperate plea to not make blunders that will simply set people against each other and prompt them to forget that they are all Ukrainian citizens together.  There are probably some people in the Crimea who would like the peninsula to become Russia. There are very many who would not. 

Some media outlets paint a quite different picture.  Those who see Russia slipping back into Soviet mode with imperialist aspirations should try to imagine what it must be like if all you see and read shows one carefully doctored image of Russia, its “friends”, “enemies” and, God forbid, “historic role”. The vast majority of people in any country are consumers of information, no less so than of food items. And if there are specialists giving warnings on food packaging, information sources do not openly tell their audience that they are presenting one, thoroughly slanted point of view.

There is little that can be done about Russia while the inundation is so absolute.  A lot can and must be done in Ukraine.  Serious effort should be made to ensure that there are sufficient media outlets presenting a more objective point of view.  And I do mean objective, not “the other side”.

Effort is also needed to counter and refute the torrents of lies being poured into the media.  This almost always begins with Russian language material, but is frequently fed to those willing to swallow any nonsense – or to copy and circulate it to serve their own ends. 

There has been a lot of discussion about the information war regarding South Ossetia, and a lot of hard-hitting comments made.  Unfortunately, due to the war one other scam of a particularly vicious nature was forgotten, this being the manufacturing of “news” about a pogrom in Lviv at the end of July.  It is pure fabrication, yet has not been countered properly outside Lviv despite the fact that it comes 10 months after the first recent attempt to show Ukrainians as frighteningly rabid anti-Semites and just five months after another attempt was snapped up by British and German media outlets who repeated lies fed them about a Hitler doll supposedly popular in Ukraine. 

It is vital that Ukrainians and other countries pay heed to this.  The aims of those spreading such lies are varied but all unashamedly destructive.  Almost all such scams push the idea that Ukrainian nationalism is linked with fascism and that scratch a Ukrainian and you’ll find an anti-Semite.  And they are all lies and all provably so.  It is not a bad weapon in an information war to show such lies for what they are and to place the motives of those who foist them on us in question.

Those motives must be bad since they breed dissent, division and aggression.  Those who shriek of the country being divided conveniently forget that during November and December 2004, when tension was high and people indeed on different sides of the barricades, there was no bloodshed. 

Ukraine has every reason to cherish its statehood and to cultivate pluralism of opinion and diversity of culture. It needs support in ensuring that this is preserved.

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