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An image for a song

Halya Coynash

As if concern expressed by Ukrainian public figures for the “psychological” health of the population were not enough, there would now seem to be a health drive on the image of the patient, that is, Ukraine in the world. Specifically the image, as though it was a mere hop, skip and a jump from a pristine appearance to glowing health. Not only the government and the media are hurtling to touch up the country’s appearance, but also public relations professionals – at whose initiative it’s unclear.

It became known on 8 July that the government’s concern about the information security of the country was now official. The media showed scant interest in the President’s signing of the “Doctrine on Ukraine’s Information Security”. It had already received a hammering from specialists, and presumably nobody could face reading it again. One has the impression that some of those who write with approval that such a Doctrine has “finally” been approved have never read it at all. That is to be regretted since it would truly be worth thinking about the impression just this one document could make on people in countries where democratic principles are set in more than words.

It seems likely that the authors of this masterpiece in the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine did give likely impressions a thought. In their commentary to the draft, we read about their “study and generalization of world experience” and about how the views of an unknown number of unnamed civic organizations were taken into account however the document was not shown to international experts. It’s certainly embarrassing when you have totally ignored the recommendations made by European specialists with regard to the not unrelated law on information. They have not only failed to remove the bizarre term “information sovereignty”, but have flung in a whole array of other incomprehensible phrases. There is no explanation, for example, as to which precise “negative information and psychological influence” the authorities must protect people from, and how. It is enough to glance at the grotesquely similar documents recently emerged from Russia to be in no doubt that interpretation of negative content can vary significantly.

There is an eerie feeling when the sources are supposed to be different, and yet you hear the same vague – and therefore dangerous – nonsense. Still more so when together with shocking scandals and outrageous failures to observe international obligations, animated discussion concerns not reforms, but how much money is needed so that the international community, despite all odds, will have a positive image of Ukraine.

It is undeniably true that Ukraine these days is mentioned in connection with crisis, quarrels and conflict with Russia. It is, however, all too often forgotten that until recently things were very different. From the end of 2004 the democratic community was full of enthusiasm about Ukraine, or more precisely, Ukrainians who had refused to have their rights trampled. Like Ukrainians themselves, people abroad watched the events, the course of reform and became disillusioned. Not immediately – they tolerated the inactivity or signs of regression for a long time because the words hadn’t changed, and because it was simply difficult to part with the illusion of happy ending amid the snowflakes. The disillusionment set in two years ago when it became clear how accurate the most pessimistic predictions of chaos following the constitutional amendments of December 2004 had been. It became equally apparent that the political will for more than fighting among themselves was entirely lacking. Systematic reforms, for example, of the judiciary have long been ready however it would seem that neither the President nor parliament wish to put them into effect. On the other hand they have all become extraordinarily concerned about the “spiritual” or “psychological health” of the population, about the fight against “negative content”. We’re not to blame - it’s Ukrainophobic enemies who are against us, or some kind of public malaise which we’re called upon to cure. The moral brigade around the National Expert Commission for the Protection of Public Morality, and others, encounter opposition from the media and public, however they don’t stem the flow of idiocies, quite the contrary, they are gradually being fixed in law.  And when the authorities cannot totally ignore some outrageous scandal they initiate a criminal investigation, counting on being able to quietly terminate it at a later date. Unfortunately they all too often get away with it.

It’s clear that this cannot fail to adversely affect the country’s reputation. In one of the recent articles about improving this reputation, we read that “a positive image ensures additional investments, favourable international agreements and tourist flow.” The problem is that a person buying a home will not take your word for the place being a real paradise, but will want to check the state of the roof, etc. Words alone will not build a reputation as a country where you can safely do business, where corruption is within reason and the authorities don’t hassle for no reason. All of that needs to be earned.

The positive impact of tourism is also not in dispute. As long as those who come, don’t go away regretting their choice of country. And they don’t cancel their trip because of worrying reports that could suggest a dangerous lack of protection from the law enforcement agencies and the courts. They’ll hear about police reluctance to initiate criminal investigations even where somebody’s been attacked. Or about a National Deputy suspected of involvement in murder, who was allowed to vanish just when he’d been stripped of his immunity. And about the judge who terminated a prosecution against the son of a deputy who at high speed while inebriated hit another car, killing its driver. These are only the most recent examples of mockery against the principles of democracy.

On which undoubtedly negative note I should say that I do not at all believe that a positive image is unattainable, but see no grounds for relying on those in power to achieve it.

            There are regularly articles about the amounts spent by different countries on their image. We hear, on the one hand, about cultural centres such as the British Council and Goethe Institute, and on the other, about the staggering figures which Russia and China fork out (according to some accounts, 1 and 8 billion dollars, respectively.). We would do well to think about how the money is spent. All cultural centres in democratic countries that I know have a clear and transparent mandate. They are to be entirely apolitical, create a positive and accurate image of the relevant country and arouse the desire to get to know the country better. This obviously has elements of advertising but no way is it propaganda, which cannot be said of Russia and China’s efforts.

            I could go on for some time about Russia’s probable expenditure. One percent, perhaps more, of my assumptions could be fully backed up. There is no transparency and for reasons that don’t need to be spelled out, reports on how much they pay people and for what kind of commissioned material, deliberate stirring up of trouble or other “services” are not made public.

All of this is clear and the only question mark is over which example Ukraine should be following. Judging by the clear Russian roots of the Doctrine of Information Security and a number of other indicators, those in power seem more drawn to the propaganda model.

Ukraine cannot compete in this area with Russia for purely practical considerations. In my opinion, nor should it.  Since January this year we have been hearing all about Ukraine’s alleged defeat in the information war, and about the astronomical amounts which Gazprom has at its disposal. I followed the foreign press during the gas crisis and simply do not see where its image suffered from the successful activities of a richer opponent. Its reputation was dented by lack of transparency and openness, and anyway the West does not always buy the propaganda churned out by the Kremlin and its commercial clone Gazprom – especially when it’s freezing because there’s no gas!

Obliging media outlets and journalists are quite often used to spread lies about Ukraine and some other countries. Such tactics need to be fought, yet once again, by concerned individuals, civic organizations and the media, not the government (unless, of course, the untrue information has come directly from another state. Fought, incidentally, with the truth, not another brand of propaganda. I can be silent about the moral question here since such a policy is quite simply more effective.

I cannot agree with Oleksy Tolkachov who believes that information about Holodomor has made people in either countries associate Ukraine with horror and suffering, and feel a kind of revulsion. Politicians in different countries have tried not to “irritate” Russia, however on the whole the international community has shown outrage over the crime and sympathy for its victims. Any revulsion was probably if the subject was seen as being used for political purposes. .

And what is not used for political ends! It is frustrating that just when the world has seen the Kremlin’s new pathological behaviour, its commission to fight “falsification” of history, especially its inadequate reactions in the run-up to the seventieth anniversary of the signing of the pact between Stalin and Hitler that Ukrainian politicians could not, just this once, behave a little more wisely. It is during these months that those in power should have steered clear of any politicization of historical issues. They couldn’t restrain themselves, or they have their own aims, however the polarization of society around certain historical issues such as the role of UPA [the Ukrainian Resistance Army] can only hurt the country.

In 2004 the world media were enchanted not by a plait, face or promises, but by squares filled with people all over the country and by citizens who peacefully, but firmly stood their ground and demanded their rights. They all went off leaving the new regime to do the rest. They learned that without mechanisms and public control, any regime will remain like its predecessors and nothing will change. It is surely time to stop letting them distract the public from the real problems, culprits and need for reform. Any peaceful, but determined, steps by the public aimed at explaining to those in power that they must finally learn to play by democratic rules will improve Ukraine’s reputation far better than any propaganda or cosmetic adjustments.

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