Tracking Ukraine’s political transition: launch of Ukraine Forum at Chatham House

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On 7 July 2015, Chatham House hosted a launch of Ukraine Forum, a new platform focused on Ukraine’s domestic political situation and progress of reforms. The speakers were Nataliya Gumenyuk, journalist, Co-Founder and Head of Hromadske.tv, and Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, First Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ukrainian Parliament (Verkhovna Rada). The event was chaired by Robert Brinkley, British Ambassador to Ukraine (2002-2006), Chairman of the BEARR Trust, and Chairman of the Steering Committee of Ukraine Forum.Klympush-Tsintsadze spoke about her experience as MP. In less than a year of work of the Verkhovna Rada elected in 2014, some of the initial illusions have dissolved. However, the speaker stressed that there still exists a core of parliamentarians devoted to social change. Legislative anti-corruption activities have been among the key issues discussed. De-oligarchisation, in particular in the context of the energy sector, and deregulation were mentioned as some of the ways of dealing with the current weakness of the Ukrainian economy. Other issues were related to the development of civil society, such as introduction of e-governance to allow citizens correspond with the government and thus be involved in reform processes. Law enforcement and police reform laws were also mentioned. In general, civil society in contemporary Ukraine is much more mature than after the ‘Orange revolution’ of 2004 that was a successful protest against electoral fraud; the authorities are also more open to the engaged dialogue now, underlined Klympush-Tsintsadze; at the same time, there is still no systemic way of producing results. The speaker also warned that populist and heated discussions occasionally happen in the Parliament, and may even increase in view of upcoming local elections in October 2015. While there are certain risks connected with divisive discourse, she still hoped that is would not damage the general unity, since ‘we’re together in the same boat named Ukraine, and we have no chance to lose it’.

Gumenyuk spoke about the current developments from a journalist’s point of view. Continuing the themes of political participation and civil society, she noted her appreciation of the young generation coming to the Parliament as a signifier of the civil society taking political responsibility and understanding the need to act not just in the form of street protest. There is not much naivety among the population about the reforms and their pace, though; this increases the risk of empowering populist moods, especially during the war. Regarding the conflict in the East of Ukraine, Gumenyuk admitted that the war for the hearts and minds of people in Donbas is an important issue that the civil society has to work on. This is more about people in the conflict-ridden territories being tired and frightened of war, than about ideological divisions; economic blockade by the government also problematises the situation. While there is a lot of volunteer help, stressed the speaker, there are also many politicians complaining about supporting the East and thus contributing to the rise of populism. State institutions do not have to be substituted by volunteer groups; rather, they need to be strengthened. Gumenyuk also mentioned the role of journalists as being a critical voice and safeguarding the reality, thus supporting the development of the civil society. Extending her view to the wider geographical region and other countries with breakaway territories, she concluded: if Ukraine fails to successfully implement reforms, then everybody else fails; if it succeeds, then there is a chance that everybody else succeeds.

Questions from the audience ensued. James Sherr from Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme asked what the West should and should not be doing to support Ukraine. Klympush-Tsintsadze noted that it is often more difficult in terms of foreign relations to talk to friends than to enemies, as exercising critical capacity might be difficult for the former. While appreciating the West’s generally supportive position, suggested that the commitment of the Western countries could go beyond expressing ‘deep concern’ and include more action. For example, a tougher stance on Budapest memorandum by Britain as one of the guarantors of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was suggested. More active position in terms of economic support, such as credit provision and developing trade relations. Gumenyuk, in turn, underlined the importance of sharing knowledge and good practice by the West, and claimed that a Marshall Plan for Ukraine would be cheaper than lives of people lost in Donbas. Military training also matters, she asserted. As well, there is a need for careful understanding of the situation and debunking of the potentially polarising myths about a divided society. Klympush-Tsintsadze added to this that Putin underestimated the ability of Ukrainians to resist and die for their country.

While discussing the issue of controversial decommunisation laws recently adopted in Ukraine, Klympush-Tsintsadze spoke about Ukraine trying to get back to its roots and trying to work with its uneasy and controversial history. In this respect, she pointed out that one of the positive aspects of these laws was opening access to the archives. Toppling Lenin’s statues and outlawing communist and Soviet symbols is about getting rid of ‘Soviet mentality’, rather than reinforcing the divisions between Russia and Ukraine, claimed the speaker. Gumenyuk had a more critical opinion on the laws, however she admitted that such processes have been awaited by the community since 1991.

When asked about possible Putin’s agenda, Gumenyuk said that it was not about territorial gains, but rather about different kinds of destabilisation. At the current stage of its intervention in the Donbas region, Russia seeks to maintain a frozen military conflict that one could awake or revive at any time. It is also about demonstrating that it does not allow people to govern. As well, the situation has currently become more geopolitical, and Russia’s efforts are also focused on dividing Europe and enforcing ideas of revanchism. Russia’s communication with the West is based upon speaking with separate countries, instead of speaking, for instance, with the European Union as such. Klympush-Tsintsadze agreed with these assertions, stressing the importance of ‘divide and rule’ approach for Putin’s regime in the long run.

Speaking about decentralisation as a possible way to resolve the conflict, Klympush-Tsintsadze said that it is very expected by communities and regions of Ukraine who are eager to go through the process. The crucial issue here is to make sure that the community becomes the most important unit; the country should remain a unitary state and federalisation is not an option. Donbas and Crimea should have their own political voice, as other regions of the country; however, the occupation of the territories makes it problematic, since the situation is less about politics and more about military decisions.

Gumenyuk was critical about the speed of reforms, saying that they are being implemented slower than they should be. She noted the lack of institutional capacity in the country, and suggested that there should be a system of institutional reforms first; lack of people who can possibly implement changes was also mentioned as an issue.

As a media professional, she also spoke about information war. The speaker stressed that Russia’s participation is not limited to the media: it involves a complex of methods and resources, from public diplomacy to agents in the West and military intervention in Donbas. On the West’s part, increasing international news agencies interest and participation in the events in the East of Ukraine is needed: there are still few journalists covering the conflict on the ground. Supporting independent Russian-speaking media is another objective. She noted that participation in the information war can be difficult: even StopFake, the fact-checking initiative that has been rather successfully debunking propaganda since early 2014, struggles to find funding as a volunteer project.

Klympush-Tsintsadze also said that the speed of the reforms was too slow, and they still haven’t tackled civil service. On the lower levels of the state system, not so many people have been changed, and the system in general has been very self-preserving so far.

In general, the event provided a brief overview of Ukraine’s reform process, the progress that Kyiv has made, and the challenges that remain. While it was impossible not to mention the role of Russia or the West, a significant part of the discussion was devoted to Ukraine’s own development process, and this should set the agenda of Ukraine Forum as the newly launched platform.


first published at: http://www.ukrainianlondon.co.uk/tracking-ukraines-political-transition-launch-of-ukraine-forum-at-chatham-house/


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Can Television be a Force for Good? Screening and discussion with BBC Media Action at the Legatum Institute

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On 7 July 2015, Legatum Institute hosted a TV series screening and lunch discussion with BBC Media Action’s Ellie Haworth (Middle East & Europe Head of Projects) and Josephine Casserly (Governance & Rights Adviser), moderated by Peter Pomerantsev. The project they presented is a web series titled 5baksiv.net, targeted at young audiences in Ukraine and aiming to support the country in dealing with tensions and divisions exacerbated by the war.

The series which currently includes four eight-minute episodes is focused on two youths who start their own business in contemporary Ukraine, willing to do any job for $5. As a result, they have to interact with different kinds of people, and often find themselves in ridiculous, tricky, or difficult situations. The project is a contemporary drama, seeking to address the problems that young people are facing in today’s Ukraine, in particular the problems of hate speech and polarisation of the society.

The TV drama was produced in collaboration between BBC Media Action and National Television Company of Ukraine which operates the state-owned television channel Pershyi Natsionalnyi that has a coverage over 97% of Ukraine’s territory. BBC Media Action, the charity and international development arm of the BBC, works in partnership with local media and development organisations around the world, seeking to promote social change, improve education and healthcare, and support human rights in developing countries. The current project is funded by FCO; the US State Department is also said to be willing to support it. The idea behind the series is based upon research conducted by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology among young people aged 15-24 from cities and villages in different regions of Ukraine.

The screening of two episodes introduced the two protagonists of the series (a Ukrainian- and a Russian-speaker), the challenges of their business, and a mysterious girl. The story is bound to cause emotional and ambiguous reaction of parts of the audience: one of the scenes features an unknown character listening to ‘Novorossiya radio’ delivering an obviously pro-separatist and anti-Ukrainian broadcast. In another scene, the characters visit an IDP camp where one of their jobs is to entertain refugee children from the East of the country. Emphatically bilingual conversations of the protagonists have already caused some criticism among the audience in Ukraine for allegedly sounding unnatural and impeding popularisation of Ukrainian language, to which the director of the broadcaster responded by stressing that the series actually reflects the contemporary linguistic situation in the country. At the same time, raising controversial issues in the show is one thing; preaching to the converted by presenting ideas that would confirm existing prejudices instead of challenging some of the existing views is also something to be avoided, as noted by the writer Zinovy Zinik from the audience.

After the audience proceeded to the lunch discussion, the speakers gave a brief presentation about the project. The big question that they sought to find an answer to was whether quality TV dramas can help the country develop and solve its problems. The speakers sought to strike a balance between optimistic and pessimistic views on media’s social impact. They consider opportunities of the media to provide social influence, increase accountability, and create a space for dialogue and participation. Media’s role in conflict is based on providing unbiased and independent information, generating broad and inclusive discussion, and possibly shifting social norms around violence and tolerance, stressed the presenters. TV drama as a particular genre is able to create a safe space to address problematic issues and complex dilemmas. Rather than being didactic, it relies on a softer approach which is ideally based upon research, implies translating nuanced and realistic images and discourse, and encourages critical thinking. Haworth underlined that the project intended to show how people were affected by the war in a realistic way, instead of creating a political drama.

Politicisation of the very subject of the series is something that the producers constantly have to deal with. Showing the series in the war-ridden territories in the East, for example, is hardly possible: it would be difficult to find a local broadcaster there and remain in good relationships with NTU. The choice of channel was not an easy one, admitted the speakers when asked about the reasons of limiting themselves to a state broadcaster: NTU was ultimately chosen not only because of its coverage, but also because it was trying to become a public broadcast service. The challenges of affiliation with state institutions like FCO or State department were also highlighted.

In conclusion, the discussants noted that media projects cannot change things on their own and need to work in conjunction with other initiatives to support education, healthcare, and human rights. In the particular case of 5baksiv, they were clear in stating that it is not possible to put an end to the conflict, hatred and social divisions by a single TV series; however, with this project they hope to contribute to the reversal of some of the negative practices.


first published at: http://www.ukrainianlondon.co.uk/can-television-be-a-force-for-good-screening-and-discussion-with-bbc-media-action-at-the-legatum-institute/


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Gender, nationalism and citizenship in anti-authoritarian protests in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine

On 20 June 2015, a workshop that brought together scholars, human rights and gender equality activists, artists and journalists working on Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, took place at Robinson College at the University of Cambridge. The participants discussed the implications and intersections of gender, nationalism and citizenship in the recent and ongoing protest movements in the three countries. The interdisciplinary discussions also addressed a number of related issues, from body politics and corporeality to migration and diaspora, from media and propaganda to art and literature, from war to ethical and methodological quandaries of research and activism.

20150620_103341The workshop was introduced by Rory Finnin (Director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies programme, Head of Department of Slavonic Studies, and Chair of Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies) as a timely initiative of investigating the questions of agency and authority in contemporary social movements and upheavals. The workshop organiser Olesya Khromeychuk (Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, SSEES UCL, and UEA) outlined the key rationale behind the event: some social groups such as women or LGBT seemed to be invisible during Euromaidan protests in Ukraine while more mainstream and heteronormative groups were in the limelight. This idea prompted broader concerns about the necessity of embarking on a comparative discussion about the meaning of the aims of protest for more peripheral groups.

 Panel 1 focused on LGBT activism. Nadzeya Husakouskaya (University of Bergen) discussed the construction of the transgender subject in contemporary Ukraine as framed through the concepts of citizenship and protest. She stressed the complexity of the sex reassignment procedures in the country, where obtaining the proper documents is as important for transgender people as physical body modification. While the ‘normal’ citizen is constructed as mentally and physically healthy, heteronormative and obedient, the transgender subject is produced as a sterile citizen in all means: with no children, no mental health issues or suspicious diseases, no violations of social adaptation, no psychological characteristics that might complicate the adaptation process. Husakovskaya outlined two groups of ‘resistance practices’ of the transgender citizens: these include, among others, some discursive practices during the interview, and strategies implemented in medical and bureaucratic settings in order to navigate the system and subvert the heteronormative matrix.

20150620_095948Tamara Martsenyuk (National University of ‘Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’) spoke about LGBT community and Euromaidan with a focus on human rights issues. She stressed that although homosexuality was decriminalised in Ukraine in 1991, homophobia still remains a challenge. Hate speech, homophobic politicians, and aggressive attitudes of far right groups are significant issues. The weaknesses of LGBT community include its internal stratification, ghettoization, limited street activism and lack of willingness to stand up for the group’s human and civil rights. Martsenyuk described the participation of the LGBT in Euromaidan as a ‘strategy of invisibility’, which implies a certain compromise: their participation was underscored by the priority of the struggle for the nation over the concerns about the rights of the marginal minority. The ideology of homonationalism was suggested as another important dimension of LGBT activism, which implies construction of a ‘true’ gay identity as belonging to the Ukrainian nation. Such ‘veiled’ participation was also connected with instances of homophobia during the Maidan. The speaker stressed: while LGBT issues have become more mainstream after the revolution, the situation is still difficult, since war and economic crisis are currently more problematic than the issues of LGBT rights.

Anna Shadrina (Centre for Gender Studies, European Humanities University, Vilnius, Lithuania) questioned the role of gender as a potentially useful category for understanding the political landscape in Belarus. She concentrated on an empirical example of the recent (failed) Victory Day road trip of the Moscow nationalist motorcycle club Night Wolves who were stopped at Belarusian-Polish border and infamously mocked as one of the bikers had a slip of the tongue about border guards searching through their make-up bags. The jokes at the traditionally masculine, sexist and homophobic bikers ensued. The bikers were portrayed as ridiculous, as the cultural codes associated with femininity and/or LGBT were imposed on them. Shadrina’s analysis of the Belarusian opposition’s mockery suggested that this was a case demonstrating the subordination of gender interests to national interests, where the heteronormative masculine images and patriarchal ideologies are privileged both by the authoritarian regime and liberal or nationalist opposition.

Richard Mole (UCL SSEES) in his presentation focused on the Russian ‘queer diaspora’ in Berlin, discussing the perceived relationship between nationality and sexuality in Russian context and as reinterpreted by diaspora activism. In Russia, Putin’s anti-gay policies were devised as part of strategy to ensure the survival of the Russian nation, as homosexuality was presented as a threat both to the physical reproduction of the nation and to the ‘Russian identity’. LGBT activism was thus delegitimized, and Russian LGBT migrants faced double marginalisation: as ethnic minorities within the host society, and as sexual minorities within the ethnic community. Mole suggested that migrants eventually appealed to the shared ethnic identity and queer diasporic community rather than purely shared sexual identity in their activism against the suppression of Russia’s LGBT groups.

Panel 2 targeted the questions of gender and revolution. Ilya Yablokov (University of Leeds) spoke about Russian protest movement and anti-Western conspiracy theories that flourished since Putin returned to power as president in 2012. Yablokov drew upon an understanding of conspiracy theories as populist theories of power which help to unite the audience as ‘the people’ against the imagined ‘Other’, represented as a secretive ‘power bloc’, and thus contributing to the redistribution of power in the society. In Russia’s case, conspiracy theories were used in order to divide the society into the camps of pro-Putin majority and the oppositional minority. From NGOs to Pussy Riot, the search for internal enemies and delegitimisation of opponents has been presented as development of an important interpretive frame for both domestic and foreign policies.

Lena Minchenia (Lund University) addressed the discourses of shame in the accounts of protest activities and state violence in Belarus in 2010. Shame was explored as an emotion prescribed to a citizen of Belarus and connected to the protests. Minchenia analysed shame as feeling of negation/failure, as a recognition of the ideal and desire of its proximity, and as the power of the normative. She suggested that the Belarusian shame discourses are classed and serve to separate the speaking subjects from others. Shame also can be presented as future of the nation, and contribute to gendered images of the protests. It was thus interpreted as producing divisions and hierarchies as a classed and gendered phenomenon.

The true highlight of the day was the talk by Maria Berlinska, activist and volunteer specialising in operating drones for the Ukrainian military units fighting in the East of the country, who founded the Centre for airborne drone intelligence in Kyiv. Berlinska took part in Euromaidan, and has worked with a number of military units during the war. Drawing upon first-hand experience, she discussed the role of women, gender discrimination, and subversion of patriarchal patterns during the 2013-2014 protests. The questions of gender equality and LGBT issues were not assumed as the timeliest ones during the Maidan, and privatisation of the protest rhetoric by nationalist groups has partially contributed to this, according to the activist. Female protesters were marginalised, and often portrayed as ‘helping’ to do the revolution and supporting the men, rather than having an active agency. The ‘sandwich ideology’ (‘ідеологія канапок’) that prevailed at the Maidan implied that women’s roles were largely limited to cooking, cleaning up, and taking care of men, while the men took over the opportunity to have equal impact. The image of a Berehynia (female spirit, protector of the hearth) was commonly attributed to women. The three main roles of women in the Maidan, as observed by Berlinska, were that of a cook/cleaner, a peaceful messenger addressing men, and a motherly role. The role of a medic was much less in the limelight, but was actually very dangerous.

20150620_121125However, the activist stressed that the real situation of women in the Maidan was quite different: women actively participated in all kinds of activities. For example, Berlinska herself organised the process of preparation of Molotov cocktails. She also was the one who addressed the gender issues from the stage, and who suggested to respond to the popular and prominent slogan ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ with ‘Glory to its [female] heroes!’, in addition to the traditional response ‘Glory to its heroes!’. The activist noted that in fact, no one really structured, regulated or restricted the participation of women in violent events; at the same time, during more peaceful periods, there were more restrictions, explained by the presumed ‘need to ensure the safety of our women’. Berlinska said that even despite their active participation, some women did not see their activities as related to general issues of gender equality, but rather as personal achievement. Lack of a feminist outlook is connected with gender discrimination still being seen as a norm. Taking into account her more recent experience on the frontline, Berlinska concluded with a suggestion that equal rights of women in the army will contribute to an increase of gender equality in Ukraine more generally.

Panel 3 concentrated on the issues of feminism. Marina Yusupova (University of Manchester) examined the issues of masculinity politics and feminist protest in Russia. She pointed to a surge of interest in gender-related issues in Putin’s Russia in 2014: while previously gender matters received little attention, recently the liberal media announced that feminism was a trend and there was a need to write about it. Yusupova explained the popularity of feminism by its relation to high politics. While the conservative political agenda employs traditional gender roles, and Putin is portrayed as an epitome of masculinity (in particular, by employing particular images of femininity), a perfect opportunity of structures has been created for disappearance of the illusion of gender neutrality and the rise of feminism, argued the speaker.

Evgenia Ivanova (University of Oxford) reflected upon paradoxes of the role of political calendars in female political participation, relating these to the idea of somatic citizenship understood as an attempt to talk about citizenship in corporeal terms. Political calendars deliver an explicitly political or socially significant message, and can be employed for both political support and protest. The majority of the calendars recently printed in different countries have been presented as a ’female space’, either being initiated by women, featuring female images, or addressing women’s issues; and relying heavily on the body and nakedness. Ivanova mentioned, among other examples, the pro-Putin calendar produced by Russian students in 2010 and including sexualised images of female students, as well as the alternative version published soon afterwards featuring dressed female students with taped mouths and critical messages related to oppression of the freedom of speech and human rights violations by the regime. Negotiating ‘being witty and being pretty’ in political calendars underscored the paradoxes of women’s political agency, where (de)sexualisation and nakedness played an important role in their visual strategies. Ivanova stated that most of the heavily sexualised calendars in her research were produced by state organisations and pro-state actors; as well, a large share of such calendars came from Russia.

Olga Karatch (International Centre for Civil Initiatives ‘Our House’) described the case of Belarus as a difficult situation of women in politics. The speaker joked: women have been fighting for the right to vote in Belarus, and now they have the right to vote for Lukashenko or the right to vote not against Lukashenko. In a country where the same president has been in power for 21 years, and there still are 181 occupations from which women are banned, unsurprisingly women find themselves heavily restricted by the sexist regulations. Female political leadership, for instance, is perceived as blasphemy by many, and even the opposition such as Christian democrats has quite patriarchal views. Neither the women in state apparatus nor those in the opposition have any real influence on the political agenda.

Nadia Plungian (independent researcher), talking about feminist art in Russia in 2014, suggested that despite feminism may have become trendy, sexism and homophobia are still prominent issues. Since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, a lot of feminist art projects have started in Russia. Plungian pointed to a ‘right-wing turn’ in Russian feminist art which signified a focus on self-advocacy, single protest, political awareness and immediate response to the political situation. She also underlined that political feminist art is challenged and restricted both by the Russian law and by the art community that adheres to new apolitical feminism.

Panel 4 debated various aspects of research of protest movements. Anna Dovgopol (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Kyiv) introduced the concept of ‘pop-feminism’ movement in Ukraine. She started by outlining the history of feminism in Ukraine. Having mentioned the literary background of the historical women’s movement, the speaker noted that back in the late 19th – early 20th century the juxtaposition between women’s issues and national issues was there, similarly to the current situation. While women played an important role in the revolution on 1917, during the Soviet era ‘women’s question’ was quickly declared as solved and feminism as an unnecessary and bourgeois ideology; however, the real situation in terms of gender issues was not as good as proclaimed. Since 1991, there was an upsurge of feminist movements in the country that involved both activism and academic activities. Currently, Dovgopol admitted, feminism is still often perceived as an ‘F-word’. Decrease of financial support by international organisations, rise of nationalism and religiosity, limitations of women’s roles to the already mentioned Berehynia or Barbie, fear of sexuality within the movements, as well as the two revolutions and the ongoing war have constrained the development of feminism in Ukraine. Dovgopol suggested the idea of ‘pop-feminism’ as a movement that would be able to speak to the groups in question in an understandable language, while not using the term ‘feminism’ as such, would raise topical issues and develop practically applicable solutions, and have a clear feminist agenda behind it.

Alaksandra Dynko (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) continued exploring the theme of Belarus and women in politics in a similar vein with Karatch. She addressed the implications of the fact that no woman has ever been listed as a presidential candidate in the country. Even the female oppositional candidates tend to run with anti-feminist programmes. According to the speaker, female political participation is discredited both among the supporters of the authorities and of the opposition; moreover, it is neither stable nor influential and so far has been unable to produce independent political agency.

Finally, the author of this report gave a talk about ethical challenges of ethnographic research on political activism of Ukrainian diaspora in London in 2013-2015, attending to the dilemmas of bridging academic and activist positionalities and audiences, and the concerns of gender and nationality in qualitative research.

11536877_10155811190445374_2034526683_nThe workshop proved to be an interdisciplinary and intersectional initiative of exploring the topical questions of agency of less mainstream groups in patriarchal and authoritarian societies. The discussions after the presentations sought to explore these themes further and tackled issues from the role of gender in conspiracy theories to the future perspectives of feminist movements in democratically restricted environments. Political leanings and level of inclusiveness of feminism were some of the overarching topics: intersections between feminism and nationalism, and possibilities of right-wing feminism were actively and critically discussed. Overall, the event provided an opportunity for a sensitive, politically and academically informed multivocal conversation; a publication is to follow that will hopefully be able to translate the ideas formulated by the speakers to the wider academic and non-expert audience.

(first published at: http://www.ukrainianlondon.co.uk/gender-nationalism-and-citizenship-in-anti-authoritarian-protests-in-belarus-russia-and-ukraine/)


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‘Beyond Propaganda’ series launch at the Legatum Institute

On 22 June 2015, London-based think tank Legatum Institute held a panel discussion to mark the launch of ‘Beyond Propaganda’ series and the publication of the opening collection of essays titled ‘The New Authoritarians: Ruling Through Disinformation’. The initiative is aimed at supporting media, experts and the general public in dealing with challenges of media manipulation across the world.

20150622_183605The panel discussion was focused on the ways in which contemporary neo-authoritarian and ‘hybrid’ regimes such as China, Russia, Turkey or Venezuela have become more sophisticated in their use of propaganda. The panel was chaired by Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Fellow to Legatum’s Transitions Forum, author and documentary producer whose key interests lie in the former USSR region and issues of 21st century propaganda. The speakers were Abigail Fielding-Smith, reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism who covered the Syrian uprising for the Financial Times; Yevhen Hlibovytsky, Ukranian journalist and policy expert who runs think tank and consultancy Pro-Mova, one of the founders of Ukraine’s Channel 5, and co-founder of Hromadske.tv; and Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, analyst and journalist specialising on Venezuela and Democracy Lab blogger. The discussion focused on the quandaries and innovative strategies of media manipulation in Venezuela, Syria and Ukraine, and also, predictably, addressed the exemplary case of Russian propaganda. This review concentrates mostly on the parts of the discussion related to Ukraine and Russia.

Anne Applebaum, Director of Legatum’s Transitions Forum, politics and foreign policy journalist and author, opened the discussion by stressing that in the current times, the ways in which people get information are as important as the information or particular policies themselves. Therefore, it is important to understand how information becomes disinformation, can be used by authoritarian regimes, and employed in the information war.

Pomerantsev then briefly introduced the rationale of the project launch. Information age, he asserted, has been mutating into disinformation age, and the challenges of such mutation are ours to deal with. He identified three main cross-cutting themes pertaining to these challenges. Firstly, the ‘new authoritarians’ have learnt to use the instruments of democracy against democracy. The examples include the use of elections as an authoritarian tool, creative use of media censorship allowing some freedom of speech but preventing any collective organisation, and employing crony capitalism in authoritarian media management and suppression of democratic initiatives. The second characteristic is a liquid approach to ideology, when propagandists convey contradictory messages including features of the Western lifestyle but not its political freedoms. Thirdly, disinformation can be used against ideology, when the point of the propaganda becomes not to censor or impose a clear ideological message, but rather to flood the media space with disinformation in order to complicate people’s understanding of the reality and stop social movements from developing.

Lansberg-Rodriguez focused in his talk on Venezuela, describing Chávez’s regime using a metaphor of a ‘reality-show authoritarianism’. He concentrated on the late president’s extensive state media empire, and in particular on his television talk-show Aló Presidente. Fielding-Smith spoke about Syria and the role of overly positive messages produced by Assad regime’s state media amidst the war.

Hlibovytsky talked about his own experiences of developing media strategies alternative to the state media before, during and after the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. Channel 5 helped counter government censorship in 2004. Hromadske became one of the key voices and the most trusted media outlets since the beginning of Euromaidan: the public service broadcast went to 2 million viewers in less than just 2 weeks of its existence. The speaker stressed that while the periods before both revolutions were characterised by lack of media freedom, things became more complicated before the last upheaval. Prior to the Maidan, the journalists have developed a significant degree of cynicism. While before 2004 censorship was breaking people, 10 years later it was simply buying them.

The expert outlined two of the main assumptions of any censorship. Firstly, censorships are based on the idea that the citizens are not actors and lack political agency. Secondly, ‘quantity matters more than quality’: the scale of the impact is more important than affecting particular groups of the population. Hlibovytsky and his colleagues took the opposite ideas as their guiding principles both during the Orange Revolution and the Maidan. He stated that it is important to have ‘qualitative’ following, acknowledge the diversity of the audience and be able to target particular groups. Besides, the expert stressed the importance of culture and the need to understand the specific needs of the audiences. Finally, the planning horizon has to be great. Hlibovytsky suggested that one has to rely on long-term approach in developing the strategies of dealing with the state censorship and propaganda, and come to solutions that go beyond 2-3 presidential terms.

The questions from the audience ensued, and despite the regional focus of the panel discussion, most of the them were related to the Russian propaganda and the possible ways of dealing with it in the West. The panellists admitted that the West can never catch up with Russia in terms of producing catchy propagandist images and discourses. However, they underlined that the Russian state media, while being notorious for the skill of making PR fancy media products, have never been as good at creating socially engaged documentaries as the West; this can be the strength of the Western media. The speakers also agreed that the Western media should uphold the values of fairness, accuracy and transparency, and shouldn’t resort to sensationalist images or try to get involved into misinformation game. In a similar vein, instead of engaging with the propaganda discourse and making it part of its own stories, the Western media should rather ignore it. As well, Pomerantsev noted that one should be wary about the Western technologies and Western money that may be used in the disruptive and anti-democratic strategies of Russian state media.

(first published at: http://www.ukrainianlondon.co.uk/beyond-propaganda-series-launch-at-the-legatum-institute/)


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Documenting Ukraine

(co-authored with Tom Rowley; first published at https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/thomas-rowley-darya-malyutina/documenting-ukraine)


As we end four days devoted to documentary cinema, theatre and debate in London, never have documentary forms had such an important role to play.


Under an intensely red safe-light, a photographic print begins to develop before our eyes: from close up, two tanks move away from us – their turrets pointing into the distance. The tanks, provenance and location all unexplained, are ominously close – so close we can touch them – but yet remain out of reach, strange. The tanks are, of course, somewhere in eastern Ukraine. This image, which opens Release Oleg Sentsov (a new film about the film director from Simferopol, Crimea, currently detained on terrorism charges in Moscow), seems to capture much of the current conflict – so heavily ‘mediated’ for people outside the borders of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), but so violent, terrifying and destructive for people caught inside of it.

Unfortunately, though, just as Ukraine has only recently ‘arrived’ in the European mindset, so has it disappeared. Mission creep outside Mariupol gets slant column inches, and neither does life in the ATO – the death toll for May is already rising. The now 1.2m refugees flounder without proper state support, nor much interest in the West. Ukraine’s economy has hit rock -bottom under the stress of conflict, annexation and years of mismanagement.

Against a backdrop of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ for Western audiences, the four-day festival Documenting Ukraine (14-17 May 2015) aimed to place Ukraine squarely on the agenda through a programme of documentary cinema, theatre and debate.

Documentary theatre

In recent years, documentary theatre has come to the forefront of experimental theatre practice across Russia and Eastern Europe. In their continued efforts to negotiate civic injustice and its connections to the past, theatre artists from numerous post-Socialist countries have taken to incorporating material from real-life events in their portrayals of everyday life onstage.

With two evenings of theatre performances at London’s GRAD gallery, the first part of Documenting Ukraine focused on recent documentary theatre responses to the conflict in Ukraine. While the first performance (14 May), led by Georg Genoux, reflected on the director’s experience of volunteering in the town of Nikolaevka (Mykolaivka) in eastern Ukraine, the second day saw Ukraine’s leading New Drama playwright, Natalia Vorozhbit (author of Maidan: Voices from the Uprising) present her most recent play Can I or Can’t I, read by Amanda Drew.

Genoux’s story is a thoughtful and affectionate elaboration on the lives of adults and children living in war-affected Nikolaevka, a town which was occupied by pro-Russian separatists, before the Ukrainian army took back control in July 2014. The occupation and military actions resulted in a number of civilian casualties, as well as destruction of some parts of the town, and volunteers from western Ukraine have been working with the local population in order to restore peace and support the community.

The footage together with the interviews provides a multi-vocal account of diverse people trying to overcome the traumatic consequences of the war and restore their normal lives. There is little editing to the audio; there are dramatic monologues and barely intelligible mundane conversations; in the background of some of them, one can hear squeaking of the snow or children laughing. This raw and realistic material is combined with an eerie video: the camera slowly glides through the streets and buildings of the town, some of which bear signs of shelling and bullet marks on the walls.

Genoux’s work captures the tensions and contradictions of the everyday lives of his ordinary subjects, with their joys and sufferings, ambiguous feelings towards the separatists and Ukraine, trust and suspicion towards the volunteers, fear and solidarity. Stressing his ethical concerns about avoiding the exploitation of people’s pain, and grasping the diversity of first-hand experiences, Genoux succeeds at giving his subjects voice and space to express themselves, eschewing the appropriation of their stories.

A different path

Natalia Vorozhbit’s play cuts a different track – an autobiographical monologue of a woman travelling to Donetsk airport through war-torn eastern Ukraine to do research for a screenplay, and who falls in love with the officer accompanying her.

The play offers an insightful take on the war from a female point of view, and includes a combination of the tragic, the routine, the macabre, and the comedic, constantly stressing the coexistence of the intimate and the deadly as its main focus. Stylistically resembling Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, the draft of Can I or Can’t I also represents a kind of ‘fieldwork’: anecdotal, empirical, emotional, and seemingly very personal.

The questions of personal involvement and defining one’s position in respect to the ongoing conflict, either as a journalist or as an artist, have become key issues in today’s increasingly hostile climate. Vorozhbit stressed that her current work is a reflexive attempt to voice not only the concerns of other people, but also to speak for herself, while also being part of the ongoing crisis. Natalia Gumenyuk, co-founder of Hromadske.tv, noted that working on Euromaidan and the war in Ukraine as a journalist has been a specific experience for her: ‘As a journalist, the main thing is to make your account as human as possible. You are just a transmitter of information, but you need to make people care; and even though you are emotionally affected you can’t put in too much of an emotion.’

In line with the main idea of the festival, Gumenyuk underlined the importance of documentary as a means of gathering information and presenting it to the audience, particularly stressing the need to pay attention to the ways in which the war has affected the routine lives of the people. While it has become increasingly difficult for Ukrainian journalists to gather first-hand information in the East, such materials are invaluable for any analysis of the conflict, its risks and implications.

Quality media, then, is critical for creating opportunities to digest and adjust to the consequences of the war with the least possible loss. A documentary approach, whether in theatre or on the screen, is a potential way to increase empathy and understanding, facilitate dialogue between diverse parts of the society, and bridge distances. Vorozhbit and Genoux’s initiative of creating a theatre performance with the children from the East, based on their stories, and take it to the West of the country is one of the ways to do that. Gumenyuk asserts that for creating a credible media narrative in the current circumstances, it is vital to speak to the people on the ground and present the material in an accurate way.

Lastly, a question that is bound to be raised in regard of any attempt to portray sensitive and political issues by an outside observer, concerns the ability to represent the events and human experiences in their complexity, and the dilemmatic choice between giving people voice or speaking for them. Are we at risk of commodifying personal narratives, of involving ourselves in crisis tourism, when it comes to artistic response?

Though this question remains unanswerable, these performances, based on interviews and real experience, raise the possibility of a fruitful dialogue between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ (in both Ukraine, and beyond).

Documentary cinema

Organised by Open City Docs and DocudaysUA, and with the support of O’Neill Consultancy, Documenting Ukraine: Cinema aimed to bring not only the conflict, but some of Ukraine’s cultural history to audiences in London.

While the late 1980s saw a resurgence of committed documentary making in the Soviet public mind, the 1990s – with the upheaval and funding difficulties that decade brought – were far from kind to documentary cinema in Ukraine. The 2000s, though, have seen bold steps in the making and funding of documentary film – partially aided by technology.

The film festival opened with Sergei Bukovsky’s Ukraine: The Countdown (2011). Produced to mark the twentieth anniversary of Ukrainian independence, Bukovsky, now a veteran of documentary cinema, tells the story of how Ukraine became independent in 1991 through interviews with political and cultural figures from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the US.

That story of independence, under however much pressure in 2011, experienced another radical break in 2014. The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, has altered the political landscape of both Russia and Ukraine completely. Release Oleg Sentsov, a film by Askold Kurov (director of Children 404) and Andriy Lytvynenko, details how Oleg Sentsov, a film-maker from Simferopol in Crimea, found himself caught up in that situation.

Sentsov is currently detained on terrorism charges in Moscow after he was arrested in May 2014. While other people arrested in that operation have been sentenced up to seven years in prison for their alleged activities, Sentsov was later tortured and accused of being a member of the Right Sector group, planning a campaign of terror against the newly-acceded peninsula. He is now awaiting trial – though the hearings are constantly pushed back. With powerful footage from the last few months, Kurov’s film follows Sentsov’s sister Natalia Kaplan as she attempts to help her brother in prison, as well as the international efforts by film-makers to intercede on Sentsov’s behalf.

Indeed, Agnieszka Holland made a special appearance at this event to raise awareness of Sentsov’s case: ‘He is a young man. He is a talented man. He is a man full of life and courage. He remains in prison with incredible strength and courage. I just want to see him free in the country he chose, making his movies and raising his children.’ Russian by nationality, Sentsov has stated that he is a citizen of Ukraine.

The necessity of hearing people, of objectivity, has never been more relevant, and personal stories cut through the media narratives and clichés. As photographer Aleksandr Glyadelov, whose prints accompanied the festival, put it: ‘we are, unfortunately, too accustomed to statistical reports: the day before yesterday 3 people were killed and 7 injured. I give another way of looking. When you know people directly, you can’t forget what is really going on. The sharpness comes back.’

In this sense, never has documentary been more needed than now. Anthony Butt’s The Curious Tale of the Handmade Country (in production) fulfills this function perfectly by tracing the formation of the Donetsk People’s Republic through real life ‘characters’ who participated in the events of 2014. As if a response to the call to ‘Listen to the Donbas’, Butt’s film lets people in the Donetsk region speak for themselves – even as Butts gets right up close to the messy and brutal formation of the DPR.

Messy and brutal may be the words to describe the final part of Saturday’s programme, focused on Maidan, with a series of shorts from different directors charting the emerging situation in January-February 2014. Shot on hand-held cameras, these films are almost too intense to watch – to be in the crowd during the violence on both sides, as a society (as these films depict) visibly breaks apart, is too much. Influenced strongly by photojournalism, these shorts return to those recognisable moments from 2014 – the crowds and the riot police clashing, bodies in central Kyiv, and the uncertainty of what would come next.

The time before

There was also time for recent documentary cinema from Ukraine before the country became known for violent conflict. Going back to the 1920s, Ukraine has long had a pedigree of documentary film-making and poetic cinema, and the Cinema section was packed with treasures: Tomorrow is a Holiday (1987), Mum died on Saturday in the Kitchen (2010), Crepuscule (2013) and Dziga Vertov’s Year 11 (1926), re-scored by Anton Baibakov.

While Maxim Vasyanovych’s touching family portrait Mum died on Saturday in the Kitchen made its UK premiere, Sergei Bukovsky’s perestroika picture took us right back to a time which, for many, is all but lost. Movingly shot in black and white, Tomorrow is a Holiday tells the – gripping – story of a chicken factory in Soviet Ukraine during the late 1980s. Crepuscule, made by Valentyn Vasyanovych, focuses on the personal relationships in a Zhytomyr village – the arguments, slow pace of life, and, unfortunately, the slow death of the Ukrainian village.

Maxim Vasyanovych’s piece, though, stole the show in many ways – technically accomplished, its self-reflexive editing and engaging subject matter herald a new age of documentary. On stage, it was clear the representatives of two very different generations of film–makers were far from being on the same page when it comes to the technological innovations and strict financial constraints documentary film now faces.

One hopes that, some one day, this kind of conflict might supersede the current one.


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‘The Point of No Return’ and discussion on ‘Ukraine then and now’ at New Diorama Theatre

From the end of April to the end of May, the play ‘The Point of No Return’ runs at New Diorama Theatre, alongside a number of post-show panel discussions. On 30 April, the show was followed by a conversation on the legacy of Euromaidan with Dr. Rory Finnin from Cambridge University, writer and director of the play Tommy Lexen, and Ukrainian producer, actor and playwright Dmytro Ternovyi.

20150430_221956‘The Point of No Return’, a result of collaboration between BeFrank Theatre Company and their Ukrainian partners Theatre na Zhukah, explores the stories of people involved in the last, and most violent, four days of the Ukrainian revolution in February 2014. Extensive research, trips to Ukraine, interviews with Euromaidan participants, and discussions with experts provide the production with a solid background.

Although no references are made to real people or countries, the atmosphere portrayed on the stage is very recognisable, especially for those who followed the developments of the winter of 2013-2014. The performance deals with a highly topical issue of ordinary citizens involved in dramatic events related to the civic uprising. The action is fast-paced and dynamic, and while each of the actors has a few roles to play, they switch between the scenes smoothly, allowing the intertwining storylines to form parts of something bigger, just like the individual stories were part of the bigger process of Euromaidan. Actors and props are well coordinated; together with the creative approach to incorporation of various materials, from rubber and metal to water and rope, and the use of interplay between light and darkness, this provides, at times, an almost tangible experience.

The second act of the play is slightly less impressive, starting off a bit sloppy, and later on hovering on the verge of cliché a couple of times, with the poignancy occasionally turning into pathos. However, overall the play leaves an impression of a well-researched piece that is both emotional and technically coordinated, and makes a decent attempt at exploring the diversity of experiences entangled in a process of major historical, political and cultural importance.

In the panel discussion after the play, Dr Rory Finnin, Tommy Lexen, and Dmytro Ternovyi spoke about the implications of the Maidan both in Ukraine and in the West, and the shift between Ukraine ‘then’ and ‘now’.

Tommy Lexen described how he became obsessed with the story – and stories – behind the Euromaidan since its start in November 2013, and worked to obtain first-hand information about participation in the events that unfolded during the revolution. The very idea of the play, according to Lexen, was born out of the questions: What about the people behind it all? Would we, in the West, do the same? What would we do? The play was an opportunity to take a story from ‘outside of our life’ and take it back, trying to make Ukraine more accessible to the ‘Western’ audience, said the director.

Dmytro Ternovyi from Kharkiv’s Theatre na Zhukah stressed the role of the Maidan as not just a political but also cultural event. While Ukrainian art used to be seen as traditional and archaic, Maidan allowed it to be seen as something modern. The flourishing of art in contemporary Ukraine, especially taking into account the ongoing war with Russia, was spoken about very warmly.

Rory Finnin, who also contributed to the play with his previous discussions with the cast, underlined that Maidan shouldn’t have been a surprise. Protest has been a frame for the Ukrainian cultural society going back to 17th-18th century. The importance of the play, according to Dr Finnin, lies in its ability to help think about the bigger picture, about people achieving something remarkable, and tackle issues of a global significance like struggle for democracy or state violence. At the same time, this art piece is assertive in its approach to the civic and political agency of the Ukrainian people; Dr Finnin reminded of the critical importance of seeing the people of Ukraine not as objects but as active subjects of their own story.

While, according to its director, the play is concerned with questioning what would happen if these events took place in the streets of a Western city, there is another, no less significant issue pertaining to this work: the quandaries of representation. For that matter, the play – as well as the making of it – is also a reflection of the power relations and the constructions of ‘the East’ and ‘The West’. Can the West represent Ukraine? Can a London-based team with a Swedish director represent the people who took part in the Maidan? Are you giving voice or appropriating their ability to speak for themselves? To what extent are Ukrainians active subjects in the play?

It seems that the creators of this play must have given a thought to these questions. This is suggested by the amount of research underlying the production. As well, the stress on the multiplicity of truths revealed and uncovered by the processes triggered by the Maidan is a way to avoid the potential risks connected with the politics of representation. The multivocality and fluidity of the events unfolding on the stage are appropriate artistic devices to do that.

Audience reviews

I think the play was really good. The actors seemed focused and concentrated, and their actions were well coordinated. I enjoyed how they shifted between the roles, working both emotionally and realistically. They were really making an effort. I understood pretty much everything, except the moments when some other languages seemed to be spoken from the barricades – but I think it’s the question to the director. The play was a very emotional experience for me; I felt like I travelled back in time to the Maidan period, a time of great expectations and a big tragedy. (Yaroslav)

It might take years to understand and to heal the trauma of the Maidan protests, especially the violence which unfolded in the final stages of the protests. Artistic representation of these events could be a way to work through the conflicting emotions raised by the Maidan. One of the main achievements of the ‘Point of No Return’ is that it tries to tell a number of stories, avoiding the usual black-and-white portrayal of the events. (Olesya)


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Graham Phillips vs. Stepan Bandera: pro-Russian propagandist breaks into London museum

On Sunday 26 April, London-based Museum of Stepan Bandera organised guided tours focused on the history of national liberation struggle in Ukraine and the life of the controversial leader. However, there was an unexpected visitor: Graham Phillips, the notorious pro-Russian video journalist.

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The museum which was opened in 1962 has a collection of Bandera’s personal belongings, but is not only focused on this historical figure. There is a wide selection of various print materials from the Archive of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), books, brochures, leaflets, newspapers and magazines. There is also a collection of drawings and other handcrafted items produced by Ukrainian prisoners in German and Soviet concentration camps. One of the most interesting items which embodies memory and historical continuities in an interactive way is a guestbook which is over half a century old: the first comment in it was made when the museum was opened, and visitors have been writing in it ever since.

Stepan Bandera was certainly a controversial historical personality, as well as the whole history of the OUN. This legacy remains divisive for the Ukrainian society and has not been entirely constructive for relations with other countries, primarily Poland. Moreover, Russia-Ukraine war has provided fertile ground for Russia’s manipulative juggling of the history of Ukrainian independence struggle, as part of its ‘weaponization of information’ strategy. It was not surprising, then, that Graham Phillips, perhaps one of the most infamous pro-Kremlin media journalists, turned up with a camera and attempted to break into the premises.

Phillips who has spent most of the time last year in Eastern Ukraine, produces propaganda videos for Russian media including RT and Zvezda channel. He has a long track record of crossing the line between journalism and propaganda, spreading disinformation, and disregarding journalist ethics. According to the tour organisers and to a video filmed by Phillips and his operator, he tried to get inside the museum, continuously repeating like a mantra something about ’Nazi collaborator museum’.

‘We asked him if he had registered for the event. Instead of replying, he suddenly started yelling that we were Nazis and fascists. When asked for a journalist ID, he showed something like a driving licenсe’, says one of the witnesses. ‘He was very professional, in his own way, of course,’ says the other, ‘he did not let us say a word, but rather was going on and on with his monologue about Nazi collaboration and celebration of WWII criminals, primarily for the camera’. In Phillips’s video, one can see, indeed, how he constantly turns to the camera and pushes the same line, turning the situation into a one-man show, instead of recording an actual interaction.

Eventually, the museum called the police, and it was only a matter of a couple of minutes until Phillips, still squealing about fascists, was escorted off the premises. ‘I don’t get him’, tells one of the visitors. ‘He could have registered, maybe even under a fake name, but he could have come legitimately. He could have looked at the items on display quietly and listened to the lecture, instead of breaking in and being kicked out with a scandal by the police. He could have gone to the British Library and studied the materials on OUN and Bandera if he’s so interested, instead of making a fuss’. For that matter, the methods used by Phillips and the likes are not the methods of investigative journalists or researchers, and instead of producing a valid critical analysis he deliberately generates unsubstantiated, biased and unethical statements.

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