On Brave Faces and a Sorry Business


Mykola Riabchuk

Shortly after the European football championship ended in Kyiv on July 1, a leading Ukrainian independent outlet, Ukrainska Pravda, featured a bitter article by Borys Bakhteyev that qualified the tournament as a great propaganda victory for the local authoritarian regime:

“Our authorities carried out a special operation aimed at a thorough elimination of Poland from the information context of Euro 2012. They imposed upon us the only possible answer to the question ‘Who hosted the championship?’ – Surely, Viktor Yanukovych, Mykola Azarov, Borys Kolesnikov and no one else! They celebrate now, and are not going to share their triumph with anyone. ‘Let Europeans not teach us how to handle our business’, they say. ‘Let them rather learn from us a little, from our excellent management of the tournament!’ The trouble is not that they carried out this special operation. The trouble is they succeeded” http://www.pravda.com.ua/articles/2012/07/4/6968065/.

Two days later, the same newspaper published an article by investigative journalist Mustafa Nayem based on the secret instructions sent by the ruling Party of Regions to its local headquarters on how to carry out the forthcoming election campaign and which arguments to employ in party propaganda. Three concepts are featured in the document: first, the so called “social initiatives” by the president, which basically are no more than populist slogans about various social benefits to be accrued from the empty state coffers; second, the language policy aimed at mobilization of the Russophone and Sovietophile portion of the electorate; and third, the alleged “success story” of Euro 2012 as proof of the government’s efficiency and good international standing http://www.pravda.com.ua/articles/2012/07/6/6968257/.

The first two may deserve a separate analysis, but the third one seems to confirm Borys Bakhteyev’s gloomy observations. The Party of Regions instructs its activists to praise extensively the country’s leadership for “rescuing the tournament, which was practically lost for Ukraine by the ‘orange’ predecessors,” and for the excellent management of the event despite the coordinated anti-government-cum-anti-Ukrainian campaign of domestic and international enemies. The attached slogans speak for themselves: “Chaos is overcome. Stability is achieved!”; “Euro 2012: a goal for Ukraine”; and “Tournaments pass, achievements remain.” Now, as these slogans are placed on billboards everywhere in Ukraine, with glamorous pictures of stadiums, airports, high-speed trains and airplanes, one may wonder whether the championship has actually been appropriated by the Party of Regions as a real success story and is boosting its popularity on the eve of the October parliamentary elections.

On the one hand, there is little doubt that, partial achievements and minor success stories notwithstanding, Euro-2012 was a wasted opportunity for Ukraine in terms of both substantial modernization and positive image making. While political instability and rampant corruption discouraged foreign investors—80 per cent of related bills had to be paid by the Ukrainian government (with reported 40 percent kickbacks from government-friendly contractors)—the political scandals, persecution of opposition, and reports of racist excesses at Ukrainian stadiums fundamentally undermined any possibility for the country’s positive rebranding. Indeed, as Janek Lasocki and Lukasz Jasina put it, international headlines were “clearly not encouraging investment or political cooperation, nor proving the country’s European credentials” http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/janek-lasocki-%C5%82ukasz-jasina/football-politics-legacy-of-euro-2012-in-ukraine.

The event that back in 2007 was envisaged to “help change Ukraine’s image from that of a gray, ‘semi-Russian’ backwater to a country that shared European values and strove for democracy” (http://www.tol.org/client/article/23201-ukraines-european-aspirations-meet-the-buzz-saw-of-post-soviet-habits.html), and to “symbolise common heritage and cooperation across the EU border, and a bright future for an ever-expanding Europe” (http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/05/18/guest-post-ukraines-boycott-blues), turned out to be a “public relations disaster for the Yanukovych regime,” “farce of the century,” and one the most expensive entries in the “Regionnaires’ remarkable chronicle of failures” http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/alexander-j-motyl/looming-soccer-disaster-ukraine.

Although all this is true, one cannot deny that, on the other hand, the Ukrainian government tries to capitalize, at least domestically, on the relatively smooth running of the championship, and that its propagandistic efforts were not entirely in vain. First, the propaganda campaign is facilitated by firm control over the domestic mass media, primarily television (the only independent Ukrainian channel TVi lost its airwaves to the government’s loyalists shortly after Viktor Yanukovych became president in 2010, and now has encountered even stronger pressure after the tax police raided its office on July 12, seized financial documents and opened a criminal case against its director Mykola Kniazhytsky based on scurrilous accusations).

Secondly, the western mass media had managed to create a favorable context for the Ukrainian regime to dismiss their criticism and to mobilize part of the population to support the government on presumably patriotic grounds: against indiscriminate accusations against Ukrainian society at large of indulging in endemic racism and xenophobia. (See Uilleam Blacker’s article on this site at http://ukraineanalysis.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/eastern-european-xenophobia-under-western-eyes-euro-2012-in-poland-ukraine). The campaign launched by the reputable BBC and supported by a number of British tabloids presented both Poland and, especially, Ukraine as dangerous places where crypto-fascist violence and intolerance reigns supreme and where visitors with a non-white skin are very likely to “come back in coffins” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2150542/Nazi-mob-lies-wait-England-fans-Riot-police-march-battle-thugs-Euro-2012-terraces–turn-blind-eye-racist-chants-violence.html.

The accusations, however substantiated (at least in the BBC Panorama film “Stadiums of Hatred”), missed the point in two important respects. First, racism is certainly not the main problem that hounds Ukraine, and secondly, Ukraine is certainly not a European leader in terms of racism, fascism and football hooliganism – it lags far behind Russia where Asian immigrants are beaten and killed on regular basis.

Regretfully yet, the moderate voices that tried to present a more balanced view and tame the “anti-Ukraine overdrive” (as Brendan O’Neill defined it), remained largely unheard: “Like every other country in the world, Ukraine no doubt has some nasty racists – but British hacks have continually depicted the entire nation as a cesspit of xenophobic attitudes… What we’re really witnessing in the hysteria about Ukrainian attitudes is the expression of a prejudice against strange Easterners disguised as an enlightened anti-racist sentiment. If it is stupid for small numbers of Ukrainian football followers to sneer at blacks and Asians, it is also stupid for the British media to sneer at the whole of Ukraine” http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/brendanoneill2/100160992/the-fear-of-racist-ukraine-is-itself-xenophobic/.

The main problem, as Rory Finnin has correctly suggested, “was less media sensationalism than public knowledge about Ukraine. Reports of racism in the country were essentially made in a vacuum, with precious little beyond stories of made-man famines, environmental catastrophes, and feuding politicians to help frame them constructively. Ukraine is the largest country within the European continent… Yet after 20 years of independence, Ukraine remains badly known and poorly understood. It is Europe’s perennial terra malecognitahttp://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-rory-finnin/ukraine-europes-terra malecognita_b_1653469.html.

As if such hyperbole was not enough, the Western mass media broadly discussed the idea to boycott not only Ukrainian leadership marred with corruption scandals and persecution of their political opponents, but Ukraine in general by removing the final stage of the tournament either fully to Poland or to some other country. This irresponsible appeal (which came too late to accomplish anyway) was effectively manipulated by the Ukrainian authorities in a similar way, as the wholesale accusations of Ukraine as racist: first, it was used to distract popular attention from the real (political) reasons for the international boycott of the Ukrainian leadership and to switch it to the alleged anti-Ukrainian bias of Westerners; and secondly, it helped to channel popular resentment against the opposition, which had arguably conspired with ugly Westerners and who sacrificed the national interests (Euro-2012) for the sake of some particularistic gains (liberation of Yulia Tymoshenko).

Angela Merkel’s notorious comparison of Ukraine with Belarus played directly into the hands of Mr. Yanukovych and his acolytes since the bias was obvious here to all, including the fiercest of Yanukovych’s opponents. The bias was even more pronounced given Merkel’s (and that of other European bigwigs) exchange of amiable hugs and smiles with much more authoritarian bosses in Moscow. There is a sad truth in the words of an unnamed German journalist quoted in Open Democracy by a Ukrainian colleague: “It’s quite easy for Merkel to attack Ukraine and demand respect for human rights. Unlike Russia, you have no oil or gas and you’re not as strong and influential as China. It’s convenient to criticise Ukraine and it does great things for [her] popularity rating” (http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/valery-kalnysh/are-european-calls-for-euro-2012-boycott-meaningless).  This truism may not strengthen significantly the position of Viktor Yanukovych but it definitely weakens those of his pro-Western opponents.

Viktor Yanukovych, as Michael Willard sarcastically remarks, “doesn’t seem to be losing much sleep due to the downward spiral of his country’s reputation in the eyes of the West or, apparently, even Russia.” The Western boycott of authoritarian rulers resembles hitting them with the proverbial wet noodle: “One feels it, but it doesn’t sting” http://www.kyivpost.com/opinion/op-ed/back-story-ukraine-proved-naysayers-wrong-in-euro-.html.

“Statements such as those made by Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton are political, but they are only words, unless they are backed up by force, pressure, breaking contracts, isolation, refusal of entry visas and freezing officials’ bank accounts… The Ukrainian president does not understand hints. The language of diplomacy is completely alien to him… The EU and USA appeals will remain just that, appeals, heard only by those making them” http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/valery-kalnysh/are-european-calls-for-euro-2012-boycott-meaningless.

“The EU has more power than it thinks, and boycott is not the only weapon. A travel ban on officials linked to Tymoshenko’s jailing could rein in a few of Ukraine’s corrupt kleptocrats” http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/05/18/guest-post-ukraines-boycott-blues.

“Rather than staying way from Ukraine to no point (except to mollify their own domestic critics), Merkel, Barroso and the rest should use the very real powers they have to hit Kyiv where it really hurts” http://eastofcenter.tol.org/2012/05/yellow-bellied-european-pols-deserve-yellow-cards/.

It may take some time before experts’ opinion gains sufficient credibility and influence to prompt policymakers to apply tougher sanctions against the rogue government. The rigged parliamentary elections in October may catalyze the process. Yet, in the meantime, the president and his team can boast of their great victory, both against the sinister West and treacherous opposition. “A goal for Ukraine,” they claim, and might well be right, unless they mean “Ukraine c’est moi.”

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