Back from Kiev, with fresh memories and a couple of lessons.
First of all, situation in Kiev is absolutely safe for all visitors, including Russians. Having said that, when we went to Maidan Square (which is around the corner from Europa Square – which european capital has an Europa Square I wonder?) there was a giant screen put up at its end showing movies taken in february during the bloody riots and several hundred poeple stood there watching in complete silence, perhaps praying for the dead and for their future. Memories are still very much alive and vivid.
Secondly it is very evident from my conversations with all the Ukrainians I spoke to (including some foreigners who have been living there for 10+ years) that, next to the military conflict in the East around Donetsk and Donbass, there is a virulent information battle waged by the two sides.
It is also evident that the forces being deployed in the information warfare are heavily tilted in favor of Russia who has hired very skilled experts and is (successfully IMHO) portraying all Ukrainians as rabid nationalist fascists, casting for itself a role as a bastion against the resurgence of the extreme right.
None of the people I met could be more even remotely be classified as rabid nationalist fascists, so I was either very lucky or the story is more complex. I suspect the latter, and here are my personal learnings and one piece of unrequested advice to whoever is fighting the information battle on the yellow-and-blue side.
- extreme right exists in Ukraine – as it does, sadly, in every european country
- however, these extremists hardly dictate the agenda of a people who genuinely wants to join modernity and sees the EU as its symbol. One little signal: at the airport immigration lines there is a “UA and UE nationals” speedy line and a “Foreign nationals” slower line.
- the information warfare is being waged primarily with the domestic and Russian target audiences in mind, as if its primary task was to regroup Ukrainians and instill doubt in Russian citizens about the legitimacy of its foreign policy in the area; for example, slogans are largely written in cyrillic preventing europeans from even reading them. However, the Ukrainians I met needed no convincing; maybe there is such a need in the countryside? I don’t really know, but some of the presenters showed statistics that seemed to point to a rather compact domestic opinion.
Mi advice (which I tried to express in various discussions during the meeting) would be to shift the target of the campaign from internal / Russia to the people of the EU, to tell them that not all Ukrainian citizens are nationalist and / or fascists and letting its people, tradition, products and arts&crafts speak for the country.
Get more visitors in, have more people experience the kindness and hospitality, and let them stand up for Ukraine the next time some propaganda casts them in a bad light.
Well, all Russians I speak to seem very uneasy with Moscow’s current foreign policy; it reminds me very much of the attitude of my American friends when Bush jr. was POTUS. But as I learned the, my friends are not necessarily representative of the average Russian or American. For one thing, they have higher than average contact with foreigners and, in the case of Russians, also speak a foreign language and maybe read foreign press.
I have no doubt that the Russian redneck-equivalents are pretty much brainwashed propaganda; one must hope that better times will come, for example in the form of a leadership that relies less on one-upmanship and more on dialogue.
If only peoples could speak among themselves more directly and without the politicians as intermediaries…