I have been particularly loathe to write anything in light of Ukraine’s recent brand of political crisis, but I think now is as good time as ever to return. However, we will do so with a twist.
Say hello to Maxim Eristavi, founder of Hromadske International, and a particularly difficult person to hate (or, at least, a particularly difficult person to hate properly). A native of Zaporizzhia, Maxim doesn’t really like Ukraine all that much: he railed on President Poroshenko for being a ‘homophobic, patriarchial oligarch’, claimed that Ukraine boasts the highest rates of violence against journalists (most of which seems to happen in occupied Crimea and Donbas, for some reason), and he bashed the Vogue magazine for running articles that depicted Ukraine favorably, including a comparison between Ukraine and Assad-run Syria along the way. My second-hand shopping at Europe’s finest flea market aside (move over, Le Marais!), the day before yesterday Mr. Eristavi has gone and done it again – this time by running an article in Foreign Policy, aptly titled Now We Know Who Really Runs Ukraine.
Conspiracy theories abound as to why Ukraine’s parliament (the Rada, rhyming with ‘zrada‘) did not actually relieve Prime Minister Yatsenyuk after spending the better part of four hours denouncing him and his cabinet’s shortcomings. Several ‘prominent’ Ukrainian journalists-turned-MPs-turned-corruption fighters, such as Mustafa Nayyem and Serhiy Leshchenko, were quick to denounce the spectacularly failed no-confidence vote as an oligarch conspiracy – which, I think, is pretty much what Eristavi refers to. The business of localizing Ukrainian zrada is by no means limited to my arch-enemy Bershidsky, it seems.
I won’t be denying that oligarch influence, while waning, is still pretty thick on the ground in Ukrainian politics. Both Akhmetov, the coal and steel robber baron of Donbas, and Kolomoyskiy, the oil and banking duke of Dnipropetrovsk, are still quite at large, even as Akhmetov’s flagship Metinvest went bankrupt a year ago and Kolomoyskiy’s hold over the state-owned Ukrnafta is pretty slippery at the moment. Kolomoyskiy’s interests in the Rada are represented by the Vidrodzhenniya (‘Revival’) group of former Party of Regions MPs; Akhmetov still relies on his old Regions guard, now rebranded as the ‘Opposition Bloc’. As both of them either refused to vote, walked out or voted against relieving Yatsenyuk, there is at least some basis for saying Kolomoyskiy and Akhmetov tacitly supported Yatsenyuk’s stay in the government. There’s less basis for saying Poroshenko (who had previously asked Yatsenyuk to leave) was in on the deal, but Ukrainian readers, always eager for zrada, will believe just about anything.
However, this is not the point of this discussion. The point is how Mr. Eristavi tries to predict Western reaction to the failed vote. Now, predicting Western reactions is a pretty lucrative trade in Ukraine: all you have to do is write articles (if you’re really sophisticated) or Facebook posts (if you’re not) about how the West is ‘tired’, ‘cautions’ or ‘warns’ Ukraine about doing something you (or your intended audience) don’t like. The sheer amount of rumor-mongering whenever a Western official arrives in Ukraine, or whenever EU or IMF or the State Department make a statement about Ukraine is too horrible to describe, which is why I steadfastly refuse to add my own opinion into the pile.
Of course, sometimes Western officials don’t really help, as was the case with Ambassador Pyatt’s remarks about troll factories. The remark turned out to have nothing to do with Ukraine’s smidgen of pro-government bloggers, as multiple detractors immediately deduced, but the damage’s already been done. However, the problem in this particular case is that ‘the West’ Eristavi so often refers to goes completely anonymous.
Western officials have more or less kept mum about Yatsenyuk’s not-resignation: the best we have is ex-Ambassador Herbst, who wrote that Yatsenyuk’s resignation would most likely mean early elections – and, thus, no reform efforts and no IMF aid. More up-to-date sources like Ambassador Pyatt are surprisingly silent of the issue, which may confirm Herbst’s angle – as well as the long-held suspicion that, for all his faults, Yatsenyuk has significant US backing. Here’s a tweet by NYT reporter David Herszenhorn more or less confirming that. Yet, however, Eristavi’s article has nothing of the sort. Instead, it is filled with anonymous ‘foreign commentators’ and the equally anonymous ‘West’.
This is a problem all too common in Ukrainian media. Indeed, both Nayyem and Leshchenko, whom Eristavi hails as ‘anti-corruption crusaders’, are guilty of doing that. But this is not a Ukrainian publication, this is Foreign Policy, a respectful Western magazine, publishing an article which claims to predict Western reactions… but offers no credible sources on which those prediction may be founded! Who is to say that the reaction Eristavi predicts really represents the West’s (the anonymous West’s) opinion, and how so? No names are mentioned, neither are any organizations or news agencies. Western condemnation of Ukraine, as represented by one Maxim Eristavi, floats up on completely anonymous claims.
It is almost as if these claims have little to no basis in reality.
I’m not sure Western policymakers and officials are entirely thrilled with everything that’s happening in Ukraine. But I’m also pretty sure the implications of this are much less apocalyptic than some would like us to believe. And this time, in the absence of official Western reaction, I’m beginning to suspect they don’t even exist.
The article goes further by saying that ‘after two years of empty promises, neither Ukrainians nor their foreign partners should be satisfied’. Yet somehow, talk of Ukraine’s progress in reform comes from the same ‘foreign partners’ Eristavi mentions. And while Ukrainian journalists usually paint those remarks as doom-and-gloom, the reality is much simpler. Ukraine has done much, but it should do more. I don’t see how it, supposedly, means that ‘the West is tired of Ukraine and will cut off monetary aid if you don’t do reforms!’ – which is exactly how Ukrainian journalists choose to present these remarks.
Of course, common Ukrainians’ understanding of what ‘reforms’ entail is pretty limited compared to that of Ukraine’s foreign partners. This is unfortunate. This also means that we shouldn’t tolerate the continued manipulation of Ukrainian public opinion in that regard – which is exactly what Ukrainian media does. And what Foreign Policy – by publishing articles like this one – doesn’t help with.
How can we hope to achieve any standards of journalism when we happily resort to writing ‘West says’ to advance our own agenda? No quotes, no sources, no opinions except the author’s own – and in the end, the article fails to advocate constructive dialogue. Instead, it fuels zrada.
And there’s already all too much of that.
P.S. Since I feel I should get this straight: I do not hate Maxim Eristavi because of his sexuality, as he undoubtedly thinks.
But I do not care for one-sided doom-and-gloom visions of Ukraine he so often provides, and I do not intend to tolerate them, either.