The much-publicized seizure of two containers en route from Ukraine to Egypt on June 2, 2004, by Turkish customs officers at Ambarli (Istanbul) is now a matter of history for journalists and the public. Nevertheless, an analysis of this incident provides grounds, first of all, for the belief that this chain of events was by no means accidental, and, second, the realization that media coverage of any sensitive activity is becoming one of its most important components.
The Ukrainian government appeals to media outlets only when it wants to announce non-involvement in certain events. But what happened in Turkey shows that something has changed in the way some governments are cooperating with the mass media. The information explosion also proved that a fuse could be lit even without such things as credible details. But let’s start at the beginning.
THERE WAS NO UKRAINIAN SHIP OR UKRAINIAN CARGO
It should be noted from the very beginning that the Ukrainian authorities had nothing to do with the consignment seized in Istanbul. Under the contract, the Ukrainian side was to accompany air defense missile spare parts sold to Egypt’s defense ministry until it was loaded on board a ship chosen by the customer. Once the cargo was loaded, all responsibility for handling the 728 spare parts for Kub, Volga, and Tunguska anti-aircraft missiles was assumed by the carrier and the buyer.
As for the container markings, which were subsequently disputed, international rules do not consider spare parts labeled cargo, and hence the containers did not have to bear special markings that are mandatory for weapons containers. The two seized boxes contained no operational elements: they comprised just one-sixth or one-fifth of an S-75 anti-aircraft missile. It should also be noted that it was not a one-time dubious deal through an intermediary but a direct, legitimate transaction between Ukraine’s Ukroboronservis specialized exporters and Egypt’s no less official ministry of defense. Yet, there was no stopping the successful information operation.
CHRONICLE OF AN INFORMATION OPERATION
The story began on June 2, when Istanbul port police impounded cargo being carried from Ukraine to Egypt on a Greek vessel suspected of breaching international laws governing the transport of military-purpose products. A media event was immediately organized right on board the ship in the presence of many journalists. A central television channel alleged that a Turkish cabinet minister had practically opened the boxes himself and displayed their contents. But attentive viewers couldn’t help noticing the boxes with Ukrainian spare parts, as well as some automatic rifles of non-Ukrainian and even non-Soviet make. This radically changes the situation: small arms are transported under entirely different regulations that require special markings and many other formalities. But this didn’t spark any concern because only experts know about such details, whereas the media coverage was intended for the general public.
Soon after, on June 3, the Turkish newspaper Sabah recounted the masterful operation that was carried out by the Turkish security services. The report also mentioned spy satellites that had allegedly spotted the contraband. However, the specialists who accompanied the cargo to Odesa insist that this impossible because the sensitive cargo was inside the containers.
When a group of Ukrainian experts arrived in Istanbul on June 4 to look into the circumstances surrounding this extraordinary situation and its causes, the damage had already been done: information was flying all over the world, including, of course, the Ukrainian media.
It was not until June 7 that the office of Turkey’s attorney general officially admitted that the contents of the containers complied with the shipping documents and the cargo had been seized for purely technical reasons. But even in this case the Greek vessel was referred to as a Ukrainian one. “Unfortunately, this led to the publication of unverified and false allegations about an illegal supply of weapons and ammunition,” Turkey’s foreign ministry announced on its official Web site.
The impression was that all the sides had confirmed the legitimacy of supplying air defense missile spare parts to Egypt’s ministry of defense. This could have been the end of the story, but as a result of the media campaign, the man in the street formed a clear-cut stereotype: Turkish law-enforcers are closely guarding the interests of their state and the world as a whole, while Ukrainian arms dealers tried to “cut a deal” but managed to wriggle out.
Tellingly, this stereotype is not about the inefficiency of Turkish law-enforcers who, as it turned out, know very little about cargo markings.
LESSONS OF FOREIGN PROFESSIONALISM
The Ukrainian side did not have to react to this action or could have confined itself to a statement issued by the foreign ministry and swallow the insult, attributing it to the extraordinary vigilance of a neighboring state’s security service on the eve of the NATO summit.
Still, what was behind this incident? There are several theories. First of all, experts believe the brouhaha may have been prompted by Turkey’s desire to demonstrate its ability to ensure the untroubled course of the North- Atlantic Alliance’s upcoming summit. If this is the case, the Turkish authorities’ nervousness and blunders reflect nothing but lack of confidence in its ability to provide the required level of security.
Secondly, observers note that the incident occurred on the eve of the official visit of Turkey’s foreign minister to Egypt. It has not been ruled out that it was a successful bid to acquire an additional trump card for negotiations. The two sides were observed holding extremely energetic consultations for two days before the minister’s visit. If this is the case, what does this have to do with Ukraine?
Thirdly, analysts are linking this incident to geopolitical processes. Turkey, which has the most powerful fleet on the Black Sea, is trying to position itself as a regional leader. To do so, it needs to take some offensive actions that demonstrate its global superiority, particularly in the field of general security and control. Today, Turkey exercises total control over all the transits through the Bosphorus. Considering that weapons will continue to be transported from Russia and Belarus across Ukraine, this is by no means the last incident of this kind. Moreover, it may not necessarily be a question of weapons. As for Ukraine, our country just turned out to be the object of a certain political game.
Ukrainians should ask themselves one more question: what is the root cause of Ukraine’s perennial vulnerability and the weakness of its mass media? Perhaps, the crux of the matter is that Ukraine has not yet created a normal mechanism of interaction between the authorities, on the one hand, and the media and civic organizations, on the other?
To learn what really caused the vessel to be impounded, we turned to Ukrainian and Turkish diplomats. Both sides agree that it is the international carrier company that should be held responsible for the mistakes that were made. But who is to blame for striking a blow at Ukraine’s image? Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesperson answers this question. Also, what conclusions should Ukraine and Turkey draw from this unfortunate incident?
Bilge CANKOREL, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Turkey to Ukraine:
The incident was caused by misleading and incomplete customs declaration by the forwarding agency concerned. Upon investigation and cooperation between Turkish and Ukrainian authorities the true nature of the cargo was determined and no illegal aspects found. The cargo was therefore allowed to proceed to Egypt, its final destination. No panel or judicial sanctions were imposed. In the future it will always be helpful to be more careful about customs declaration.
Markiyan LUBKIVSKY, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine:
“Aware of the negative consequences that reports about this incident may have for the image of our state, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs considered it necessary to learn all the details and reveal the truth in an open and honest manner. It is very significant that the management of Ukrspetseksport and Ukroboronservis also joined this effort, although they had nothing to with the incident. The incident was caused by mistakes made by the carrier Danzas, an international freight forwarding company. It is of course regrettable that, owing to the hasty conclusions of some Turkish officials, unverified information was leaked to the press, almost causing an incident. I do not think it is we who must draw any conclusions, but without a doubt we will bear in mind this unpleasant incident.”