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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Are the media to blame?

Ukrainian-Russian relations were worse 300 years ago
7 October, 2008 - 00:00

The war in Georgia, and particularly the way it was covered by the media, has resulted in a marked worsening of Ukrainians’ attitudes to Russians, and especially vice versa. Whereas in April 2008, 47 percent of Ukrainians had a very friendly attitude to Russia, in September it was 42 percent, compared to 2.5 percent of Russians who had a very friendly attitude to Ukraine (compared to 5.5 percent half a year ago).

The number of people in Ukraine who think well of Russia has remained almost the same, at 88 percent, compared to the drop from 54 percent to 37 percent in Russia. Today, 52 percent of Russians do not like Ukraine, compared to 9 percent of Ukrainians who dislike Russia.

These are the findings of a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KMIS) and the Moscow-based analytical Levada Center. Both of these polling agencies asked their respondents the same questions: “What is your general attitude to Russia (Ukraine)?” and “What kind of relations would you like to see between Ukraine and Russia (and vice versa)?”

The Levada Center found that Russians have a negative attitude not only to Ukraine but also the US (67 percent), the EU (39 percent), and Georgia (75 percent). “In September all these four indices reached a historic low. In other words, Russians have never before shown such a negative attitude to these countries. This obviously has to do with the recent events in the North Caucasus,” reads a statement summarizing the Russian experts’ findings.

Professor Valerii KHMELKO, the president of KMIS, talked to The Day about the media’s crucial role in this situation and the prospects of Ukrainian-Russian relations, a topic that his organization has been studying for more than a decade.

Dr. Khmelko, why do you think Russia’s attitude to Ukraine has worsened so much? Ukrainians have not done anything bad to Russia. Meanwhile, Ukrainians’ attitudes to Russia remain practically the same, even though Russia fought a war in the North Caucasus while accusing Ukraine of helping the Georgian army.

I think the reason behind Russia’s worsening attitude to Ukraine is propaganda - what the mass media in Russia are saying. I happened to be in Croatia when the military events were taking place in Georgia. I was watching Russian channels as well as the BBC and CNN. I trust Western channels, especially the BBC, and I could see the difference between the information that was being broadcast by the Russian channels and the other two companies. I could see how Russia’s media were working to generate the Russians’ negative attitude toward Georgia - and Ukraine. They alleged that we were selling weapons to Georgia. Among other things, they claimed that Ukrainians took part in what they described as Georgian aggression. Such information continued being disseminated as I was leaving for Kyiv. Our media were saying that the Russians have continued to portray the situation that way. Since there are no other sources of information for the masses of Russian viewers and listeners, I think this factor played a certain role.

But why have Ukrainians’ attitudes to Russia changed so little? Why aren’t we as easily influenced by the media?

Because what we’re talking about isn’t our attitude to the Russian leadership but to the Russian people. I think that for Ukrainians Russia does not mean Putin, Medvedev, or other decision-makers and those who support this propaganda, but their friends and relatives who live in Russia. This is especially true of people who live in eastern and southern Ukraine, and many residents of the central regions. In other words, they do not identify Russia with those who are so negatively portraying Georgia as the aggressor. The Russian media are painting a negative picture of the Ukrainian leadership in this situation and claiming that Ukrainians took part in these events.

Can it be proved that this propaganda campaign in the Russian media was planned?

I’m in no position to pass judgment on this, but I don’t think it is coincidental. This could be the self-organization of the Russian mass media, which strive to meet their bosses’ requirements. They may not have received direct instructions. When one wants to curry favor with those in power, one acts in a manner best described by the saying that a fool is worse than any foe.

So there could have been different factors shaping this public opinion. I believe that the Russian media, especially television, which has the strongest influence on public opinion, have passed the selection phase, so now they don’t have to be told how to respond to certain events. They know what to do to please their superiors.

The percentage of Uk­rainians who have changed their attitude to Russia has increased from 6.8 to 9 percent. In terms of geography, where are these changes especially noticeable?

We have been monitoring Ukrainian-Russian relations for several years and often noticed that when Russia starts treating Ukraine in an unfriendly manner, the biggest fluctuations in attitudes to our northern neighbors are in southern and eastern Ukraine. In the western regions we see more stable and critical assessments, and the situation there doesn’t change much.

Is it possible to say that this propaganda campaign in Russia will result in a worsening of Russians’ attitudes to Ukrainians, and vice versa?

Not necessarily. I think that everything will depend on the relations between the governments of both countries, and their relations may change. Therefore, I’m not prepared to make any predictions. If Russia’s television continues to portray Ukraine as it did during the recent events in Georgia, Russian attitudes toward us will worsen. But in any case, I don’t think this will continue. Various changes are possible, and right now it is difficult to say which factors will be instrumental.

Some Ukrainian politicians are accusing the pro-presidential party and the head of state of worsening our relations with Russia. How objective are these accusations, considering that the information war is being waged by Russia?

In my opinion, the principled stand taken by our politicians in regard to certain actions by Russia displeases their current leadership, so to say that we’re guilty... If our politicians have distorted something, then it would be possible to talk about our culpability. But I haven’t heard any statements that did not correspond to the actual situation, although some were rather strongly worded, so I think that some people didn’t like this. But this doesn’t mean that our politicians are at fault. I think that the events initiated by the Russian leadership during the military operations in Georgia are to blame. In fact, the Russian leadership is being harshly assessed not just by Ukraine but by the rest of the world.

By Oksana MYKOLIUK, The Day