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    BRAMA News and Community Press

    BRAMA, Dec 1, 2004, 3:00 pm ET

    Op-Ed

    The Propaganda War Over Ukraine
    By Andrew Sorokowski (JD, PhD)

    "Propaganda war" sounds like a throwback to the Cold War. While the Ukrainian crisis may not signal a return to the Cold War, it is a crucial step in Vladimir Putin's campaign to re-establish Russian hegemony in Eurasia. It is also a test of how the West, especially we Americans, will react. Consequently, the propaganda war is afoot.

    It is not only that the campaign of Russia's favorite, Viktor Yanukovych, has spent over a million dollars to hire several U.S. public relations firms to win over American public opinion. Statements by Russian and Ukrainian officials, and some journalists, propagate an array of misleading notions aimed at undermining international support for Ukraine's fledgling democracy. Some of these notions have a long, if suspect, pedigree in the history of ideas. This ideological offensive has three prongs: regionalization, marginalization, and relativization.

    Regionalization means propagating the myth that Ukraine is really two countries. According to a report that appeared during the election campaign in the independent internet publication Ukrainska Pravda, Russian political strategists advising Yanukovych had advocated playing up the differences between Eastern and Western Ukraine. In this view, shared by some Western commentators, Eastern Ukraine is pro-Russian, industrial, religiously Orthodox, and supports Viktor Yanukovych. Western Ukraine is pro-Western, agricultural, Catholic, and supports Viktor Yushchenko.

    There is some truth to these generalizations. Russia dominated Eastern Ukraine from the seventeenth century to 1991, while Western Ukraine was ruled for several centuries by westward-looking Poland and Austria. But it cannot be assumed that Russian-speaking Ukrainians, or even ethnic Russians, automatically supported Yanukovych. While the Donbas and a number of Eastern cities are heavily industrialized, much of the East is agricultural too. Today, the three Ukrainian Orthodox Churches find heavy support in the West. Yushchenko himself is from Sumy, in the East, and belongs to the Orthodox Church. Much of his support has come from Eastern regions like Chernihiv and Poltava. If one had to divide Ukraine according to political preference, it would make more sense to identify at least four regions: East, West, Center, and South. Regional, ethnic or linguistic differences notwithstanding, Ukraine is one country. Efforts to divide her have always served the interests of her rapacious neighbors.

    The second prong of this propaganda offensive proceeds from the first. It holds that Yushchenko's supporters are a marginal Western Ukrainian minority outside the mainstream of Ukraine's history. In this view, which harks back to Russian nationalist ideology, Kiev is the "mother of Russian cities," and the "true" Ukraine has always been tied to Russia. The Western Ukrainians, on the other hand, have been corrupted by Polish (that is, Western) influence, defected from the Orthodox Church, and even collaborated with Hitler. Some of Yanukovych's propaganda, in fact, has depicted Yushchenko, whose father was imprisoned in Auschwitz, as a crypto-Nazi as well as a lackey of American imperialists. And his supporters in Kiev's Independence Square are dismissed as a radical fringe group.

    It is true that Yushchenko's heaviest support is in Western Ukraine. But the defamatory caricature of Western Ukrainians seems intended to alienate the rest of Ukraine from this politically conscious, pro-democratic and pro-Western region. Besides, Yushchenko could not have won even his officially announced 46.6 percent of the vote without significant support from the more populous "East." This includes Kiev, a city far older than Russia and a bastion of Ukrainian independence. The two or three hundred thousand pro-Yushchenko demonstrators in the capital came from all over Ukraine. And large Yushchenko rallies have taken place in Eastern Ukrainian industrial cities like Kharkiv.

    The third prong of anti-Yushchenko propaganda is the most insidious, for it plays on liberal Americans' tendency to dwell on their own failings and refrain from moral judgments. This is the notion that, as Yanukovych wrote in the Wall Street Journal on November 16, Ukraine's elections were not so different from America's. Like our elections, they were -- by the official count -- close. Like our elections, they suffered from irregularities. If we have not overturned our elections, why should they?

    Of course, the comparison is specious. The elections in Ukraine were preceded by virtual elimination of a free press. Opposition candidate Yushchenko was poisoned; the effects are plainly visible on his face. The election tactics of his opponents included manipulation of voting lists, bribery and intimidation of voters, physical assault, abuse of absentee ballots, multiple voting, destruction of ballots, falsification of results, and even a Gogolian registration of "dead souls." There were 11,000 complaints of election irregularities, and Yushchenko maintains that three million votes were falsified.

    By regionalizing the vote into a Ukrainian "East" and "West," then marginalizing the "West," the Yanukovych campaign and its government supporters sought to delegitimize the opposition. By relativizing the conduct of the election, they now seek to weaken international reluctance to recognize an illegitimate government.

    The issue now is not whether Yanukovych or Yushchenko won the vote. It is not whether Ukraine wants to maintain neighborly relations with Russia or join the democratic, market-oriented West. Her people have already voted for the candidate who wants to do both. The real issue is whether Russia and her collaborators can force an anti-democratic and fraudulently elected regime upon the Ukrainian people. They can only succeed if they neutralize our opposition. The propaganda war has begun.

    Andrew Sorokowski, JD, PhD, is a lawyer and historian working for the US Department of Justice. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the US DOJ.

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