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“To be disillusioned is naive”: Nataliya Gumenyuk on pre-election Ukraine

Five years on from the height of EuroMaidan in Ukraine, we to talk to Nataliya Gumenyuk, head of Hromadske television channel, on democratisation and Donbas. RU

Editors of Nataliya Gumenyuk
20 February 2019

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Nataliya Gumenyuk is an international journalist and head of Hromadske Ukrainian TV channel.

Natalia Gumenyuk is a leading voice both inside and outside Ukraine. A co-founder and currently head of Hromadske, a leading independent news channel, Gumenyuk has reported extensively on Maidan, Donbas and Crimea, as well as the Arab Spring. In November 2013, Gumenyuk wrote "From a Euromaidan in Ukraine" for openDemocracy, where she talks powerfully about the distinction between protest symbols and external points of view and the reality of protest on the ground.

Here, we talk to Gumenyuk about the main obstacles to democratisation in Ukraine — the war in Donbas, and silence about its consequences for Ukrainian society.

The 2014 Revolution of Dignity was not just a political turning point for Ukraine, but also a moment of emotional uplift. Do you think that the last five years have seen increasing disillusionment with its aftermath?

I don’t use the word “disillusionment” lightly. I was never disillusioned, because we went to the Maidan with the feeling that we knew things would happen differently after a period of time, differently than at the peak of the revolution, and that we had to be prepared for that.

To be disillusioned is naive. Even when I wrote a book about the events of the Arab Spring, I knew full well that the media would be initially enraptured by it, but would soon be talking about an “Arab Winter”. Five years after the Maidan, we can see that this is normal. People are at their best in extraordinary circumstances, and they showed their best qualities and aspirations at that time.

We need to accept that even selfish people can be unselfish for three months during a revolution. We spend all our time talking about what we didn’t succeed in achieving after Maidan. I’m not interested in talking about what went wrong: I’m interested in working out how to actually change the system. What can make that happen – a team that can infiltrate the system or the professionalism of an individual leader? There are strong individuals who have headed ministries and achieved their goals. But other activists have failed in similar circumstances.

Ukraine’s post-Maidan history also needs to be seen in a global perspective. In Egypt, activists didn’t get involved in government and didn’t create a party. In Ukraine, some activists did go into government, but they also didn’t create their own party, and scattered themselves among a number of political forces.

Now we’re going to have an election and it’s clear that they need to unite, to become a single force. At the same time, we have always grumbled that we needed a two party system, two normal parties that aren’t based around individuals – right at a time when the whole world is going back to creating personal movements and parties are dying out, to be replaced by charismatic leaders.

So, you feel that changes in Ukraine’s governmental system have taken place very fragmentarily. What has produced the best result? And where has change yet to take place?

The most important things that have failed to happen are the privatisation of large companies and the reform of the defence and law enforcement agencies. The sectors that involve large amounts of money are the hardest of all. This has nothing to do with people forgetting the ideals of the Maidan: they were demanding the resignation of the Minister for Internal Affairs even then.

When a country is under threat, it’s easier to use law enforcement to convince the population that security is more important than freedom – and stick to that one simple message. This is a painful story that has allowed some people not to introduce changes and others, the activists, not to press their advantage home.

What has succeeded is a change in the logic of the civil service machine: administrative reform that assumes that the loyalty of every Ukrainian official and bureaucrat is to the state and not a political movement or the party that is in power. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but in general, from the Defence Ministry to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, you will always find a critical mass of people loyal to the state. Changes in the health service structure or, for example, competitive processes for the post of railway chief, are theoretically open to all. Tenders and government contracts have become genuinely transparent and officials are afraid to steal.

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Lugansk landscape, 2017 year. Photo: Tatyana Goncharuk for oDR.

Another interesting thing is the reform of the state-owned Naftogaz, the equivalent of Russia’s Gazprom. This has been one of Ukraine’s most successful reforms and I think it was allowed to happen because it was a question of survival. There is, after all, a war going on. Ukraine depends on Russia for its energy, and if you don’t create a transparent system, which is essential where relations with Russia are concerned, you’ve already lost and thrown in the towel. Naftogaz makes deals with Gazprom – in other words, has direct relations with Russia. You either have them or you don’t – there’s no middle way.

Even oligarchs and governmental bodies at every level realise that energy is something that both the West and Ukraine need. So they pushed through this reform: they have independent management that includes experienced people from other countries, they have everything under control, it’s a normal company. This shows that, given the political will everything should, in principle, work. The logic makes sense.

In this pre-election standoff, do you feel that any of the presidential candidates understands the importance of loyalty to the state, and not to a party?

No. I wouldn’t say that they are doing the opposite, but we need to look at the latest popularity ratings. The candidates all have a very low level of support (10-15%) and none of them has a mission statement of any kind. Yulia Tymoshenko is the only one with some kind of written plan. Some of the stronger young politicians, those who have been heads of ministries and not just rank and file MPs, realise that their chances of the presidency are very slim, which means that they shouldn’t retreat into a hard opposition role, but slog for another five years and try again.

Are the ideals of the Maidan still relevant for candidates?

They are absent from the candidates’ programmes, but then that is such a Holy Grail, of which you can always say that “this wasn’t what we stood for at Maidan”. The formula can always be vulgarised, but in general those ideals were just a benchmark, a final argument.

Let’s talk about the role of the media. How do you think their ways of working have changed since the Maidan; how has their structure changed, what has happened to them?

I can see two factors here. Ukraine has high quality independent media – but they have to operate in an oligarchic market in a country where there are dozens of national TV channels, all of them owned by politicians. Before the Maidan there were even more media outlets, all owned by oligarchs. But they all had the same editorial policy: they showed either Yanukovych propaganda or they just avoided political issues and made tabloid entertainment TV.

During Maidan, a window of pluralism opened. Live shows and debates appeared on TV; there were new faces and new subjects for discussion. And now, five years on, each oligarch has been plugging their agenda ever harder through their media groups. They flourish, they are numerous, they are still growing in number and among them are not just pro-presidential propagandists, but openly pro-Russian ones. Take, for example a project linked to former Yanukovych aides: in late November 2018 they opened a new, large TV channel called “Nash” [“Ours”]. They have the most expensive studio ever built in Ukraine. And you wonder who these people are – you don’t know them and have no idea how this scale is even possible.

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A journalist’s view of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, 2015. (c) Sergei Chuzavkov / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Another, even bigger issue is the fact that we’ve moved from TV companies to whole media empires that pour enormous amounts of money into online platforms. This is a big problem for independent media: the internet used to be their territory, now they have to fight to get through to their audience.

Another obvious problem is polarisation of society: everyone sits in their own bubbles. We invent means of communication, think about going out into the regions and talking to people there, but you can’t get people to sit down at the same table. And this is not just a question of the war and Russian aggression. Public service broadcasters everywhere, not only in Ukraine, have lost their popularity: people don’t trust them and only switch on the one channel whose message they agree with.

You can talk about ideology, but when you are dealing with a war, conservative views will always prevail, and for a long time. This is the tragedy of Russian aggression after the Maidan. This is the revenge. It’s the only thing that can drag Ukraine backwards.

We at Hromadske also have to fight for our audience: it’s quite large for an independent channel, but much smaller than the oligarch-owned TV channels. And I realise that there are real reasons, connected with the flow of cash into digital technology: these media buy their traffic, artificially exaggerate their figures on YouTube – it’s all to do with money.

This can demotivate you: you’re making high-quality programmes and you know that no one’s going to tell you that they’re boring and uninteresting because both the format and visual imagery are good. And then you start to think: maybe people don’t actually want high quality news programmes? But we’re not downhearted. I genuinely believe that they are in urgent demand by a part of society.

What developments could you see happening for other independent media after the elections?

The elections aren’t the main issue for me – I can’t see anything really changing afterwards. Things could become worse, or marginally better, but it will all be going in the same direction. I don’t see these elections being historic ones that will decide the fate of our country. Fortunately the time has passed when each election was a cause for concern. I realise that there is Opposition Bloc, which will take 15% of the vote, but I can’t see them taking power. The major issue facing Ukraine is Donbas.

Ukraine has to reform and move ahead, and it’s difficult for a democratic country to do so when it’s at war. Corruption is a huge problem, but a war is the main argument for clamping down on freedom and compromising on human rights issues. You can talk about ideology, but when you are dealing with a war, conservative views will always prevail, and for a long time. This is the tragedy of Russian aggression after the Maidan. This is the revenge. It’s the only thing that can drag Ukraine backwards.

The war is the same kind of trump card as “we didn’t stand on the Maidan for this”.

Of course. The war is seriously traumatising society because the conflicts and problems created in Crimea and Donbas will haunt future generations. A generation is growing up in Donbas for whom this conflict is the norm. Seven percent of the region’s land has been occupied – at first glance that doesn’t seem like much. Many people no longer remember how things were different before, how the European Football Championship came to Donetsk in 2012, and Donetsk was seen as a European city. I think it’s dishonest to develop a country and pretend that you’re not at war, that it’s all happening somewhere else.

I was worried that some kind of military issues or hate speech would arise during the presidential election campaign. This is always on the agenda in any country where there’s a war. But I have to admit that the politicians are acting with caution, they avoid putting forward proposals that could spark conflicts. We all realise that nothing will be decided in the course of this year, no one will even speak about it.

"It’s dishonest to develop a country and pretend that you’re not at war, that it’s all happening somewhere else"

Even during the month-long State of Emergency in Ukraine in December 2018, the conversation didn’t change. For the first week, people in the regions didn’t know what to do and what it meant and they panicked. But the most obvious result was a restriction on male Russian citizens entering the country.

If someone terrible is elected, that will be the Ukrainian people’s choice, like it or lump it. I’ll accept it. Back in 2010, I had the distinct impression that it wasn’t us, the population that elected Yanukovych: the power dynamics and the resources pumped into the campaign suggested it was a seizure of power. But today, none of the political parties have that kind of money.

What role do the media play in the Donbas conflict, and how has the conflict affected the media in its turn?

Over the last few years, people have been forever asking me about fake news and propaganda. Take the StopFake project, for example: for five years they have been finding some subject to write about every day. There’s a massive volume of material, on a huge scale – it’s even incomparably greater than all the talk about Brexit in Britain. I think that Ukrainians have been sort of inoculated against it. There are people who claim that “Poroshenko organised the shooting at the Maidan”: you have to take it as read that some people will believe it.

The problem with the Russo-Ukrainian war isn’t, in the first instance ,about disinformation, but about the fact that people are actually fighting and dying there. I hate it when people look for the hand of the Kremlin when it isn’t there. But if we’re talking about the roots of the conflict, and look at the particularities of the war with Russia, it’s a question of military technology that can produce destruction on a mass scale. And the Ukrainian Army naturally employs it in return. If they are firing on you with “Grad” rocket launchers, you’ll return fire with them as well. This isn’t some kind of uprising where fighters have got hold of AK47s. The difference between this war and skirmishes in Palestine, for example, or ISIS operations, is that they haven’t had any of this technology. If you’ve been to the front, you’ll see that Donbas is on a different scale altogether.

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Children's playground is used as a military checkpoint, Donetsk region, 2017. Photo: Tatyana Goncharuk for oDR.

This is both a good and a bad thing for Ukraine. Bad because of the number of dead: a single mortar shell can kill 10 people. But unlike the conflict in the Balkans, where the aggressors and their victims lived, and still live, on the next street, fighters in Donbas can’t see who they are killing.

In all these years of war, the Donbas has seen very little hand-to-hand or close fighting, and, strangely enough, this is a good sign. About 10,000 people have died there, and 30,000 have been wounded (3,000 of them members of the Ukrainian army), and we have no idea of the number of casualties among the separatist forces. But seeing someone being killed is rare.

The forces on the Ukrainian side have all been artillery. They didn’t see the faces of the people they killed. And it was the same on the other side, and people know this. In other conflict situations, things can be very different. I’ve been reading about the Khmer Rouge, for example, and about a man who still lives a street away from someone who tortured him. Or in the Balkans, for example, neighbours were killing each other. That hasn’t been happening in Ukraine, there hasn’t been such close contact or personal animosity. There have been some situations of this kind, of course, but it has been a question of perhaps a few hundred dead, maximum. All the others were victims of mines or shelling; anonymous killings. It’s not blind hatred. Your commander orders you to fire a Grad rocket: you don’t take a knife and stab a specific person to death. People don’t talk much about this, but it is very important.

This conflict has also so far not involved aviation. Mariupol, for example, could be razed to the ground by a single bomb, and that’s warfare on a different level. And the military are well aware of this as well. You only have to remember what happened in Aleppo to realise what we have avoided and are so far still avoiding. There was, of course, the incident in November when Ukrainian Navy vessels were fired on and captured by the Russian FSB coastguard as they attempted to pass through the Kerch Strait on their way from the Black Sea to Mariupol. It was a telling moment, but it mainly affected the armed forces.

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Captain Volodymyr Lisovoy, one of 23 captured Ukrainian naval personnel currently held in Moscow. Photo: Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The media’s role in fanning the flames of this incident and the conflict in general is difficult to pin down – there are always difficulties with contractual arrangements and red lines that are difficult to avoid crossing, to avoid suggestions of treachery or weakness.

I have a big problem with the oligarchic groups; I think they are bad for Ukraine. Their populism game and frequent lying do nothing to resolve the conflict, and Russia’s disinformation campaign is not just propaganda. It is a system for promoting a certain political line using the full might of the security services and with its entire arsenal, from the Foreign and Defence Ministries to private companies and the so-called government-supported NGOs working together in unison.

We at Hromadske have rejected opinion journalism. It may not be a popular decision, but we have chosen factual journalism, pure reportage. A war situation generally prompts a need for media to boost public morale, apportion blame and create myths. In such an emotional situation, even voicing an opinion can hit home and cause hurt. And at the same time there is very little information available and people don’t know for sure what’s happening, but they all have their own take on the situation.

Ask anyone, even a Minister, what’s going on and they don’t know, but they do have an opinion. Information is lacking and many of these opinions are based on outdated or incorrect information – on what was happening five years ago. In Donetsk, for example, there is no chaos. Shop-raiding stopped in October 2014, but people are living under a harsh regime, a military dictatorship. It’s horrific, but conditions are completely different from five years ago: people can be sentenced to corrective labour – drunkards, for example, have to plant lawns – and there is a curfew in operation. And when somebody in Kyiv describes the situation as though it was still April 2014, talking about chaos and plain clothes police with Kalashnikovs staggering along the streets, people stop listening to them. And this kind of thing can erode trust.

When I argue, I don’t see myself as rejecting someone else’s opinion: I’m simply relating facts and showing people that their arguments may be weak because they are based on outdated facts, whilst if we want to move forward and take decisions we need to know what is happening now, today.

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