Communication with Donbas: Growing Tensions Between “Hawks” and “Dows” within Poroshenko’s team
NGO “Detector Media” prepares monitoring of the government’s communication policy toward Donbas. Analytical reports are published bimonthly. The methodology of monitoring could be found here.
This project is sponsored by National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Monitoring report for March - April 2017 could be found here.
You can also read this article in Ukrainian.
May and June have appeared to be eventful months. Ban of the Russian social networks, law about introduction of the Ukrainian language quotas on television, announcement of the intentions to change Ant-Terrorist Operation (ATO) legal status – all these news were the matter of concern for inhabitants of Donbas in both liberated and occupied territories. For instance, according to the survey conducted by Institute for Mass Information and GFK-Ukraine, Russian language Internet resources (like social media network “VKontakte” and news aggregator Yandex) have been popular in the eastern regions of the country; focus groups, set up by StopFake in Donbas, showed that the locals have had increased sensitivity about “forceful Ukrainization” of the television. Finally, opinion poll, presented by “Detector media” and Kiev International Institute of Sociology, revealed controversial attitude of Ukrainian citizens in Donbas toward ATO.
Indeed, the official standpoint of the authorities (president, government, parliamentary factions), which were the sources of the news and changes, was naturally important for the citizens, living in Donbas, who either tried to understand new political decisions and their implications or wanted to hear reasonable and trustworthy explanation of government’s policies. However, as far as we have seen in the first report, the authorities have their own idea about “important and urgent” topics of the national agenda and their own priorities in communication with the nation or separate target groups.
To start it up, in May and June the communication activity of the president of Ukraine has been completely reserved for covering contacts, meeting and negotiations with the foreign governments and politicians that could influence decisions to extend sanctions against Russia or to give aid to Ukraine. Although these matters were genuine and serious for the active public communication, citizens in Donbas did not find anything new about their future.
This is not a secondary issue. People tend to evaluate actions of the government by results it delivers. Explaining connection between negotiations with the foreign powers and possible consequential changes is an important tool of shaping public opinion and expectations, which could transform in the reason to support or protest against government’s policies. For some reason this effort to justify president’s action in the eyes of national and Donbas audience is not done by the administration of president.
There were just two occasions when president’s speech mentioned interests of citizens in Donbas. Both times president’s messages gave opportunity for the different interpretations as well as for manipulative coverage by the Russian mass media.
On May 24th president Petro Poroshenko, while visiting Volyn region, stated that inhabitants of the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea might be given foreign passports of the old design. Although president only speculated about possible policy options concerning debate about giving to this group of people new biometric foreign passports or the old type of this document, the media (including 5 TV-channel, owned by Poroshenko) interpreted his words as a clear executive order. In fact, neither Poroshenko, no his administration did not commented or clarified this idea.
Later, on June 14th, during his visit to Donetsk oblast, which was scheduled to cover issues of military operation and defence against separatists, Poroshenko confirmed news that his administration was working on the draft of law about “reintegration of Donbas”. However, until the end of month people did not hear any coherent explanation what the new law would change in the current situation on the ground, why it is necessary or not to expect introduction of the marshal law and what steps would be made to reintegrate occupied territories…
Messages about Russian social media ban or introduction of the language quotas on television were not accommodated to the specific perception in the Donbas region. Administration of president pretended that there were no differences in public opinion on these matters in the western and eastern regions of the country. perception.
Another miscommunication case happened in early June. On June 3rd administration of president released a statement that president signed the law, which created new opportunities to enter universities to thee young people from the occupied territories. Meanwhile, mass media interpreted this law as a chance for the people from the certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, though the status of the occupied territories was given only to Crimea, and the list of the regions, mentioned in the law (Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions) also proved that it was designed primarily for inhabitants of occupied peninsula.
In this case citizens from Donetsk and Luhansk regions did not received any plausible explanation. People had to wait until June 16th, when the minister for the temporary occupied territories addressed to the school graduates, living in the occupied territories. This fact demands answer to the simple question: Are government and the ministry for the temporary occupied territories sure that it was necessary to wait until very last minute and announce this important statement just two days before the start of admission campaign? This kind of attitude toward people, who live in difficult conditions of the armed conflict, barely could be regarded as an example of competent and open governing.
In May-June prime minister Volodymyr Hroisman did not change his mind about Donbas issues. The mainstream topic of his communication was harsh criticism of the political forces, which staged blockade of Donbas, and repetition of the three messages:
- blockade has resulted in huge economic losses and benefits for Russia;
- law enforcement agencies are responsible for crackdown of the blockade;
- prime minister is doing everything to prevent energy crisis.
Similar to his behaviour in March-April, prime minister used the Donbas issues to shape his own public image and attack political opponents. Opinion and the real problems of the people in Donbas were out of Hroisman’s political radar.
Meanwhile secretary of the National Security and Defence Council (NSDC) Oleksandr Turchinov was actively commenting sensitive Donbas issues. On June 16th Mr.Turchinov directly addressed the risks of use of the Russian software and social media, since they are exploited “for the illegal information gathering, information warfare, propaganda and recruitment of the agents by the Russian intelligence”. NSDC secretary also stressed that the decision to ban Russian software and social media was voluntary for the common citizens but compulsory for the state agencies and services.
Furthermore, the stuff of NSDC intentionally emphasized another Turshinov’s message (June 22nd) about necessity to conduct additional checks of the inhabitants of the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea. This was the only statement of the high executive official and influential politician, which mentioned the topic of issuing new passports, since president had touched it in May. However, it hasn’t become clearer what government was going to do; to the contrary, it raised new questions whether citizens from the occupied territories could have any kind of such documents in a routine way, since Turchinov said that it should be regulated by the law that was only being drafted.
On the next day it appeared that Turchinov’s statement about “additional checks” was just a carfully measured information leak before joint PR event of NSDC and ministry for internal affairs. On June 23rd during the press briefing Mr.Turchinov openly stated that the procedure of issuing biometric ID documents was complicated by risk of infiltration of the Russian agents and unavailability of the “great share of migration service demographic paper registers”.
Turchinov’s words were followed by minister of internal affairs Avakov who announced special checks of the people absent in the ministry’s databases. However, Avakov’s message “if you are honest person and live in the occupied territory, you have nothing to worry about, you will pass all required procedures” could not be considered either trustworthy or persuasive by majority of Ukrainians, since Turchinov said there was no law, which regulate such “procedures”. Moreover, Avakov has one of the lowest trust ratings in the country (-71%). When such politician uses term “honest person” anybody, who shares concerns of the 53,6% of the people that have no trust in the National Police, perceives such statement as an attempt of the government to define subjectively who is honest and who is not. This case only proves that either minister of internal affairs disregards instructions of the country’s leadership or sincerely believes that he can rely on the great public trust. All in all this is not very helpful for building mutual understanding between ministry and Donbas audience.
Still, On June 13th the NSDC secretary’s statement about change of legal status of ATO caused the greatest media effect. This time Turchinov became the newsmaker forcing media and other politicians, including president Poroshenko, only to comment after him. According to secretary Turchinov, the armed forces on the line of contact would have power to act without marshal law, while the general command of the troops and local civil-military administrations would be done by the newly established Operative Headquarters. However, Turchinov added that the respective draft law had to be approved by president. At the same time NSDC statement had no information how this would change the lives of the local people and when it would be available for them.
On the same day another Turchinov’s message from the interview to “Interfax-Ukraine” was separately distributed to the mass media. He said that the social and economic environment of Donbas would improve only after the complete de-occupation of the region. On the one hand, it was just a kind of argument that Ukraine was going to achieve comprehensive liberation of the occupied territories.
On the other, Mr. Turchinov made a statement, which intruded into the policy competence of the prime minister, who is responsible for the economic decision making. Therefore, we can assume that NSDC is going to claim the right and power to make decisions related to Donbas, including issues of region’s economic development while the Cabinet of ministers is given the role of passive performer.
This assumption is also strengthened by the intention to establish new power structure that will help to command armed forces and civil administrations in the liberated territories, as it appeared in the leaked draft of the law. Then it is unclear whether NSDC secretary understands that he would be also responsible for the urgent economic and social decisions, which are important to secure loyalty of the local people; additionally, NSDC stuff would have to deal with the communication risks accompanying secretary’s public image in the region; finally, NSDC could face power struggle from the Cabinet of ministers. We will follow these presumptions in our next reports.
Competition between NSDC and the Cabinet of ministers has already become visible if we look at the media activity of the ministry for the temporary occupied territories and internally displaced persons (MinTOT). In May and June the minister Chernysh made numerous public statements about security issues in Donbas region: he mentioned listing missed in action people and POWs, warning about dire ecological situation in the region, calling for governmental support of the social infrastructure in the areas next to the line of contact. On June 9th he presented the concept of the State specific program “Restoring and maintaining peace in the eastern regions of Ukraine” to the EU working group. His messages for the EU representatives challenged harsh NSDC secretary statement, made on June 14th.
It seems that MinTOT communicates not only with the population but also with the rival power centers, presenting moderate viewpoint of the so-called “doves” in the president’s entourage, who struggle with so-called “hawks”, represented by secretary Turchinov. Comparing with activity in March and April, MinTOT enhanced its communication with the foreign representatives and local authorities in Donbas, it also was more consistent in appealing to the real concerns of the local population.
In addition, on the MinTOT chief officers, deputy minister Heorhiy Tuka, was not shy to openly challenge NSDC ideas. Although his interview could not be considered as an official ministry statement, the target audience of Tuka’s messages might be more sympathetic to such informal way of communication than to the official channels.
The advantages of the informal ways and means of communication are also acknowledged by minister for internal affairs Arsen Avakov. In contrast to MinTOT officials, Avakov has positioned himself as a “hawk” and prominent comrade-in-arms of secretary Turchinov.
On June 22nd (remember about joint press conference with Turchinov in Poltava, June 23rd) Avakov’s article was published in popular internet paper “Ukrainska Pravda” (reposted in the official internet-site of ministry). Minister used it to explain the reality of the “hybrid war” and “hybrid peace”.
According to Avakov, the “hybrid war” results in “destruction phenomenon”, which is interpreted as a desire to resolve complex problems by “simplistic decisions and force”. Minister condemned bearers of such ideology as “left and right populists”, “flock of the political scoundrels”, “main populist political forces”, “homegrown and vagabond messiahs”. Avakov proposed the cure against this evil “dictatorship of the real principles of survival…true principles”, although he did not explain them.
Finally, minister admitted another problem, which was described as a “war post-traumatic syndrome” which overwhelmed military and civilians in the conflict zone as well as internally displaced people. Avakov called to approve governmental action plan to mitigate negative impact of such syndrome without giving any insight how it would be possible.
Hence, it seems to be just another quite general narration about importance of joining the struggle between forces of “good” and “bad” for the sake of public good. At the same time the persuasive force of such appeal is undermined by the everyday political practice of this minister as well as routinely inefficiency and corruption among his subordinates – local police princes, who succeeded to use the system for the personal benefits. In any case, opinion polls show no positive change in public attitude toward Avakov’s ministry.
Thus the “hawks” tried and failed to legitimize their policies using opportunities of persuasion, which were at their disposal due to the situation in Donbas. Nevertheless, we are concerned that they will not stop doing it again.
The communication of Ministry for information policy (MIP) proved there are other dimensions of communications collapse. In June, after two and a half years of existence, MIP announced that radio broadcasting to the occupied territories had been finally launched. In essence, MIP just used occasion of the working meeting at the Donetsk civil-military administration (on June 6th) when it was mentioned that radio transmitter had been already working in the town of Chasiv Yar since April 2nd, 2017.
Moreover, on June 12th and 14th MIP released two different statements about the same subject of broadcasting in the town of Avdiivka, using working meeting in the ministry’s commission and special external session of the parliamentary committee for the freedom of speech and information policy.
In general, it seems like MIP communicates for the sake of self-promotion of its chiefs and reiteration of the optimistic bureaucratic reports in its official site. There are no doubts that such activity could be appreciated by the highest authorities, however, it is hardly an example of efficient work.
Self-promotion also dominates communication efforts of the Donetsk and Luhansk civil-military administrations (CMA). However, comparing to the previous two months, in May and June head of Donetsk CMA Pavlo Zhebrivskiy and head of Luhansk CMA Yuriy Harbuz tried to attract attention rather to their “deeds” than “promises”: “25 young families from Mariupol were granted with apartments”, “We opened Center of administrative services in Druzhkivka, which is second center in the region”, “Today, together with prime minister Volodymyr Hroisman we inaugurated repaired railway passage between Khlibodarivka - Zachativka - Rozivka”, “In the region destroyed bridges are under construction”, “Building of apartments for the internally displaced person is under my permanent supervision - Yuriy Harbuz”.
Both heads of Donbas CMAs have one common trait in their communication – active support of prime minister policies toward reconstruction of the region. Besides, we have to admit that Yuriy Harbuz demonstrated more loyalty to head of the government, repeating his messages about negative impact of Donbas civil blockade: “Due to the blockade of the railways Luhansk budget lost one third of its revenues”.
At the same time we noticed one significant difference between Mr. Zhebrivskiy and Mr. Harbuz. Head of Luhansk CMA tended to avoid mentioning topic of the armed conflict in the region, while Donetsk CMA chief was actively commenting bombardments and damages, caused by “Russian invaders”, “Russian terrorist troops”, and “armed villains”. Probably, this Zhebrivskiy attitude can be explained by his personal experience of military service in ATO. Meanwhile, in our opinion, such reasonable and proportionate reminding about the war conditions and threat of the new outburst of hostilities from the Russian side can help to build mutual understanding and confidence between authorities and people, whose everyday lives are marked by the threat of war. In contrast to this, head of Luhansk CMA Yuriy Harbuz neglected requirement to react publicly to the latest hostilities near village of Zholobok and demonstrate comprehension of the threat to the civilians as well as show support to Ukrainian armed forces.
On the other hand, Zhebrivskiy paid special visit to the frontline towns and villages of Mayorsk, Zhovanka, Bakhmut and Pisky to talk to people about their urgent demands just two days after Turchinov and Poroshenko announces plans to change ATO. Zhebrivskiy promised to deliver quick response to these pressing needs. In our opinion, Zhebrivskiy’s actions could be viewed as an example of efficient communication with feedback, which establishes foundation for the long-term trust and cooperation. Thus in our future reports we will closely follow whether head of Donetsk CMA keeps his promises.
Similar to the previous period of March-April, we can give prize for the most humane and open communication to Iryna Herashchenko, first deputy chairwoman of the Verkhovna Rada who is also negotiator in the Minsk trilateral contact group. Again she has been the main source of messages about real problems of Donbas, referring to feelings and emotions of the people living in liberated and occupied territories. Her speeches about freeing POWs and hostages, which places high demands on politicians and their responsibility for decisions that might cost people’s lives, are bridging her with the critical thoughts of deputy minister Heorhiy Tyka about “heroism” of the proponents of the so-called “tough approach” toward Donbas.
Here are the facts that in June struggle between supporters of the different strategic approaches toward Donbas, which we noted in the 1st report, has become more intensive. On June 16th in the interview to the newspaper “Fakty i kommentarii” (posted on her Facebook) Iryna Herashchenko warned decisively against “segregation” of the citizens living in the occupied territories in respect to their right to have biometric documents. She argued that opportunities of the visa-free regime with the EU would help to motivate people from the occupied territories “to help us to recover these territories”.
On June 19th Herashchenko used her FB-page to inform audience that “Ukraine remains dedicated to the political and diplomatic way of resolution of the war in Donbas…It is a true philosophy behind the draft law” (law on changes in ATO legal status). However, when she was out the country, accompanying president Poroshenko during his visit to USA, the leaders of “hawks” replied in a straightforward manner: NSDC secretary Turchinov warned that biometric documents could be used by the Russian intelligence agents, which makes it obligatory to introduce “special background checks”, while minister Avakov published his opaque speculations about “strategy of the hybrid peace”.
Herashchenko again used her communication skills to react to this attack. On 26th of June she wrote about meeting with minister of defence Stepan Poltorak when she discussed establishment of the new rehabilitation centers for servicemen and women wounded in ATO. Herashchenko demonstrated that she was not going to involve herself in public debate with “hawks” and would respond with practical steps, which can be visible for the voters. It is worth mentioning that later in July this approach was also used by president Poroshenko, when he visited Sumy region to open new rehabilitation center and announce his intention to establish ministry for veteran affairs.
Thus, we can suppose that Mr. Poroshenko feels the heat from the “hawks” but try to balance their influence assisting to “moderates”. Probably, president understands that his loyalists like Iryna Herashchenko create new chances for his political party “Solidarnist” to arrange dialogue not only with people in Donbas but also with wider public that looks for the end of armed conflict.
However, insiders from the Poroshenko’s party “Solidarnist” succeeded rather in demonstrating their loyalty and flattering to the president than in speaking about serious matters: “Ukrainian diplomacy achieved prominent results after negotiations in US - Iryna Lutsenko (deputy head of faction)”, “Volodymyr Ariev: US Administration endorsement of the sanctions against Russia is the most important outcome of Poroshenko’s visit to US”.
Piling acrid comments about Russian authorities, other members of “Solidarnist” parliamentary faction were at pains to position themselves as proponents of “tough measures” against Russia and separatists. In reality it showed up as a mere self-promotion not the communication with people: “Russian Federation as the aggressor-state is completely responsible for the violence against women in Donbas - Iryna Suslova”, “there are both diplomatic and military scenarios of recovering our lands in donbas - Suslova”, “Iryna Friz: Captured Russian mercenary is solid evidence about Russian involvement in war in Donbas”.
At the same time in May and June there were more statements from members of “Solidarnist”, which addressed Donbas issues. Naturally, they were released by MPs, who were elected in majority districts in Donbas: “Donbas requires urgent steps in solving problem o drinking water supply - Oleg Nedava”, “Efimov: On the occasion of the 85-th anniversary of foundation of Donetsk region four artificial football fields were laid in Kramatorsk”, “Youngsters from the occupied territories must have privileges in admission process in universities - Arthur Herasimov”. Furthermore, Iryne Herashchenko called to pay more attention to the critical ecological situation in Donbas, including occupied territories, caused by war.
It must be admitted that representatives of “Solidarnist” tasked themselves with the mission to distribute information about privileged access of graduates from the occupied territories to the Ukrainian universities. However their statements sounded more like promises than comprehensive explanation of such decision. The same problem marked messages about IDP rights protection: “Parliament must protect dwelling rights of the internally displaced orphans - Ivan Melnychuk”, “BPP (acronym for “Solidarnist” faction) members propose to increase expenditures to financing dwelling programs for IDPs from the eastern regions”.
Meanwhile, the closest coalition partner of “Solidarnist” - faction of “Narodnyi Front”(NF) demonstrated strong discipline in redistributing and repeating “tough” statements of its leadership, although they completely ignored troubles of Donbas. The only exception was Liudmyla Denisova, who spoke about IDP rights (“We need to have mechanism to solve problems of social payments to IDPs”, “Laws on the rights of the IDPs must be improved”. In our opinion, she made these statements because she was selected by the leaders of NF as a nominee for the position of Ombudswoman.
Evidently, while “Solidarnist” was trying to position itself as a political party that could make tough decisions “Narodnyi Front” required to promote its own “peacemakers” in order to shield itself from opponents’ media attacks. Therefore, it rather a question of faith than reason whether such competition in power would help people in need.
Similar communication tactics on Donbas issues - overlooking real problems of Donbas, promoting their own opinion and attacking opponents - was implemented by “Samopomich” party. In May-June “Samopomich” continued to advocate its decision to support civil blockade, especially its new target – importing of the Russian coal. Moreover, “Samopomich” was more preoccupied with the fate of its dear child, a draft law on the status of the occupied territories (Oleh Bereziuk: Parliament rejects realities of the war), than bothered by interests of people who live in the conflict areas.
Leaders of “Batkivshchyna” and the Radical party resorted to Donbas issues in order to launch personal attacks against president Poroshenko. Yulia Tymoshenko and Oleh Liahsko denied successes of the president’s negotiations with US administration. Ms. Tymoshenko preventively derogated any possible outcome of negotiations (Tymoshenko: To restore peace in Ukraine we must reinvigorate Budapest guarantees, Tymoshenko: Road to peace lies through negotiations in Budapest format) while Mr.Liashko repeated same messages after the visit (Liashko: Poroshenko must remind US about Budapest memorandum).
In this context only Opposituion Bloc party looked liked the real political alternative to the president’s policy toward Donbas. Through May and June OB continued to emphasize its disagreement with president and government on the topic of policy goals and tools toward ATO zone.
Although OB leadership insisted on the “diplomatic” resolution of the conflict (Yuriy Boyko: there is no alternative to diplomatic settlement of the conflict in Donbas), they also were consistent in blaming president and government in inability to implement Minsk agreements (Yuriy Voropaiev: Implementation of Minsk agreements require good will of Ukrainian decision makers to implement them, Vadym Novinskyi: Turchinov’s statement contradicts with Minsk agreements, Mykhail Dobkin: Nobody tries to find peace solution for Donbas, Serhey Larin: all people of good reason see that the government is not going to end the war). We argue that in all these cases Opposition Bloc addressed exclusively to the pro-Russian voters, who hear same messages from Vladimir Putin and Russian ministry for foreign affairs.
However, we can not but see the fact that OB is more competent in understanding way of thinking of people in Donbas but it uses this knowledge about widespread stereotypes and bias to discredit government policies. The real problem is that the government continues to neglect not only such media attacks but also real problems behind them: Nikolai Skoryk: law about Ukrainian language will impede resolution of conflict in Donbas, Natalya Korolevskaya: government must enact court rulings and restore social payments to all people of Donbas, Natalya Korolevskaya: government continues to illegally deprive Ukrainians their retirement payments.
To wrap it up, we also have to admit that Opposition Bloc did not shun from making populist statements, competing for paternalistic minded voters with “Batkivshchyna” and the Radical party. This can be seen from simple comparison of the Yuriy Boyko’s demand to adopt law about free food to IDP children and Oleh Liahsko’s words that caring about IDPs is the top priority for his party.
So, what is the real picture of communication between power players and people of Donbas in May and June?
Firstly, we must acknowledge that despite growing number of important news and decisions, which influence lives of people in the region, the quality of communication hasn’t caught up with it. To the contrary, we argue that the struggle inside “ruling coalition” and between government and pro-Russian opposition forces only intensified. Important messages (about privileges for the graduates from the occupied territories, serious environmental hazards in Donbas) were lost in the stream of the populist statements, promises and accusations.
Secondly, there has been a gap between government’s perception of the people’s needs in Donbas and the real concerns of the local inhabitants. Although regional administrations, especially in Donetsk region, started to change their attitudes, it is too little to build people’s trust in the state’s policies. It is obvious that incomprehensible, poorly explained and interpreted policies would rather result in natural resistance and negative attitude.
Thirdly, we see early warning signs that the problems of Donbas and political approaches to their resolution exist only as the means and tools of campaigning. On the one hand, Opposition Bloc is using templates of the Russian propaganda, on the other, Narodnyy Front is flirting with ultra-nationalism and promoting image of the “iron grasp”. Other political forces would try to use combination of both tactics. In the end there is a risk that the image of Donbas in the public communication will be transformed in the “cursed land”, which emanates threats of war, terrorism and backwardness. Frankly speaking, this is not what is needed for the national consolidation even in the short-term perspective.
Ні, не користуюсь!
Не знаю що таке push-сповіщення
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