Diplomatic and cultural relations of Ukraine
Interview by Afonso Morango, ICRP | The conflict in eastern Ukraine has transitioned to a stalemate after it first erupted in early 2014, but shelling and skirmishes still occur regularly, including an escalation in violence in the spring of 2018. In March 2014, Russian troops seized the Crimean region of Ukraine before formally annexing the peninsula after citizens of Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation in a disputed local referendum. Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the need to protect the rights of Russian citizens and speakers of the Russian language in Crimea and south-east Ukraine. The crisis heightened ethnic divisions, and two months later pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Eastern Ukraine held a referendum to declare independence from Ukraine.
In this interview, Dmytro Tuzhanskyi reflects on the importance of culture for diplomatic relations, especially as regards the current situation of Ukraine’s international relations as well as the political environment and cross-border relations in some Ukrainian regions. Dmytro Tuzhanskyi is a local media expert and founder of InfoPost.Media. He is a political analyst and director of the Institute for Central European Strategy in Ukraine. Dmytro is a political scientist by training and ever since his master’s degree in Political Science and European Studies, he has been professionally involved in three main areas: international relations, media and elections Apart from working as a consultant in the media sector, Dmytro has also been dealing with the issue of national minorities in Ukraine for the past 10 years. He has also been doing research on the world’s best practices regarding reconciliation and togetherness. He also has extensive experience on assessment of the domestic and foreign politics, mainly regarding European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
The views expressed in the interview and article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Institute for Cultural Relations Policy or its affiliate organisations. The designations employed and the presentation of the material in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of ICRP or its officers concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning delimitation of any frontiers or boundaries.
What is InfoPost’s main goal and how does it improve both national and International dialogues, in particular with Hungary and Slovakia?
The idea of InfoPost is pretty old, let’s say. I tested it working with different medias, both local and national medias. I have found and understood that there is a clear niche for the so-called hybrid media. I mean media which will be so specifically deep in local issues. For example, in Zakarpattia region, Bukovina region, Odessa region, as well as in Transylvania issues or, for example, Eastern Slovakia and, let’s say, Eastern Hungary as well. And somebody could call low profile cases and maybe not so important things. But to explain the things and to think and rethink the issues in this global context and explain the “why to the audience.”. Why these niche matters. For example, current Ukraine-Hungarian tensions, for instance, permanent tensions between Hungary and Romania, in case of all these ethnic minorities issues exactly. Or Hungary and Slovakia, or, for example, such kind of tensions in the process of reconciliation in the western or at least all Balkans. They are based in such issues. Local ones, maybe low-profile issues, but these issues determine the global process, national process and the international process by lateral relations. And this is the niche of InfoPost. To create a media which will be deeply engaged in understanding and explaining local issues which determine national processes or international contexts. And the idea of this media is to be multilingual, to speak different languages. And it means to present very important issues, questions and topics for Ukrainians to translate and to present it to the Hungarian audience, to Romanian audience and vice-versa. So, it means to provide the ideas and to provide narratives which are usually understood as cultural diplomacy or diplomacy at all. But I think that these cases of Diplomacy where you have to present yourself to the international audience could work in different levels. I mean, you should present ideas of Ukraine, of the Ukraine revolution and information about the war in Ukraine. To explain why it is exactly a war. Why it is not a civil war. And this is actually the third pillar of InfoPost which I’m explaining. It is countering disinformation. And it is very important because all these issues, countering disinformation, ethnic minorities issues and to speak different languages sometimes is very often used by different countries and different players for propaganda. In a way that helps promotion: “let’s promote our state, let’s promote something”. But in our case, we don’t want to promote. I mean Ukraine, Hungary or Romania in this typical way. We are very careful with this promotion, because we understand promotions as also a way to explain problems and provide solutions. Take a look, so we have such problem in Ukraine: big dialogue between national minorities and State. We present this problem, this issue and try to explain it as deeply as we can and we promote Ukraine, or Ukrainian-Hungarian, or Ukrainian-Romanian. Or Ukraine-Slovakia dialogue through solving problems, through solving these issues, by countering disinformation. So, in our case it is very important for us, for our team. It is our code of conduct. So, we are not dealing with typical promotion, typical PR issues or typical diplomacy. So, we are the platform which should be the place of dialogue. We should be as neutral as possible. It doesn’t matter which country you represent. For instance, in our team we have people with Hungarian origins, Slovakian origins who are speaking these languages and who represent actually these, let’s say nations or communities. So, we are not just creating transborder and hybrid media. We also engage people with such expertise, with such rules, because it is important to be as clear, as honest, as strict, in the good sense, as possible.
Do you think that culture can be a tool for foreign policy? If so, how? And what could be, for instance, InfoPost’s role here?
I could give you, of course, Hungary and I could give you, of course, a fresh example and a great one. So, in the Zakarpattia region we use a Hungarian title or name. It leaves one of the best Hungarian writer, who wrote a novel about the Second World Ward and the period after that regarding the Soviet Army, which came to Zakarpattia. It’s hard to talk about because the occupation could sound different and difficult for different groups and countries. That novel was translated in different languages, for instance, the last translation was into Polish and there was a film made according to this novel. But what is strange is that despite the author of this novel living in Ukraine, so far nobody knows about him. And this is crazy, but on the other hand this is a great picture to show in what level bilateral relations between Ukraine and Hungary is right now. What is the level of cultural dialogue between Ukrainians and Hungarians. Two months ago, appeared a column written by the popular Ukrainian writer Lupka and I myself did not know about him before this. So, that column was and is still very popular, but what is important is that we received so many requests. It is ridiculous that such a ridiculous situation could be. A person who is living in Ukraine with a Ukrainian passport but is out of Ukraine’s context at all. But, at the same time, he is very popular in Hungary and worldwide. And right now we are in the process of organizing crowd-funding campaigns for Ukraine’s addition of this novel. We have already people who are ready to donate. We have already institutions who are ready to publish this book. So, we have to many things and work to do, because the real cultural-dialogue and interaction between neighbours is in a low level. We don’t know almost nothing about the other. On the other hand, there is a strong demand to understand each other. So, this is a good example. Ukrainians are ready and eager to know about Hungarian culture, Hungarian writers and so on. And this is also a clear, good and strong example to counter disinformation narrative. Take a look, it is impossible to talk about any humiliation of any minority in Ukraine and specially a Hungarian. There are no matters or ground to speak any civil war, because Ukrainians are ready to donate to a Ukrainian version of a Hungarian novel. So, this is how we do and a great example, I hope, of a success story which we will share and present already next year with a real book about Ukrainian-Hungarian common history. Because yes, we still have this Soviet version of History, but we all know what the Soviet army did in Ukraine, in Hungary, everywhere and to everybody.
Still on that line of thought, among all the components of the Ukrainian culture, which are the aspects that attract the public the most, both in Europe and worldwide?
What is important to understand and a challenge for us in Ukraine is to clear and to present Ukraine’s culture with very old traditions but with a very high potential to be modern, to be actual and to clear it from these soviet narratives. What kind of soviet narratives am I talking about? So, this is not about Russian language, but during the soviet period there were a fairytale image, but Ukrainian culture is much deeper, wider, diverse, and interesting. This is a question of our literature, for example, Ivan Franko and also on the other hand modern writers. I mentioned already Lupka, he is originally from Zakarpattia and some of his novels were translated into English, Polish. What is important to understand is that Ukraine’s culture, Ukrainian literature, Ukraine’s art, cinema…it is a part of this European context, of this central European context. Because we are talking about the same topics, about the same problems, challenges and about the same History. So, it doesn’t matter what you take. If you take something from the cuisine, or if you take something from classic literature. It will be the same context that you are thinking about in Portugal, Great-Britain, France, Poland, Hungary, Romania. It is the same context. What is important for us and for you, for Ukraine and for Europe, is to trade more context, for us to expand to expand and explore and for you to meet and understand. And for this issue I think it is important English as a language because we need to translate as much as we can. Receipts, novels, articles, news, and InfoPost is actually about this. We want to present and, for example, in our content plan, we have an article and ten writers of Ukraine which should be know worldwide and in Europe. We will translate into English, Hungarian language, Polish, Romanian… We for example translated the article “Twelve Hungarian words which will help you to understand Hungarian Culture. So, these connections, interactions, overlapping are important and we need to act and for Ukraine is also important to clear our culture from these post-Empire narratives.
So, you’ve talked about Russia a lot. How would you describe the attitude of the European Union regarding the Russian incursion on Ukrainian soil in the 21st century?
First of all I must admit that we in Ukraine are talking about Russia so much, not because we try to put everything on Russia’s shoulders and to transit this responsibility. The problem is, in this case, what I see, what I came across travelling around Europe, is that in Europe it is something strange, not about us. This war is not our war, this is to be sure. But this is our war in Ukraine and we understand this aggression in Central Europe as not just something unbelievable but it is not just Ukraine’s case but an aggression on all the value. It is put in the base of EU, NATO and the whole world order, United Nations. This is about human rights, about sovereignty, about international agreements, guarantees and so on. That is why we talk so much about Russia, because Russia organized war against neighbour in Central Europe using huge disinformation campaigns and a narrative of protection of Russian speaker. Just travel to Kyiv and walk through the main street. I was there a few days ago and you will hear so much Russian language and meet so many Russia speakers and they don’t need to be proected, especially by Russia. So, nobody attacked them, exactly in the capital of this what Russia media presented as the fascism of Ukraine. So, it is important to understand that for Ukraine it is not just trauma and about emotions. It is the real war already lasting for 7 years. People are being killed. For us, how we understand this, it is our war and we are protecting our territory, but we want at least empathy from the West. We you talk about Democracy, human rights and so on do you mean it should be just within the borders of the EU or what and where, you know? So, this is our idea. If you talk about this, help us please. Because our choice is a historical choice. It’s not just about modern Ukraine. It was a choice before and after the Great World Wards and a choice of the Ukrainian nation during the whole period of construction and development. So, about Russia, we are dealing with different kinds of aggression: military, information culture, language aggression. Simple example, just a few months ago, two top leaders of Russia including Vladimir Putin, wrote an article dedicated exactly to Ukraine. About their crazy vision about the unity between Ukrainians and Russians, about their vision of cooperation and I don’t know what. This is crazy, you know. What do they want from us? We are an independent state, and independent nation. One the one hand they kill us, on the other hand they want to be one nation. This is crazy, you know, this is a clear paranoia. This is exactly what we are dealing with. So, we have to protect not just our media, not just from these hybrid and hostile campaigns, but also from the crazy people who are very close to those crazy guys in Europe who started the Second World War with this crazy idea of “super something”. It is clear that there should be a response of the whole West. You should be aware of the people you are dealing with and the people you are trading with. And it is important to understand, and you know that Ukraine is still trading with Russia. And this is a problem, how to cut off all the connections with these crazy people. This is a challenge.
Russia’s actions are widely regarded as a proof of impunity and disrespect for international law and have raised wider concerns about its intentions elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Besides, a Russian incursion into a NATO country would solicit a response from the United States as a NATO ally. Some say giving Ukraine a NATO ́s membership would be a logical step. Do you agree?
You know, this is Ukraine’s official position: we want to be a member of NATO. Take a look, for Ukraine, it’s not just about a NATO membership. For us, it’s a question of surviving, it’s a question of guarantees, it’s a question of protection. Because Russia is providing aggression, not only in Ukraine. Recently in Czech Republic or killing people in Germany or in any other part of this Euro-Atlantic committee. It’s a clear aggression. It’s a question of how to respond. Of course, membership is our goal. We understand it may not come next year or in the next five years. We understand this. But, for us, exactly now military help and any kind of this West assistance showing that we are not alone is important. And, of course, we need this aspiration that we will be as soon as possible in NATO. And in this case of integration of Ukraine according to NATO’s standards, we don’t want to transport our responsibilities to the West. We are ready to do our homework. Last year there was huge pressure regarding the reform of security services, security sphere, not only in our way to NATO but also to protect our country right now in the war. So, my position is, to divide a little bit and to widen this question: it’s not just a question of membership. Of course, we want it. But it’s a question of these long-term cooperation and guarantees, military and other guarantees exactly right now, because we have war these days, not yesterday, not tomorrow. But right now.
So, apart from the possible NATO membership, what do you think should be the next steps regarding the political environment between Ukraine and Russia?
So, take a look, with Russia it’s not so easy. With Russia you couldn’t control nothing. With not the question of the people, it’s the question of the current establishment of Russia, it’s the question of Putin and his country, because Putin’s state is a little bit different from Russia in its whole. The only problem is that Russia as a whole supports and provided legitimacy to this Putin’s state inside Russia. Yes? This is the problem. So, with Russia, you couldn’t control, you couldn’t predict. That’s why you should be ready. We are ready for the worst. And for us, how we could protect and what kind of support Ukraine expects and what could be, let’s say, a strategy. Ukraine should be engaged in the West, I mean EU, and NATO projects, as much as possible. For example, I think that when we talk about central Europe, we should talk about the consolidation of the region. Because Ukraine should be engaged in all these contexts of Visegrad 4, of the Three Seasons initiative as the new platform. Because it’s not about military support, but a question of infrastructures, of energy security, of the digital sector. So, Ukraine, before the membership, should be integrated and should be provide with bridges. InfoPost is about this. It’s our motto, our title. “Building bridges”. We have to build as many bridges from the West to Ukraine and from Ukraine to the West as possible. And in this case, it will be also guarantees. There will be a huge level of German, French, American, Polish, Hungarian investments in Ukraine and this will be a counterargument to Russia. And take a look, no no no no, you couldn’t provide so dirty envision, so, you know, crazy war that you started in Crimea. Because Ukraine is in our team and we will be together, protecting all these campaigns and this reconstruction of Soviet Union and so on. And what is a ground for this is, take a look, in Czech Republic, in Hungary, in the Baltic states, everybody still remembers what it means to have a Russian army in your streets. It happened in 1968, it was in 1956 in Budapest. So, everybody understands what it means. That’s why… to leave Ukraine alone, could you sleep well after this…
Still on this Russian issue, Last month, the Ukrainian President used his speech to address the United Nations General Assembly by criticizing the international community’s ineffective response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine. He also supported calls for the reform of the UN itself, which he branded a “retired superhero.” How do you think the UN could be reformed in order to have a more effective role on Europe ́s Eastern flank?
I think right now there is only one option, which is to provide the UN mission, military mission to the East of Ukraine. Yeah, because to really stop the shooting and so on and we should have a mission like the one in the Balkans or in other places. Because, take a look, despite all these political statements, war is happening exactly in these days, these hours. Shootings are not stopping. This is why this is the only option because this current structure of the UN and the position of Russia allow Moscow to block everything. So, that’s why this is the only option, with the mission and I think Ukraine should probably demand and provide a legal or political ground for this and that’s it.
And speaking of relevant actors in the international stage, in one of your articles, you stated that “The time has come to strengthen Euro-Atlantic unity on its Eastern flank. A new US-led strategy should be aimed towards redrawing the line between Europe and Eurasia and to send a signal that the transatlantic community and the region of Central and Eastern Europe can be truly united, and that America is back.” Do you think Biden’s administration is a favorable factor to achieve these goals? If so, how?
Take a look, I really rely on it. Right now, everything points to this, this is the logical step, the next logical step. Because Biden is pretty well understanding to Ukraine. He knows the region very well, I mean Central Europe. He is a real Atlanticist and his team as well. They are also, the whole State Department team, they have this European expertise. The obstacle now is not so much Russia, it is China. And China this balance. And somehow the West and the United States need Russia to counter somehow China, because China plus Russia is a crazy duet for the West. And this is the problem, you know, because Russia is trying to trade and trying to ask. “We could cooperate, but give us Ukraine back”, because this is our, I don’t know, historical land and all these things. They’re all crazy issues that Putin wrote in the article. And this is the problem, yes. How could be done that integration, that building bridges, how could it be? For example, we could start from the program, or German Marshall Found. It was and still is a program for the western Balkans and for the Black Seas region and it was a milestone and a pillar in the civil society area to provide, not a template, but a platform of integration. So, for example, it could be created the same program in the framework for Central Europe, because there are some problems with Poland, with Hungary. I mean, there is a little lack of understanding between Budapest, Warsaw, Brussels and Washington. And there is external problems and complaints, because this region of Central Europe has common challenges. Trade, infrastructures, energy…Because, take a look, Russia gas which is transported through Ukraine, not all because we have now North Stream and South Stream, but still a huge amount of products are moving through Ukraine. People are moving like this. Take a look on how many Ukrainians are working in Poland, in Czech Republic, in Hungary, in fuel markets. So, there are many things that connect us. Right now, it’s not so much a political issue, it’s a logical step. Let’s talk, let’s create one community, one region. Right now, central Europe is incomplete without Ukraine, without Romania and the entire West is incomplete without Ukraine. Actually, let’s say, for example, the founder of Stratfor, George Friedman. His father is from Ukraine, and he was born in Budapest. And he established the biggest private intelligence company in the world – Stratfor. And his vision of geopolitics is exactly like that. This is the logic step and not only my unique thought. Time has come for us to realize this, for us to do this.
Nearly 30 years after the fall of communism, Ukraine is struggling to build a free press, due to corrupt oligarchs and Russia. Ukraine’s oligarchs continue to dominate the media landscape, creating a monopoly of information by a small, corrupt elite that uses the press to influence elections and, indirectly, access public resources. Meanwhile, the environment for being a journalist in Ukraine and eastern Europe remains dangerous. Since 1992, 18 journalists have been killed, imprisoned, or have gone missing in Ukraine. What do you think could be effective ways to tackle these situations?
Very important and difficult question. One the one hand, we really have seen a huge progress. For example, from 2003, before the orange revolution, and specially after the Revolution of Dignity, we have this huge progress, because we already have a few independent online medias about issues which are really hard to speak about. But we have the reform of public television still ongoing. So, we’ve had for a few years a public television without control of the state, with different thoughts and without all this PR power. But, on the other hand, we still have journalists that are killed in Ukraine. So, we have this “oligarchization” everywhere, in media as well, but, on the other hand, we relay need, and I already mentioned, the reform of the security sphere. Because, if somebody blackmailed or threatened a journalist, there should me immediate reaction and even before somebody decided that he could threaten a journalist. We need reforms in both these spheres, and, on the other hand, we need real investigation. Because it’s not a solution to Russia for everything. Of course, Russia still have strong “ifs” and guys and insiders on different levels in the Ukraine State. We had real production media in Ukraine, we still have. I think we are in the right way, yeah. The reforms in de-oligarchization, public television and the security service will have to jump to a more developed media market and to a safer media sphere.
On a different topic, How would you describe the recent diplomatic issues with Hungary and Georgia?
Interesting. With Georgia, I believe it’s hard to find closer friends than Ukrainians and Georgians. But we have this political debates issues, but I think it should be solved. Right now, it’s a little bit mixed topic, but more internal to Georgia and you probably saw the recent protest in this regard, but what I see, despite these high-level political tensions and political sensitivity, they are doing well, and they should be well. I would be happy to tell the same regarding Ukraine-Hungary debates, but I can’t. So, we have a clear tension between Ukraine and Hungary. It started with this educational law in Ukraine and the question of national minorities, and the status of Hungarian minorities in Ukraine, which is very important for Hungary, but right now between Kyiv and Budapest is about everything. It’s about minorities, it’s about money, ambition, expectations and so on. It is right now a very emotional issue and a very political issue. And to be honest, currently, I could tell you that I’m really skeptical regarding persons from both sides. They’re always talking about rights of minorities, or State interests, national interest. But do they really speak honestly or are they just playing games? From my view, as a person who has been studying these relations for the last ten years, I see a kind of close circle, a self-maintaining systems where different people from both sides are provoking tension permanently and trying to get this political capital from these tensions, not from solving these tensions, but from producing it. To receive status, money, to receive ratings inside the country, to receive ratings outside the countries. Brussels was involved in this tension, as well as NATO and Russia. SO many different actors tried to manage and moderate this conflict between Kyiv and Budapest, but it looks like that both in Kyiv and Budapest that they don’t want to manage this tension. Everybody is happy with this because it helps them with their political games. That’s why it is a very difficult situation to be honest, but, on the other hand, very easy to solve. Just sit on the table, start talking, and start to deliver solutions. All solutions are on the table and all solutions are in the recommendations of various commissions as well as in the reconciliation practices between Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia in the past. So, nothing really difficult. Just deliver.
So, moving on to another hot topic, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rode to power on pledges to clean up the Eastern European country, but the Pandora Papers reveal he and his close circle were the beneficiaries of a network of offshore companies, including some that owned expensive London property. What could this scandal mean to the future of Ukraine?
What is interesting is that in the same scandal was our previous president Petro Poroshenko. It’s not a question of numbers, but the same topic. But, in this case, I’m not sure that this scandal will really influence the internal politics in Ukraine. To be honest, right now, we see, and we observe that it doesn’t influence so much. Yeah, scandal is, everybody discusses, but no huge changes inside the country, no protest, nothing. Maybe, it’s not the time for this because the scandal of Poroshenko was very close to the elections. Right now we still have two years before the presidential elections. Who knows, maybe, this scandal will have a postponed impact, but right now almost nothing.