Blogs > CHooper's Post-Soviet Futures Blog > Russian Tabloids: Psst... Digging Up "Dirt" on Poroshenko

May 28, 2014 6:47 am

Russian Tabloids: Psst... Digging Up "Dirt" on Poroshenko


ST. PETERSBURG  — As elections took place in Ukraine as well as across many of the 28 European Union countries on Sunday, residents of St. Petersburg were more preoccupied with celebrating their city’s 308th birthday with a mix of songs and dances by performers decked out, due to rain, in plastic ponchos patriotically colored in red, white, or blue. Later, citizens swarmed around television screens to watch Russia’s ice hockey team win the World Championship. Political unrest, albeit in former Soviet territory, was not at the top of most people’s list of concerns.

Evening news programs, however, reported on the electoral race and eventual victory of billionaire Petro Poroshenko in language designed to emphasize ongoing Ukrainian turmoil in stark contrast to Russian strength and stability. Over the past week, television coverage of Ukraine has opened with graphics reading “When will we witness another coup?” and stories have showcased the inability of the Kiev-based government to control a variety of local and often right-wing militias acting in its name. In regard to the breakaway eastern regions, correspondents for Russian news agencies have routinely condemned the actions of various soldiers claiming allegiance to Kiev: they have repeated that these troops, not the separatists, are “terrorizing peaceful civilians” and “causing blood to flow in the streets every day.” Footage has included video of people who have allegedly been living in their cellars “for weeks,” even sound-bites of children describing their fear of men in Ukrainian military uniforms.

Nevertheless, in recounting, Sunday night, that the man Forbes has termed “the Willy Wonka of Ukraine” had won over 50% of the vote, Russian television announcers sounded comparatively restrained. In response, the New York Times concluded that Russian media coverage of Poroshenko seems to have changed for the better, positing that this less negative tone could signal Kremlin willingness to defuse the current crisis and engage with the new leader. And indeed, rather than suggesting, as they did last month, that the so-called Chocolate King’s candies are full of carcinogens, Russian authorities have instead apparently allowed the oligarch’s sole factory inside their country – shut down in March 2014 for the alleged "illegal manipulation" of trademark labels – to reopen. (No word, as yet, on whether Poroshenko’s chocolate imports to Russia, blocked in July 2013 for ostensible health-sanitation reasons, will be re-admitted.)

But while many assessors of the tycoon-politician appear to be taking something of a wait-and-see attitude, with correspondents acknowledging, for instance, Poroshenko’s professed willingness to talk to “all parties” involved in current civil strife, they also inevitably mention his wealth of at least $1.3 billion dollars and his ownership of a key Ukrainian television channel, “without the support of which, his victory would have been impossible,” according to news magazine Russkii Reporter. Poroshenko’s campaign slogan was an exhortation to citizens to “Live in a New Way.” But in Russia, the question most often posed is whether the magnate will really be any different from the men who preceded him. Frequent reference is made to the fact that since Ukrainian independence in 1991, all four elected presidents – whether they originally claimed to be pro-Russian or pro-European – have left office amid accusations of vast self-enrichment, despised by an overwhelming majority of voters on both “east” and “west” sides.

Moscow is not alone in such concerns, which have been echoed, albeit in more muted fashion, in the European press. A recent Politico profile also took a similar tone. It attributed Poroshenko's emergence as a frontrunner candidate to a backroom deal brokered by a third-party Ukrainian oligarch in Austria (interestingly one with long-standing ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin) who is currently facing extradition to the U.S. on bribery charges but out on $170 million bail. Later it quoted the Managing Director of the Ukraine financial services company AYA Capital as saying that he doubted that Poroshenko "is here to install a new system instead of just rebooting the old one."

More disturbing, however, is Russian tabloid coverage of the Chocolate King, which frequently emphasizes his Jewish heritage in conjunction with his opaque business dealings. Komsomolskaia Pravda (from May 21) claims that the entrepreneur deliberately changed his last name when he first decided to enter politics – the inference being that in a country as anti-Semitic as Ukraine, a Jewish politician could only succeed by hiding the fact of his Jewishness. Yet there is something that feels more than a little dirty in how the story is written, and in the stereotypes it reaffirms even as it purports to rail against them. Mention of Poroshenko’s heritage, the article continues, “recently disappeared from Wikipedia,” which it goes on to describe as one of a number of allegedly “global and open projects that are nonetheless at the final level controlled by the Americans.” These same Americans, asserts the author, have an interest in helping Poroshenko “cleanse his image” (as if erasing mention of Jewish roots would somehow constitute a public-relations gain). The article goes on to report that a year ago, Forbes Israel compiled a list of the wealthiest Jews in the world, with Poroshenko coming in at number 130, only to have the oligarch “demand” to be removed from the publication because he considered himself to be not Jewish, but Ukrainian. Komsomolskaia Pravda suggested that his reluctance to be included likely derived from the fact that, at the time, the Roshen candy owner was planning to run for mayor of Kiev and feared that the Forbes listing could injure his chances of success, due to “significantly high anti-Semitic sentiment among the capital’s electorate.” So are both Poroshenko and the citizens who voted for him scorned. 

The more mainstream Izvestiia, while not directly mentioning issues of religion, has emphasized Poroshenko’s ties to Mikhail Khordokovsky, a former Russian oligarch recently released from prison who is commonly described in the media as Jewish, although his mother is Russian Orthodox. While Khordokovsky is generally admired in Europe and the U.S. for spending more than ten years in jail after enduring a series of legal proceedings that appeared painfully arbitrary and contrived, in the Russian press he is often touted as an example of Putin’s valorous crackdown on big-business corruption. Recent stories about Khordokovsky’s support for Maidan demonstrators and his willingness to donate funds to send election observers to Ukraine have sparked resentment in Russia toward someone who is presented as still having plenty of illicit money to burn, even after his internment, and who is still working behind the scenes to undermine the Russian state. Meanwhile, Russian television coverage of the separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine that both Khordokovsky and Poroshenko oppose, has shifted slightly. Reporters no longer cast them as pro-Kremlin patriots unanimously in favor of unification with Moscow – in fact, their multiple and often rival aims are openly acknowledged. Instead, the participants are presented as ordinary people struggling against powerful and corrupt vested interests, little Davids fighting against giant Goliaths, with the support of their families and communities. Wives cook for them and old ladies bless them. Tabloids include stories and sentimental “letters” ostensibly written by anonymous ethnic Russian businessmen who have decided – in contrast to Ukraine’s reigning klatsch of rival billionaires, Poroshenko included – to give up their lives of wealth and privilege in order to volunteer for service in the Donbas militia. “My Wife Said: I Love You and I Will Let You Go To Defend Our Homeland” read one KP headline from May 22.

Such coverage aims to work on an emotional level, through association and innuendo, and to play into base, unexamined prejudices and fears. Overtly, it casts Poroshenko, quite legitimately, as an oligarch. Less legitimately, it presents Russian authorities (as well as ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine) as crusaders opposed to Ukraine’s post-Soviet history of oligarch-driven corruption. Between the lines, however, it goes even further, linking Poroshenko and Putin opponents such as Khordokovsky to repellant stereotypes of the “rich unethical Jew” – paradoxically after months of negatively characterizing Ukraine as a hotbed of right-wing, Nazi-inspired political violence. 

At the same time, Russian media coverage of Poroshenko’s main rival, the fellow billionaire and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, has grown ever-more venomous and carries strong “Nazis hate Jews” undertones. Despite Tymoshenko’s concessionary pledge to work with a new Ukrainian government towards reunification, Russian reports Sunday night were full of “talking heads” warning that she would go to any length to destabilize the country in order to unseat the man who beat her. Correspondents emphasized that her blonde-and-braided good looks (the recommendation of an image consultant that the naturally brunette Tymoshenko hired after being charged with gas smuggling in 2001) only served to mask her allegedly “limitless” hunger for power. They reminded viewers of Tymoshenko’s record of corruption, especially as president of United Energy Systems from 1995-1997, when her company came to control virtually all Russian natural gas imports to Ukraine. Furthermore, they replayed a telephone call leaked on Youtube shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in which an angry Tymoshenko mentioned wanting to “take up arms to wipe out the damn Russians together with their leader” and getting the “whole world” to ensure that “not even scorched earth will be left where Russia stands.”(Tymoshenko later confirmed the authenticity of the call, but added that comments threatening use of nuclear weapons had been spliced into the tape by unknown outsiders.) Broadcasters also interviewed a number of “analysts” who claimed that “for her, Poroshenko is now enemy number one.”

In such coverage, nothing can be said to be false per se, and Tymoshenko is, admittedly, a problematic presidential candidate by almost any standard. But the details that are selected and the way they are combined evoke in each report, on an almost unconscious level, something more lurid: Tymoshenko, with her Aryan looks, wants to kill Russians and hates Jews. Nothing so specific is actually said, but associations aimed at feeling rather than fact serve to conjure up not memories as much as textbook stereotypes of the Nazi past.

Thus Russian opinion-shapers try to square the circle: using ugly, painful, damaging stereotypes to imply that the "new Ukraine" is full, somewhat paradoxically, of both violence-loving, Slav-hating fascists and money-loving, Slav-hating Jews. In so doing, they reaffirm any latent anti-Semitic prejudices among their own Russian audiences while reviling the purported widespread existence of the same among the Kiev state's citizenry. They also fuel Russian patriotism through "negative integration." This term was first popularized by historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler in discussions of modern Germany, specifically in regard to the way Chancellor Otto von Bismarck managed to unify Germany internally during the decades that followed the country's external, territorial unification of 1871. According to Wehler, Bismarck did so primarily by identifying a successive set of alleged "enemies" of the new state and urging all would-be patriotic Germans to rally against them. Russian nationalism today -- and popular sympathy for the ethnic Russians inside Ukraine -- relies on this same strategy of identifying groups of "outsiders" and casting them as threats. And as the current crisis demonstrates, this conjuring of threats does not even have to be ideologically consistent, but can simply draw strength from irrational suspicion, ignorance, and automatic, inherited resentment. 

So what lessons should the West take from such coverage?

Lesson #1: Understand the Spin

First, we should focus more on how all information is shaped, including our own. Russia is certainly playing a relatively sophisticated media manipulation game, and has been since President Vladimir Putin first took power 14 years ago. This media strategy is more fluid than that of the Soviet era and operates on multiple levels. For instance, on Saturday night, Putin gave a three-hour plus interview to foreign journalists over dinner at the conclusion of an International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg in which he appeared articulate and open, yet firm. (The meal notably included a course of “Crimean flounder.”) Asked about conflict with the United States, Putin stressed that he did not want to damage relations, but said that he would also like to underscore (in loose translation) “that when all sides talk about working together to find common ground, that ‘common ground’ should not mean just finding a friendly place for drinking tea or coffee together, but instead should refer to a willingness to listen and make difficult compromises.” He reiterated that Russia had, time and again, taken American “special interests” into account and announced that he felt that in this case, the U.S. had egregiously failed to do the same. His language was vivid, witty, and precise: a level of dialogue designed to engage with an informed audience suspicious of Russian motivations.

At the same time, much of the government-supported media operates on a much more emotional and impressionistic level. During the weekend before the Ukrainian election, the television station Rossiia 24 used minute-long gaps before and after news shows to broadcast quotes about Ukraine taken from writings by noted dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, famed for his open and critical discussion, in the 1960s, of the Soviet Gulag – a place where he was imprisoned for eight years starting in 1945, ironically after fighting in the Red Army during WWII. Honored in the U.S. for authoring books such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the Nobel laureate grew progressively more critical of America over the course of the 1980s, in particular castigating the first President George Bush for his role in encouraging the Ukrainian independence movement during the final months of Soviet power from 1990 to 1991. (“America has always maximally supported every anti-Russian impulse in Ukraine,” he once said.) The citations that have been scrolling across Rossiia 24’s screen these many days all speak of the alleged cultural and historical unity between Russia and Ukraine, at least as regards territory east of the Dnieper River – and all castigate those, who throughout the ages, have “unjustly” attempted to pull the area apart.

Film director Nikita Mikhailkov dedicated an hour-long television show on that same channel this past week to praising his country for its purported moral superiority in the current struggle with Ukraine, titling the segment "Russian Silence." Mikhailkov won an Academy Award and the Grand Prize at Cannes for his 1994 tragedy Burnt By the Sun about a family destroyed during the Stalin-era Great Terror, and he is respected by many both inside and outside Russia for his critique of Communism. Now a staunch nationalist, Mikhailkov on Saturday read two posts he said he had found on the internet – one by a Ukrainian advocating the annihilation of ethnic Russians in Donetsk, and the other from a resident of Odessa, describing how the Russians there are, so far, refraining from violence, “keeping silent” and turning the other cheek, despite the recent massacre of more than 30 citizens in a fire that appears to have been deliberately set by pro-Kiev agitators in the city's House of Trade Unions. After contrasting the bloodthirsty Ukrainian to the long-suffering Russian, Mikhailkov closed his segment in rather grandiloquent fashion by quoting past enemies of Russia, including Napoleon and Hitler, and giving examples of their fatal underestimation of his country and its strengths. 

He ended with a comment from President Obama, in which Obama dismissed Russia as “only a regional power.” “What is our answer?” Mikhailkov asked, rhetorically. “For the time being, Russia will stay silent.” Such language by the country’s cultural authorities is short on factual details or specific calls for action; its purpose is to fuel viewers' sense of injury and wounded pride, as well as to hint at eventual revenge.

Lesson #2:  Ukraine Is Also Spinning

But while Russian media coverage is skewed, the second lesson we must learn is that it is not alone in this regard and cannot simply be dismissed out of hand, but rather requires careful deconstruction. Ukrainian television coverage is also slanted, and in an atmosphere where both reporters and those who talk to them are instantly branded as either “for Kiev" or "against Kiev,” most critical opinions are, as in Russia, silenced by intimidation or even violence. It is clear within the country that groups on both sides of the east-west divide have kidnapped journalists and killed civilians – and that Ukrainian authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge such realities. While separatists in the east refuse to disband, so, too, do right-wing militias in the capital. Odd groups claiming diverse allegiances and without apparent official sanction have set up roadblocks across the country. On Facebook, a scholar from Ukraine who teaches in Canada and researches the involvement of Ukrainian nationalist organizations in acts of mass murder, recently posted that a judge in western Ukraine had nullified his right to a house he owned in the area, almost certainly due to pressure from right-wing politicians opposed to him and his work. “This decision,” he wrote, “was issued by a judge in my absence, in great haste, in violations of the law, and with brazen denials of mine and my lawyer’s requests to postpone the hearing and allow me to be personally present.” 

Almost a century ago, writer Viktor Shklovsky referred in his memoirs to the four years of civil war across Ukrainian territory that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 as “a time of local power and local terror.” The same can be said of the country today, where, even with presidential elections complete, the government is extraordinarily weak and, for now, unable to bring those who purport to fight either for it or against it fully to heel. The government can, however, minimize the extent of this disarray by maintaining a degree of oversight over the country’s media – one which the U.S. press has, at least until recently, little acknowledged.

Lesson #3: A Brave New World, But Not a Cold War One 

The final lesson we should take from these past days is the need to once and for all abandon the idioms and expectations of the Cold War era and develop both new tactics and a fresh language for dealing with Russia. Our world is not one governed by the kinds of ideological differences that were used to justify the Iron Curtain. Instead, it is one where superpowers such as Russia and the U.S. share a similar vision of Starbucks and Pizza Hut and iPhone prosperity, yet disagree as to the ways and means by which to get there. Both recognize the media as an important tool of power, for good or for ill, and, although the Russian government wields far more direct control over its country's communications sphere than does the U.S., both deploy careful P.R. tactics to tailor different messages to different audiences, at home and abroad. Both are not above playing on amorphous hatreds and fears. And while the Kremlin may fuel popular patriotism at the tabloid level by encouraging prejudice and resentment grounded in the past, such a strategy, while troubling, is anything but "backwards" in its intent. As Peter Pomerantsev wrote recently in Foreign Policy, Russia is not locked in dreams of reconstituting past Soviet glory, but of enhancing its current economic and geopolitical power.  “Look closer at the Kremlin's actions during the crisis in Ukraine,” he says, “and you begin to see a very 21st century mentality, manipulating transnational financial interconnections, spinning global media, and reconfiguring geo-political alliances. Could it be that the West is the one caught up in the ‘old ways,’ while the Kremlin is the geopolitical avant-garde, informed by a dark, subversive reading of globalization?” 

We also do not have to endorse Russian tactics of power, in order to understand the importance of encouraging Moscow to become part of a longer-term “solution,” such as one may be, in Ukraine. As Putin shot back to journalists, when asked if he would be prepared to negotiate with new leadership in Kiev, “we’ll talk when they pay up” – a reference to the approximate $3.5 billion the country owes Russian company Gazprom in overdue bills. Given Sunday’s victory of the far-right National Front in France and of anti-austerity measure candidates in an economically strapped Greece, the European Union is facing enough internal challenges that it cannot, alone, prop up a country with a per capita GDP that was already in 2012, long before the current crisis, lower than that of Iraq, and with a currency that has lost more value this year than any other in the world. Most importantly, if Russia is not allowed to be part of the solution for Ukraine, it will continue to be part of the problem, working both more and less obviously, in a variety of media-savvy, 21st century ways, to destabilize the country and using whatever tactics are at its disposal to further divide the Ukrainian people, while simultaneously faulting Western leaders for making promises of prosperity to that same people that they failed to keep.

Read more about the region on HNN at CHooper’s Post-Soviet Futures Blog.

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