Trending Twitter hashtags usually reflect something new, shocking or groundbreaking happening in the world – something that draws people’s attention. Here comes my concern. Despite the fact that lately (and, in fact, quite for a while now) something ‘unexpected’, ‘shocking’ and ‘new’ indeed has been happening on the Eastern front every day, these news dominate just their own niches in the media. #ProsOfDatingMe, #GeekPickUpLines and, of course, #KimKardashian is trending in the West. Panem et circenses! It sends a warning message that people got used to the unrest in the East, or, as some call it, developed a certain news fatigue. Hardly anything is more destructive than people accepting a terrible status quo.
In the meantime, Russian media doesn’t seem to be getting bored with, or tired of the conflict. Taking into account the traditional cheesy jokes about drinking spirits as a common Russian practice, it is not hard to notice that currently it is Russian media that ‘keeps people drunk. Drunk in terms of Ukraine,’ said Nikolai Petrov. One can interpret this metaphor as suggesting that one of the key tasks of the West is to provide as much water as possible to ease the audiences’ hangover after the conflict ends.
As part of this endeavour, UCL SSEES (University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies) contributed to replenishing of these water supplies by organising a panel discussion ‘Russia and Ukraine: Spotlight on the Regions’. The workshop proved to be a balanced and engaging attempt of attending to the key problems and challenges posed by difficult circumstances of both of the countries. The two panels focused on Russia and Ukraine, respectively.
Russia’s panellists included Dr Nikolai Petrov (Higher School of Economics, Moscow), Dr Valentin Bianki (St Petersburg State University) and Stephen Ennis (BBC Monitoring).
Nikolai Petrov started his presentation by calling Russian not a federation of regions but a federation of corporations. One of the main problems of these corporations is over-centralisation. While usually governors should represent regions to the centre, in contemporary Russia the situation is the opposite: governors are representing the central government and regional political elite to the population. The same Soviet practice that has been used for years still prevails in the country: sometimes governors are appointed to the regions where they have never been before, or even could hardly point them on the map, and are not allowed to stay there for more than 4-5 years. Petrov parallels it to the Soviet regime, when close attachment to the region and its population was seen as a dangerous, destabilising trend and weak representative abilities.
In this respect, the country becoming as a large corporation means that different officials are appointed to different departments in order to manage, not represent. It may cause serious problems. Normally, in a country with a lower degree of centralisation, in case of the centre facing some problems, regional political elites can take the power and lift it. However, in an over-centralized society the ship sinks with all the lifeboats.
If the centre doesn’t let the regions be more autonomous, the probability of managerial mistake increases. It means that the same policies might be offered to all regions from the centre, despite the fact that even in a smaller state, regions might be extremely different, and what is a solution to one’s difficulties, might only make the other’s problems worse’.
Dr Valentin Bianki presented the results of his survey on myths about Russians. According to his findings, Russians wanting to go back to the Soviet Union is a myth and stereotype. The survey was a bit flawed as it did not break down the respondents by age, even though a big part of Russia’s population consists of those who grew up in the USSR and, as the study results suggest, might miss the ideas of people’s unity and being a dominant power. One of the thoughts invoked by the presentation suggested that, while not being able to describe the future, the Kremlin might rely on the idea of the ‘great past’ and shape to form the public opinion accordingly.
The BBC representative Stephen Ennis stressed that pro-Kremlin Russian media is narrowing the gap between journalists and politicians. For example, the infamous propagandist TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov often acts not like an objective reporter but rather like a populist politician. According to Ennis, Kiselyov became a living symbol of how journalism in Russia has changed over the recent years. The current state of Russian media is not about presenting breaking news or raising awareness of social issues or public health. The key focus is on Ukraine conflict, and the methods are based upon brainwashing and distracting people’s attention from domestic issues. Respectable and opposition journalists have few options: either mutate and support the government’s line, or leave the industry and go underground. The mainstream media does not aim at making people think, but rather seeks to stir up emotional and psychological confusion.
The speakers stressed that what had happened in a year in Russia would take years to recover, and additional problems may arise as long as Putin and Russian media continue to maintain the frozen and confusing status quo.
In the Ukraine panel, Dr Michael Gentile (University of Helsinki), Dr Tatiana Zhurzhenko (Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna) and Dr Marc Berenson (King’s College London) talked about Ukrainian national identity, decentralization and decommunization laws and practices, and taxes in Ukraine.
Dr Michael Gentile presented the results of a pre-Euromaidan survey of Ukrainian students from different regions of the country, which suggested a correlation between speaking English, higher levels of tolerance and pro-Western orientation, and, conversely, homophobic stances and sympathising with Russia. The ensuing discussion focused on disentangling the meaning of being Ukrainian.
Dr Marc Berenson, concentrating on the features of tax avoidance in Russia, Ukraine and Poland, argued that Ukraine rather than Poland failed to implement the tax state. In today’s Ukraine, there is a distinctive gap between the state and society. The speaker suggested that Western Ukrainians’ willingness to pay taxes is more similar to Poles’, while Eastern Ukrainians’ attitudes and practices are closer to those prevalent in Russia. While a great benefit of this presentation was its comparative nature, the narrative was quite complex, and left the audience with a number of questions.
Finally, Dr Tatiana Zhurzhenko offered one of the most engaging presentations of the day on decommunization and decentralization laws recently approved in Ukraine, and their flaws. These laws were signed by Ukraine’s president Poroshenko on 15 May 2015, and have already caused significant controversy. For example, while decentralisation means empowering local governors, decommunization still comes from the centre and is a more radical solution to occurring problems. The new laws banning the communist symbols mean that some towns will be forced to rename up to 400 streets and take down a lot of statues. As well, Zhurzhenko stressed that criminalizing soviet symbols might trigger complains about limiting the freedom of expression, a discourse that has already been raised by a number of experts.
The speaker also reminded that the decommunization process in independent Ukraine has not just started from scratch, but is in fact in its third stage. However, it was not completed previously, and was not implemented in the in the Eastern Ukraine on the same scale as in its Western part, which might be one of the reasons of the current crisis.
The event which raised a number of important issues related to development and problems of contemporary Ukraine and Russia, among its other aims targeted the Western audiences trying to understand the complexity and the controversial nature of the current crisis. It stressed that it is vital to understand them because, as the conflict unfolds, more and more unhealed wounds and historical misunderstandings emerge and demonstrate their potential to affect generations.
Text by Agne Dovydaityte
Edited by Darya Malyutina
Photos by Diana Mess