Ben O'Lough­lin: “Peo­ple in Ukraine of­ten have a false view of what life in the EU is like”

“Peo­ple in Ukraine of­ten have a false view of what life in the EU is like”

The Ukrainian Week - - CON­TENTS - In­ter­viewed by Yuriy La­payev

Pro­fes­sor of the London Univer­sity on the per­cep­tion of the EU in Ukraine and Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda

The Ukrainian Week spoke to Pro­fes­sor of the London Univer­sity about the way Ukrainian per­ceive the EU, the im­pact of the Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda and the recipe for Ukraine to im­prove its im­age in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Can you pro­vide some over­view and high­lights of your re­search?

I re­search ‘strate­gic nar­ra­tives’ – the sto­ries coun­tries tell about them­selves and how these make a dif­fer­ence. I run a cen­tre in London – the New Po­lit­i­cal Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Unit – where we’ve been re­search­ing this for a decade now. I was also the lead ad­vi­sor on the UK Par­lia­ment’s com­mit­tee on ‘soft power’, look­ing to see how a coun­try can cre­ate a com­pelling story about it­self for the rest of the world so that other coun­tries wish to co­op­er­ate with it. And for bet­ter or worse, since 2014 Ukraine has be­come a lab­o­ra­tory for study­ing how nar­ra­tives might make a dif­fer­ence in pol­i­tics. Rus­sia and Putin tell one story about Ukraine, and about the das­tardly West. Euro­pean lead­ers tell a dif­fer­ent story about Ukraine mov­ing closer to Europe and NATO. We are con­duct­ing re­search across Ukraine see­ing what it’s like for or­di­nary Ukraini­ans to be caught in the mid­dle of this ‘bat­tle of the nar­ra­tives’.

Three quick high­lights from three projects we run. Our re­search funded by Marie-Curie ac­tions shows that a lot of Ukraini­ans don’t want to choose be­tween the EU and Rus­sia. They feel close to Rus­sia for re­li­gious and cul­tural rea­sons, but they want the eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties that ex­ist with the EU. Older peo­ple feel deeply at­tached to a shared Soviet his­tory even if they don’t nec­es­sar­ily like the cur­rent Rus­sian govern­ment. They re­sent this his­tory be­ing ig­nored or si­lenced. Younger gen­er­a­tions don’t deny that his­tory ex­ists but they do not see it as cen­tral to their lives and fu­ture. It is a del­i­cate bal­ance.

Our re­search funded by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion shows that since 2014 young peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar have de­vel­oped a much more re­al­is­tic and prag­matic ex­pec­ta­tion about what the Euro­pean Union can do for them. They don’t ex­pect the EU or its mem­ber-states to ride to the res­cue in the con­flict or help re­form Ukraine overnight. They also recog­nise that over­com­ing cor­rup­tion and hav­ing a demo­cratic so­ci­ety – not just demo­cratic elec­tions ev­ery few years, but on­go­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics – this is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of Ukraini­ans them­selves. The EU can’t solve these prob­lems for Ukraine.

Fi­nally, the re­search we’re do­ing for the Bri­tish Coun­cil and Goethe In­sti­tute about the power of cul­ture to

over­come con­flict shows that, de­spite the prag­ma­tism of young peo­ple, there is a new gen­er­a­tion in Ukraine who have the skills and en­ergy to make a vi­brant civil so­ci­ety hap­pen. But that gen­er­a­tion must not lose faith and turn away from pol­i­tics.

All of these projects show the so­ci­ety of Ukraine is not black and white. Peo­ple hold com­plex feel­ings and loy­al­ties. They dis­trust most news. They know they must take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their so­ci­ety while of­ten feel­ing dis­tanced and alien­ated by the po­lit­i­cal elite. From out­side Ukraine, Rus­sia and the West can think of the sit­u­a­tion as an ‘information war’ or ‘bat­tle of the nar­ra­tives’ but that misses the messy real­ity.

How can the per­cep­tion of the EU among Ukraini­ans im­pact fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of bi­lat­eral re­la­tions?

The EU cares deeply about how it is per­ceived, and our re­search can make a dif­fer­ence here. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion asked us to find out how Ukraini­ans view the EU. Hence, when Ukraini­ans talk to us, we can re­lay their views to Brussels. This can con­trib­ute to re­al­is­tic re­la­tions – that nei­ther in­flates ex­pec­ta­tions nor re­duces op­ti­mism and hope.

It is also im­por­tant for Ukraini­ans to main­tain good bi­lat­eral re­la­tions with mem­ber-states and their so­ci­eties – with Ger­many, France, the UK. This is why cul­tural and ed­u­ca­tional ex­change, sci­en­tific and busi­ness ties, even sport, mat­ter and I hope Ukraini­ans take full ad­van­tage of the visa-free regime to com­mu­ni­cate their cul­ture in towns and ci­ties across Europe. It angers me how dif­fi­cult it is for Ukraini­ans to get a UK visa but hope­fully this will change over time.

Do you feel the im­pact of pro­pa­ganda on the per­cep­tion of the EU?

If you mean Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda, then there is not much evidence it has made any dif­fer­ence to the per­cep­tions of Europe or the EU. There is lots of evidence of Rus­sia try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate neg­a­tively about Europe and stir up di­vi­sions. There is not much evidence of this work­ing. But it doesn’t have to work much to still make a dif­fer­ence. If just one or two per­cent of a so­ci­ety be­come more open to far-right or anti-EU lead­ers, then this can make a dif­fer­ence at elec­tions.

Pro­pa­ganda rarely makes a dif­fer­ence. Eighty years of com­mu­ni­ca­tion re­search shows this. The rea­son some pop­u­la­tions have be­come more pro-Rus­sia or anti-EU by about 5-6 per­cent over 2014-16 is be­cause Europe went through cri­sis af­ter cri­sis – we mis­han­dled the refugee cri­sis, there were high pro­file ter­ror­ist at­tacks, and eco­nomic in­equal­ity has not im­proved in much of the EU since the fi­nan­cial cri­sis. It is not that peo­ple in the Baltic Ыtates or Cen­tral Europe sud­denly love Rus­sia be­cause they were fooled by Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda. It’s that they feel let down by their own gov­ern­ments and look for an al­ter­na­tive.

Pro­pa­ganda is sexy and ev­ery­body gets ex­cited by it but it doesn’t ex­plain why pub­lic opin­ion changes.

In your opin­ion, can the visa-free regime re­ally change the view of the EU among Ukraini­ans? How?

It is one fac­tor. This is how it should work: Over a gen­er­a­tion it will be­come nor­mal for youth, busi­ness peo­ple, sci­en­tists and artists to travel and live in the EU. Equally, some Ukraini­ans will work in the EU in man­ual jobs. Cer­tainly, their views of the EU will change: our re­search shows peo­ple in Ukraine of­ten have a false view of what life in the EU is like be­cause the Ukrainian me­dia only re­port what hap­pens in the EU when it af­fects Ukraini­ans. Ukraine is not a big story in the EU: our re­la­tions with China and the US are much more im­por­tant. Once Ukraini­ans live in the EU they will see this. But my hope is that the best and bright­est of Ukraine are able to move back and for­wards be­tween home and the EU, and that this will be ben­e­fi­cial for all.

What dif­fer­ences in the per­cep­tion of the EU have you found be­tween young and old Ukraini­ans?

The EU is sim­ply more rel­e­vant to young peo­ple in Ukraine. They have their fu­ture ahead of them and their hori­zons are wide. But there is a gen­er­a­tion in Ukraine which in 1991 would have been 30 or 40 years old. They would have had chil­dren and a place to live. They had some se­cu­rity at home. Sud­denly the USSR no longer ex­ists and there is a lot of chaos. Many peo­ple from that gen­er­a­tion lost a lot in the 1990s. They look back to that time. But their chil­dren look for­ward. The 1990s are ir­rel­e­vant to their chil­dren, who are now in their 20s. They lost nothing and it is quite re­al­is­tic for them to ex­pect to travel to the EU. So it is not sim­ply that young or old are more or less pro-EU. It is that they were born into a dif­fer­ent his­tory, a dif­fer­ent era, and Europe will play a dif­fer­ent role in their lives.

What does Ukraine need to do to im­prove its im­age in­ter­na­tion­ally?

Ukraine can make changes at home and abroad. At home, or­di­nary Ukraini­ans must not think pol­i­tics is some­thing only the elite does. Otherwise the elite are free to act as they please, fight each other, waste money, and never ad­dress cor­rup­tion. Ukrainian cit­i­zens need to step up at all lev­els – street, town, city, re­gion.

Abroad, Ukraine can pro­mote its as­sets more clearly. The cui­sine. The mu­sic. The vast and of­ten beau­ti­ful na­ture. South Korea picked a hand­ful of as­pects of its cul­ture to pro­mote and pushed them hard - Taek­wondo, Kpop, kim­chi noo­dles. Ukraine needs to pick some things from its cul­ture that are unique and at­trac­tive and start pro­mot­ing them, so peo­ple’s im­age of Ukraine can im­prove.

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