The cor­ro­sion of in­for­ma­tion

Why the West's re­sponse on the Krem­lin's po­lit­i­cal prison­ers is weak

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Alla Lazareva

Shock, anger, a fever­ish search for ways to mo­bilise col­leagues, politi­cians and sig­nif­i­cant fig­ures... Not that the ver­dict against Paris Ukrin­form cor­re­spon­dent Ro­man Sushchenko was a sur­prise. Twelve years of max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison is fully con­sis­tent with the Kafkaesque logic seen in the sen­tenc­ing of Oleh Sentsov, Olek­sandr Kolchenko, Mykola Karpyuk and the Krem­lin's other po­lit­i­cal prison­ers. Nev­er­the­less, the news was stu­pe­fy­ing: when you have known some­one per­son­ally for years, the in­jus­tice is per­ceived many times more acutely.

Ac­cord­ing to Mark Fei­gin, Ro­man's rep­re­sen­ta­tive in court, as well as Ukrainian Deputy Speaker Iryna Herashchenko, the ver­dict in Sushchenko's case could fa­cil­i­tate his ex­change for a Rus­sian held in Ukraine, as it marks a manda­tory stage in the for­mal pris­oner swap process. The FIFA World Cup, which is about to start, will at­tract ad­di­tional in­ter­est to Rus­sia from around the world. There­fore, in the con­text of this in­ter­na­tional event, there is a small ex­tra chance for Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal prison­ers to come into the spot­light of world at­ten­tion and rouse the in­dif­fer­ent.

France has a large chance to play a spe­cial role in the case of Ro­man Sushchenko. He worked in Paris for the last six years be­fore his ar­rest and this coun­try is one of the four ne­go­tia­tors on the mil­i­tary con­flict in Ukraine as part of the Nor­mandy For­mat. Em­manuel Macron re­cently vis­ited Saint Peters­burg and moved onto "first name terms" with Vladimir Putin. In fact, not much is re­quired: just for the French pres­i­dent to have the de­sire and find the time to take up the is­sue. Since Monday, the Élysée Palace and the web­site of the French head of state have been flooded with mes­sages and ap­peals, open let­ters have been penned and signed, and a demon­stra­tion is be­ing pre­pared to de­mand the re­lease of Ro­man Sushchenko... Will this quan­tity of ac­tions turn into a high-qual­ity po­lit­i­cal re­ponse? Frankly speak­ing, there is no such cer­tainty.


It can­not be said that Ro­man was not well known in Paris. Of­fi­cial ac­cred­i­ta­tion from the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs, hun­dreds, if not thou­sands of pub­li­ca­tions (from short news items to ex­ten­sive an­a­lyt­i­cal re­views and in­ter­views), a huge num­ber of press con­fer­ences, sem­i­nars, col­lo­qui­ums, cov­er­age of of­fi­cial vis­its and ne­go­ti­a­tions at var­i­ous lev­els... Every day over many years, he crossed paths with hun­dreds of French col­leagues. How­ever, no more than 10 Parisian jour­nal­ists joined his support com­mit­tee. The sav­age, by the stan­dards of the civilised world, ver­dict was re­ported by a dozen in­flu­en­tial me­dia out­lets, in­clud­ing, of course, Le Monde, Ra­dio France Cul­ture and Le Point. But there could and should have been much more if there were the proper level of jour­nal­is­tic sol­i­dar­ity. If only in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the IFJ (In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists) and RSF (Re­porters With­out Bor­ders) did not main­tain a shame­ful si­lence for two days af­ter Sushchenko's ver­dict was made pub­lic. If only over the last quar­ter of a cen­tury in Western Europe, and in par­tic­u­lar in France, a vi­brant and at­trac­tive Ukrainian nar­ra­tive had been formed and es­tab­lished that would al­low com­mu­ni­ties to quickly recog­nise Ukrainian chal­lenges and re­act promptly to them.

The gen­eral in­dif­fer­ence that has over­grown the col­lec­tive vi­sion of Ukraine like abun­dant moss is fed by the world's in­suf­fi­cient aware­ness about our lives. "In or­der for Ukraine to stay trendy, a big Amer­i­can pro­ducer would have to shoot a block­buster about the coun­try," Michel, a Parisian en­gi­neer, jokes. "Then even every sin­gle French vil­lage would know that such a place ex­ists." If you ask or­di­nary French­men what they know about Ukraine, some men­tion chess player Anna Muzy­chuk who re­fused to at­tend the world cham­pi­onship in Saudi Ara­bia and oth­ers re­call the Maidan, Crimea and the war, but no clear em­blem, such as the Rus­sian bear or Gal­lic cock, ex­ists in the col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion. Where there is a lack of sys­tem­atic knowl­edge, the void is filled with stereo­types from with­out.

A strik­ing ex­am­ple is the re­sponse of the French me­dia to the staged mur­der of Arkady Babchenko. Dis­cus­sion of this truly non-triv­ial event did not die down for sev­eral days. Af­ter a long break, Ukraine re­turned to French TV, although not in such a favourable per­spec­tive. Ev­ery­one found time to make a com­ment: pub­li­cists and crim­i­nol­o­gists, spe­cial­ists in geopol­i­tics and writ­ers, his­to­ri­ans and law en­forcers. "The Ukrainian in­tel­li­gence ser­vices are not very se­ri­ous," de­clared Jean-Do­minique Merchet from new daily news­pa­per L'Opin­ion on the pro­gramme C'est dans l'air. "The Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, on the con­trary, are se­ri­ous"...

Such sen­ti­ments were ten a penny, no mat­ter how much they con­tra­dicted com­mon sense. Even if the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of Ukrainian law-en­force­ment of­fi­cers re­gard­ing the at­tempt on Arkady's life were not flaw­less, cer­tain faux pas and the haste in Ukrainian ac­tions by no means prove the "se­ri­ous­ness" of Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence. This can per­haps only be said about Moscow's con­sis­tency in elim­i­nat­ing its op­po­nents – from Trot­sky to Litvi­nenko and Skri­pal. Ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian logic, Babchenko also be­longed to this cat­e­gory of "de­fec­tors". There­fore, the dan­ger to his life was and is real. But the French jour­nal­ist did not look to­wards his­tor­i­cal parallels. He only mocked the press con­fer­ence in Kyiv and con­fi­dently iden­ti­fied the at­tempt to as­sas­si­nate the jour­nal­ist as a fake, although the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing and it is too early to judge the qual­ity of the ev­i­dence.

It is note­wor­thy that Re­porters With­out Bor­ders and the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists, in con­trast to their re­ac­tion to Sushchenko's sen­tence, which cor­re­sponds to the best Stal­in­ist tra­di­tions, com­mented on the Babchenko case twice. At first, as is the es­tab­lished pat­tern, they de­manded an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and then got an­noyed as they felt they had been cheated. The good old stan­dards of the Cold War, when Western in­tel­lec­tu­als ac­tively fought for Soviet dis­si­dents and po­lit­i­cal prison­ers, have fallen into obliv­ion. The cur­rent human rights bu­reau­cracy in­creas­ingly works on sus­tain­ing it­self, ba­si­cally trans­form­ing into PR agen­cies. For­mal­ity trumps ex­pe­di­ency, the con­text of in­for­ma­tion war­fare is vir­tu­ally ig­nored and the right to pro­pa­ganda is in prac­tice equated to the right to free­dom of speech.

The Cold War years had a clear com­mu­nica­tive style and recog­nis­able sym­bol­ism. Hy­brid war­fare has erased the bound­aries be­tween eth­i­cal and im­moral, be­tween ac­cept­able and in­ad­mis­si­ble, be­tween post-truth and re­al­ity, de­priv­ing the elite of its back­bone. The four years of war in the Don­bas should have been an ar­gu­ment for the emer­gence of a myth of Ukraine as a sol­dier coun­try, a sym­bol of resistance to Rus­sian ag­gres­sion and despo­tism. But some­thing has gone wrong, at least in France. The times when fifty coun­tries boy­cotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow be­cause of the war in Afghanistan have passed. The Western pub­lic, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a fes­ti­val of football, is get­ting com­fort­able in front of their screens and some are even go­ing to the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion. As a re­sult, no one is boy­cotting the Rus­sian World Cup be­cause of the war in Ukraine. A stead­fast mi­nor­ity fights for the free­dom of po­lit­i­cal prison­ers, hop­ing that de­spite every­thing the qual­ity of their ef­forts will over­come the wide­spread in­dif­fer­ence.

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