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Ukrainian politics since 2014: Changes and challenges

Dr. Joanna Szostek is Lecturer in Political Communication (Politics) at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests centre on the role of mass media in relations between states, particularly in the post-Soviet region. Before moving to Glasgow, she completed a three-year research project to investigate and explain the reception of competing political narratives among audiences in Ukraine. The project was funded by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellowship from the European Commission. It included an 18-month secondment to Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Ukraine and a five-month secondment to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Results from that project are published in leading international journals, including Perspectives on Politics and The International Journal of Press/Politics.

From 2019, she started to work on a new research project investigating why levels of engagement with local, national, and foreign/transnational media vary within and across ‘peripheral’ regions of Ukraine. The project, which is funded by the British Academy, is intended to shed light on how media use among ‘peripheral’ audiences can undermine and/or benefit state security, broadly defined.

She holds a doctorate in Politics from the University of Oxford. Her professional experience includes several years at the BBC and many years of living and working in Russia and Ukraine. I am currently an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

1. What do you think about the state of media in Ukraine as of today? Has it improved since 2014?

The Ukrainian media environment in 2021 is pluralistic and diverse. Ukraine has a relatively small number of media organizations that produce consistently high-quality quality journalism and a much larger number that produce journalism that is often tendentious and influenced by media owners' private interests. 'Oligarchs' continue to dominate the media market, particularly in television – that is something that has barely changed since 2014. But former president Poroshenko and current President Zelenskyy seem to respect the need for independent journalism more than President Yanukovych did, so the level of state influence on major national media has decreased, and that is a positive change.

2. Has Ukraine moved in a positive direction since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014?

Politically, I would certainly say that Ukraine has moved in a positive direction since the Revolution of Dignity – albeit not quite so far or so fast as one might have hoped. Ukraine has faced tremendous challenges since 2014: dealing with Russia and the separatists' military threat while trying to reform the political system and build confidence in the economy. Some reforms have been quite successful (e.g., in state procurement and the banking system), but the limited progress in judicial system reform has been an obstacle to broader anti-corruption efforts. The global pandemic presents an additional, massive challenge for the government to deal with and makes the task of improving everyday living conditions for the population much harder.

3. Where do you think Russia' has failed and succeeded in Ukraine, and what lessons could Ukraine learn from that?

To some extent, Russia succeeded in Ukraine militarily in that it now controls Crimea and part of Donbas. This gives Russia some leverage over Ukraine and the international community and substantially reduces the prospects of Ukraine joining NATO (which Russia wants to prevent at all costs). However, the Russian leadership also desires control over policymaking in Kyiv; it would like to direct Ukraine's foreign and economic policies and retain Ukraine as part of the 'Russian World.' In this area, we cannot say that Russia has particularly succeeded. In fact, Russia's seizure of Ukrainian territory has completely alienated much of the Ukrainian population and accelerated moves to reduce Russia's cultural influence.

4. How do you think Ukraine can better counteract Russia's information warfare techniques?

Russia's 'information warfare' has a lot of different dimensions, and there is no simple or straightforward answer as to how to counteract it. Personally, I am not really a fan of the 'information warfare' concept because I think democratic governments should always think of the media as channels of communication, rather than as weapons (channels of communication are actually more complicated to use effectively than conventional weapons!) But that does not mean that Russia's approach to communication does not pose a threat to Ukraine. Ukraine has already done a lot to reduce Russian influence via the media. The bans on Russian TV channels and other media are justified, given the level of disinformation they carry. But I would say it is essential to follow clear legal procedures when restricting any media organization and media content. If the appropriate legal procedures are not followed, it creates opportunities for Ukraine's critics (including Russia) to accuse the Ukrainian government of censorship and restricting freedom of speech. The task of reducing Russia's media influence is complicated by the fact that Russian influence is often indirect and operates via Ukrainian organizations and individuals. Therefore, more transparency is needed: audits and investigations to uncover how media organizations and political parties in Ukraine are funded. In the long term, though, the best defenses against Russia's information attacks would probably be (a) economic growth and improved governance and (b) educating citizens about democracy and the importance of democratic values. Economic growth would help strengthen the Ukrainian media and hopefully make citizens' lives easier so that Russia's negative narratives about Ukraine will no longer resonate. Educating citizens about democracy and democratic values might help more Ukrainians recognize the need for good quality independent journalism so that they reject the emotional, sensationalist, and tendentious reporting that many Russian news sources carry.

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