How to be a “media skeptic” (or not)

For those of you who don’t know, Russia Insider is basically the place where anyone who can string together paragraphs about the “neocon warmongers,” “Turkish jihadists,” and “Ukrainian junta Nazis” can get their work published. Oddly enough, the site has an ad on the right that says “BECOME A MEDIA SKEPTIC.” Judging by their coverage, it would seem that they intend to help you do so by publishing fake or otherwise idiotically flawed articles in order to help train the reader’s skeptic skills. If that’s the case, good for them.

Today’s training material popped up in my Facebook news feed, which of course means that someone’s about to get all their messages hidden. I actually feel I have to avoid seeing Russia Insider articles and even headlines lest this blog end up turning into a never-ending exercise in tearing down low-hanging fruit and smashing it on the ground. The article in question is a story about some “Middle Eastern” refugees who allegedly harassed some Russian women at a night club in the Murmansk region and then got severely beaten by an ad-hoc vigilante group of local men. And though this story has absolutely nothing to do with Vladimir Putin, the article features a photo of him because…Russia Insider.

Since Russia Insider wants me, you, and all of us to become good media skeptics, I decided this was a perfect training exercise. After all, having lived in Russia for almost ten years, and the better part of one of those years in a town smaller than Murmansk, this story sounded extremely fishy to me. The theme of Russian men being politically incorrect, chivalrous tough guys is a fantasy not only in Russia but also among many Westerners and even Americans. In short, to the experienced eye the story reads like one of those “Marine Todd” chain emails your elderly aunts and uncles forward. But before getting to that let’s talk about sources.

One of the first things I noticed is that the source cited by the RI article is The Daily Caller, which is an American conservative tabloid. One that has been seriously dinged at least once for fabricating a story. This struck me as odd, because after a little browsing on the Caller’s site I determined that they were in fact…THE MAINSTREAM WESTERN MEDIA! Yes, look at these filthy lies they posted about Russia! In this story they had the nerve to contradict the words of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov himself! Not only that, but they even quote the devil incarnate, Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, and implicitly refer to him as an “expert!” In another obvious concoction of lies, this MSM source claims that Russia is sponsoring terrorism! Obviously this makes The Daily Caller totally untrustworthy and as a good media skeptic we must dismiss it out of hand as “mainstream media.” Hence I looked for another source in the article, and that’s where I began to tumble down the rabbit hole.

The second source mentioned is an article in Italian. I thought it was interesting that the Italians would know more about this than the Russians. Interestingly this Italian link didn’t have a photo of Putin in it, which tells me these might be liberal neocons plotting to fund a color revolution in Russia. The photo they did use, however, was a rather unflattering photo of what I suppose are supposed to be stereotypical Russian men. Rather insulting, in fact. The end of the article contained an interesting disclaimer, and as my wife’s not around to translate, I apologize in advance for using Google:

“Translator’s Note: Since the German mayor yet another recommends the girls to stay away from the “refugees, ** we see a more gallant vision on the part of our Russian friends and acquaintances, and we are pushed to publish this story, even though it may not be officially documented. : Lol:”  

Hmmm… “Not officially documented.” That’s odd, especially when we’re talking about refugees supposedly kicked out of Norway. You need a visa to be in Russia. If you’re involved in inciting a mini-riot, something’s going to get officially documented. In fact, if you’re a group of Middle Eastern migrants who engage in behavior that just happens to fit perfectly into the narrative of the state-run press, your story would end up on the national news. I wonder why it didn’t.

At the end of the article the source cited is “Fort-Russ,” a site which I have busted for posting a fabricated story once in the past. As a side note, this article also used the demeaning stereotypical Russian guy photo. But more to the point, here we have a perfect example of how the Russian propaganda machine works when it comes to stories like these. There’s usually some overarching narrative often set by the Kremlin or its state-run media. Dressing off of what happened in Cologne during New Year’s, the Russian media fabricated its own story about Liza, a 13-year-old girl allegedly kidnapped and gang-raped for 30 hours by Middle Eastern migrants (these people have sick but vivid imaginations). Next what they need is a morality tale that tells people “Russia doesn’t tolerate this sort of nonsense,” and that’s exactly what this reads like. Now what you get is a kind of source carousel, where one pro-Russian source cites another and its difficult to pin down where the story originally came from.

Returning to our media skeptic training course, I was already wondering why it was so hard to find a Russian-language original source on this. Thankfully the Fort-Russ article actually had a link to a Russian-language article, but it was not some local Murmansk site. In fact, it’s called newsli.ru and contains very little information in its “about” page, where it is described not as a media outlet but a “project.” I went and typed “newsli” into Stopfake.org’s search engine and wouldn’t you know it- there were hits. Not a good sign when it comes to credibility.

The original Russian article doesn’t seem to contain anything very different from the translations in English or Italian, therefore we can now skip to the part where I explain why this story is bullshit.

-First of all, if you live in Russia and know the culture, you’ll understand why the idea of Russian males being chivalrous defenders of their women’s virtue is simply laughable. I’m not saying they’re better or worse than other nationalities in this respect, it’s just that they aren’t that.

-Clubs in Russia have this thing called “face control.” This is where the bouncers don’t let you in if you look disheveled, intoxicated, or whatever. True, not all clubs have face control, and Murmansk probably doesn’t house Russia’s most fashionable night clubs, but they will have security and they would be very unlikely to permit the entrance of around 50 Middle Eastern, non-Russian speaking men.

-These are supposedly refugees who were kicked out of Norway. When you’re a refugee who made it from Syria, Iraq, or wherever, all the way to Norway, and then you get kicked out for “bad behavior,” I’m guessing that you probably aren’t too well off financially. If you’re somehow returned to Russia, where you must have a visa simply to be on Russian territory, you’re probably going to be preoccupied with how you’re going to survive and where you’re going to go next. After all, what little money you had has got to be dwindling pretty low by now, and you’re trapped in nation where you don’t speak the language and have no right to work. You’ve no doubt had uncomfortable run-ins with the Russian police already. Now one of your fellow refugees suggest you and 48 other guys go clubbin’ and sexually harass some local women. What do you reply? Yeah. Exactly.

-In Russia people record stuff. Lots of stuff. Hell, the Russian military, apparently lacking a word for OPSEC, couldn’t even keep its war in Ukraine secret due to its soldiers snapping selfies and posting them on social media. I guarantee you that if you have a running battle that starts in a night club and ends somewhere else in the city, involving 50 migrants and what we can only assume to be an equal or larger quantity of Russian muzhiki, somebody’s going to catch that on their iPhone. There are dozens of videos of eye-grabbing activity from places in Russia far more provincial than Murmansk on Russian social media networks. In fact, VK.com has entire groups dedicated to videos of that sort.

-I searched in vain for a night club or discotheque by the name of “Gandvik” in the city of Murmansk. No results whatsoever. Searching for the name itself on Yandex did lead to a sponsored link to a striptease club in Moscow though.  Way to stand up for women’s rights! In any case, it would have been easy to do a search like I did and find an actual night club in Murmansk, but then again, that would mean anyone could look the place up, give them a call, and torpedo this story within minutes. (UPDATE: I’ve been reading some versions of the story, which place Gandvik not in Murmansk but the Murmansk oblast, in a town called Polyarnye Zori. Indeed, there is a dance club by that name in this small town. I was able to find a number and I’ll try to check it as soon as possible.)

-The Russian story has very specific details about the condition of the beaten migrants, yet no names are given for anyone involved in the story. No eyewitnesses, no police, no night club staff, no female victims, no beaten migrants, no local officials commenting on the issue of migration- nobody. The Russian article claims it was based on sources from social media. You know, that same social media where Russians are always posting photos and videos of crazy shit happening in their towns? Not this though. Nobody in Murmansk cared about recording this mini-riot involving what must have been around 100 people, not counting policemen.

-After looking at different versions of the article, there are some interesting inconsistencies. In the Fort-Russ article we see this line: “Still and all, judging by the identical reactions, the agents of law enforcement did not differ in tolerance level and while exhorting not to resort to lynching, secretly assisted in the educational process, news.li reported.” This translation is crap, but the underlined part appears in the newsli article relatively intact. In this case the “educational process” refers to the beating of the migrants. This raises numerous questions. The article states that the “squadrons of police” saved the migrants, so how did they both deter the crowd from vigilante justice (a more faithful translation of the newsli term in my opinion) while at the same time “secretly” assisting in it? If they were secretly assisting, who says so? The migrants? The attackers? Other policemen? This makes no sense.

-In the Fort-Russ article the pathetic excuse for the lack of any statement from law enforcement officials was: “Official confirmation by law enforcement authorities is not forthcoming, as they have no desire to feed the West with any more fodder for the “Wild Russia” line.” But in the newsli version this is different in a way that is slight, but important- it suggests that “perhaps” the authorities didn’t want to provide that “fodder” as they call it. Fort-Russ makes it seem like they intentionally withheld any statement, implying that something did in fact happen but they are refusing to comment on it for this idiotic reason. Newsli.ru presents it as speculation, which implies that it is their own. If the law enforcement officials in this small town were so afraid of feeding the “Wild Russia line,” one wonders why Fort-Russ published this story. Ditto for every other version of the story which makes that sad excuse for a lack of official confirmation. This entire story is presented as Russians and Russian police doing what is right, compared to those “tolerant,” pansy German police. If these Russian news sources saw fit to publish the account, why would the police be so shy? After all, they saved the migrants while somehow simultaneously and secretly taking part in the “educational” beating.

-The Fort-Russ article ends with a quote: “Welcome to Russia. We’re delighted to have visitors, but you mustn’t forget, you are guests here.” At first I was dumbstruck as the quote has no attribution. Then I checked the Newsli.ru version yet again and found that it has the same line, only it’s not a quote, it’s just there. This kind of thing is very strange for a news article. It’s obviously intended to make some kind of moral point, one which inflates the ego of vatniks and fulfills the fantasy of disenfranchised Westerners who decry “political correctness.” Why was this here? If it was a quote, who said it? If this story is based on “material from social media,” great- what social media? Where? Screenshots? Tweets? Anybody?

So what’s the verdict? Organic fertilizer, dear readers. All in all, however, I must say that this was a great training exercise in media skepticism and I really owe a great deal of gratitude to Russia Insider for coming up with it. With their help, I’m sure I’ll earn my media skeptic stars in no time!

 

journo

In fact, I might even be able to buy this special Russia Insider journalist starter kit so I too can become a diligent, muckraking, fact-checking reporter myself!

 

 

 

Backfire

I’ve found that the best way to navigate the horror show that is life is to never lose your ability to laugh. Take today’s earlier post. It’s very serious subject matter. But as part of it concerns the notorious Azov battalion I couldn’t help but be reminded of another recent story, and in remembering that I noticed something rather funny that I just have to share.

As some readers already know, the Netherlands is holding a referendum on approving the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine. Some consider this move highly unusual and ominous, but that’s another story. What’s important here is that after the announcement of the referendum, a fake video appeared online, disseminated by Russian sources, in which masked, armed men claiming to be members of the Azov battalion threaten acts of terrorism against the Netherlands should the Dutch people vote “no” on the referendum.

Apparently a second video was made:

Alright, the purpose of these videos seems pretty clear. Azov guys threaten the Netherlands with terrorism, and the Dutch people get insulted and decide they want nothing to do with Ukraine, thus voting “no” on the referendum by a landslide. That’s how it should work, right?

Wait a second. Just suppose for a second that Dutch people are total cowards, or at least a wide majority of them are.* After all, according to the Kremlin media isn’t the country the epitome of Gayropean tolerance, where you let Muslim migrants walk all over you in between orgiastic gay pride parades? So if this were the case, what if a majority of Dutch people were so frightened by those “Azov” men that they collectively said: “Oh dear! I don’t want to anger those guys! They might crash a truck full of horilka into Anne Frank’s house or something! I’d better vote ‘yes’ in this referendum!”

Of course if polls leaned that way, maybe the Kremlin media will have to release more “Azov” videos, in which our masked men inform the audience that they have changed their minds, they hate Europe, and the Dutch people had better vote “no” if they don’t want to be plagued with Ukrainian terrorist attacks. Of course that could backfire too, if Dutch people are not cowards but in fact really stubborn. “Threaten us? Well let’s just vote ‘yes’ and see what they do about it!”

Sure, it’s just a funny little scenario and those videos probably won’t have any bearing on the referendum, but it just goes to show how Russian propaganda messages often get so twisted that they can become garbled, incoherent, and possibly have an effect that is the opposite of the original intention.

 

*No, I’m not calling Dutch people cowards. I love Paul Verhoeven and I’ve seen Soldier of Orange twice. My favorite WWII film is still A Bridge Too Far. I know about the Anglo-Boer Wars. Take a hit off the bong and relax.

 

Fertile soil

Those who are familiar with WWII reenacting know that every Wehrmacht or Waffen SS outfit always describes itself as “apolitical” or “non-political.” There are a number of good reasons for this. One is that in the US, reenactment groups often utilize fully automatic weapons or at least possess a number of firearms, and so it’s always good for Uncle Sam to understand that the group calling itself “1st Waffen SS Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” is nothing more than a historical reenactment group and not a group of armed men who engage in paramilitary training and really, really like Hitler.

Of course if your really familiar with the world of WWII reenactment and Third Reich militaria, you know that “apolitical” is often bullshit. This isn’t to say that those Wehrmacht and Waffen SS reenactors are all real Nazis. Many of these people unwittingly spread myths that glorify these forces without having any ideological motivation. When you talk about the “brave” Wehrmacht and Waffen SS saving the West from Bolshevism on the Eastern Front, you’re repeating Nazi propaganda even if you overtly condemn Hitler and the Third Reich. The real problem is, however, that if you were a real neo-Nazi, so long as you didn’t come out and say it you’d probably find yourself quite at home in such a community. In fact I’m quite certain a number of these individuals are both known and tolerated among some reenactment group so long as they don’t draw too much negative attention.

The point is that under certain conditions, people with otherwise odious ideologies can go unnoticed, spreading their own propaganda under the cover of something more “respectable.” For a more common example, take the subject of illegal immigration in America. In mainstream American political discourse it is considered legitimate to support increased restrictions on immigration based on economic arguments, however flawed they may be. But when the anti-immigration hysteria reaches such a frenzied level within part of the population, it becomes a perfect venue for those whose opposition to immigration stems from racial hatred. These people can navigate the movement with ease and seek out those who might be receptive to their message, especially in private. In short, there is fertile soil for ideas which can’t survive in the mainstream.

And so we come to today’s topic, and if you’re wondering whether it’s going to be Ukraine or Russia well…*drumroll*… It’s Ukraine. I wish I could say it’s good news but it’s not. The Jerusalem Post reports on accusations that authorities in Kyiv may be engaging in subtle Holocaust revisionism in regards to the memorials at Babi Yar, where around 33,000 Jews were killed in mass shootings over a period of two days, and about 100,000 Ukrainians, Gypsies, Russians, and other people considered to be undesirable to the occupation authorities were shot until they were forced to evacuate before the advancing Red Army. Jewish critics say this is an attempt to cover up the specifically anti-Jewish nature of the massacre. Oh and guess whose name pops up in this controversy? That’s right, our favorite fairy tale author Volodymyr Viatrovych!

For anyone who doesn’t know, Ukraine’s far right, much like that of Russia or many other countries, consists of “we’re not fascist” fascists. I’ve encountered such people from a variety of countries for years. Basically it works like this. They’re not fascists because they don’t call themselves fascists. Sure, there’s not a single pro-Axis fighter or leader they don’t admire in some way. Sure, they say Communism was far worse than Nazism and show respect to the Third Reich for “saving the West from Bolshevism.” Sure, they’ll engage in Holocaust denial. Yes, they drop antisemitic memes and statements left and right, but they’re really just “anti-Zionist!” Okay yes, they do express hatred toward other races, but really it’s about love for your own people! Of course they condemn gays and lesbians as degenerate perverts and want to confine women to “traditional” roles. Indeed, they do all this and more…BUT DON’T YOU DARE CALL THEM FASCISTS, YOU DEGENERATE CULTURAL MARXIST! 

In the case of Ukraine, some apologists have tried to suggest that while certain Ukrainian far right organizations may have begun as such, they are much more moderate and inclusive now. It has been claimed that they have come to embrace a different national idea of Ukraine, where Ukrainian identity is rooted in citizenship and not ethnicity. While it is true that groups like Praviy Sektor and the Azov battalion are in fact not anti-Russian, there is ample evidence to show that these groups, particular the latter, are just as far-right as they were before. One of Shaun Walker’s articles contains a quote from an Azov fighter that provides a perfect example of the sort of views we’re talking about here:

“I have nothing against Russian nationalists, or a great Russia,” said Dmitry, as we sped through the dark Mariupol night in a pickup truck, a machine gunner positioned in the back. “But Putin’s not even a Russian. Putin’s a Jew.”

And a bit further down:

“Dmitry claimed not to be a Nazi, but waxed lyrical about Adolf Hitler as a military leader, and believes the Holocaust never happened. Not everyone in the Azov battalion thinks like Dmitry, but after speaking with dozens of its fighters and embedding on several missions during the past week in and around the strategic port city of Mariupol, the Guardian found many of them to have disturbing political views, and almost all to be intent on “bringing the fight to Kiev” when the war in the east is over.”

Also the claim that these are just Ukrainian patriots who are inclusive of anyone who is for Ukraine and/or a Ukrainian citizen also goes against the facts.

While apologists for Ukrainian nationalists often try to downplay antisemitism, that weed never seems to go away for some reason. Researcher Jared McBride describes the horrors one goes through when trying to discuss certain topics in Ukrainian history, which in his case entailed “an esteemed member of the Ukrainian academy” using the term “Jewish scum” during a Q&A session. He relates how speakers would be asked about their ethnic background by members of the audience. I can relate. In my experience, failure to bow to the Bandera cult means you’ll probably be accused of being Russian, Polish, or, when debating with less worldly Ukrainian nationalists- Jewish.

Talking about the far right in Ukraine is no picnic. You can’t help but worry that some pro-Kremlin dupe or propagandist is going to cite your article as “proof” that Ukraine is run by a fascist junta. This is something you must learn to put out of your head. They’re going to label everyone in Ukraine Nazis regardless of what you say or right. What is more, these are people who make no effort to hide their connections with Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis, and fascists of all stripes. Ergo when they condemn Ukrainian neo-Nazis real or imagined, they haven’t got a leg to stand on. These are people with relatively identical views on everything but a few trivial subjects. One must understand that for Ukraine to succeed, this conversation has to take place. The far-right is strong all over Eastern Europe, but Ukraine can rise above this in the way it deals with its own far-right and far-right ideas in general.

Unfortunately to date this hasn’t been the case. Cheerleading and fear of sounding like the Russian media has led many to tip toe around a problem that isn’t going away. Back when I was in Kyiv in 2007 and throughout 2010, there were a few tables on Maidan Nezhaleznosti selling nationalist paraphernalia, including books about Jewish conspiracies. In Moscow back then it was possible to find numerous people selling racist or antisemitic books on the street. When I returned to Kyiv in 2015, almost every souvenir stand I saw was selling something nationalist, from flags to t-shirts with Bandera on them. In one shop I even saw a small bust of Bandera for sale. I’m really sorry but this isn’t Russian propaganda.

As if that weren’t enough, my second time in Kyiv last year I was in line at the McDonald’s on Maidan and in front of me was a young, rather spindly looking skinhead. On one arm was a full color tattoo of a Nazi war flag. In spite of both his youth and size, he didn’t seem worried about getting any flak from anyone who might see that tattoo there, in the center of cosmopolitan Kyiv. Why is that the case? Later during that trip I overheard some young men outside a bar talking in Russian about David Lane, the infamous American domestic terrorist who is revered in American neo-Nazi circles and creator of the so-called “14 words.” On another occasion I observed a man, this time in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti underground market, wearing a German-style mountain troop cap with a 14th Waffen SS division badge on the side. This isn’t RT or Sputnik News; it’s real life.

And yes, I know you can find skinheads throughout Russia. I’ve seen some on the Moscow metro sporting what appeared to be the insignia of the collaborationist Russian National Liberation Army.  Almost any historical festival in Russia is likely to have some neo-Nazis in attendance, and they aren’t shy by any means. In 2013 I was outraged to see neo-Nazis in St. Petersburg in a sanctioned march carrying a banner that read in Russian: “National Socialism – This is Order!” I’ve also done WWII reenacting in Russia and I can tell you that the “Germans,” who are often more numerous than the Red Army, often consist of shall we say, “method reenactors?” But that’s just it- this argument about neo-Nazis in Russia canceling out those in Ukraine is nothing but whataboutery. Wasn’t the whole point of Maidan to prevent Ukraine from going the way of Russia? Is Russia suddenly going to be the yardstick now?

Sure, most Ukrainian “patriots” have been swindled into believing the OUN and the UPA were nothing but patriotic organizations fighting for Ukrainian independence against the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. Last year I saw an exhibit that tried to place the UPA on the Allied side of the war, in fact. But ignorance as an excuse only goes so far, and though many of these people may be well-meaning and consciously opposed to the far-right, they are maintaining that fertile soil in which far-right ideas germinate so well.

If Ukrainian nationalism of the OUN variety is not fascist and inherently right wing, why do we constantly see these neo-Nazis popping up here and there? I think we all know what would happen if I showed up to a patriotic gathering wearing a red star t-shirt. Would the same happen if I had neo-Nazi tattoos? Ukraine’s government claims it bans both “totalitarian” ideologies. Viatrovych and his ilk claim that the UPA fought against the Nazis and Communists equally? Only the ridiculously ignorant, naive, or deliberately dishonest would suggest that Nazi tats would be treated the same as Communist symbolism by these “patriots.” I’ve seen how people react, or better said, don’t react, to neo-Nazi tattoos and insignia.

Covering up the problem or beating around the bush doesn’t help Ukraine, and it actually feeds the Russian narrative even more. Fortunately, and contrary to the claims of the Russian media, the “Western media” isn’t letting the Ukrainian far right slip away quietly. Unfortunately for doing so, many journalists like Shaun Walker get accused of being “paid Kremlin trolls.” This is infantilism plain and simple. If we don’t acknowledge and discuss the problem, the Kremlin media will be ready on hand to supply their narrative, and you’re not going to like it.

I’ve said it plenty of times- if Ukraine plans to rely on appeasing far-right thugs to win its war with Russia, it will surely lose. For then it’s simply a war of attrition and Russia has far more right-wing thugs to throw into the breach. And when the Ukrainian government continues to coddle the far-right and grovel before it even as its adherents threaten them and in one case, carry out a terrorist attack killing Ukrainian national guardsmen, it should be no secret as to where these more extremist neo-Nazis sprout from. They grow up in the fertile soil carefully tilled and fertilized by those who rewrite history and the people who cover for those who do. They’re nurtured by those who are too afraid to call out the far right out of an irrational fear of sounding pro-Kremlin.

Ukraine’s struggle to uproot the weeds of far right ideology from the soil is not simply about differentiating Ukraine from Russia, where the far-right is much more powerful, endorsed and backed by the state. It is also about standing out from the rest of Eastern Europe, much of which is mired in the same reactionary thinking. It is my hope that success in this struggle would make Ukraine a lighthouse in the midst of the darkness. Till this happens, all talk of “free Ukraine” is as much nonsense as the “freedom” the Kremlin offers its supporters. The only difference in that case is a matter of blue and yellow versus a tricolor.

 

The Night of Long Excavator Shovels

First we have breaking news. This morning I awoke to reports that kiosks and small shopping centers all over the city overnight.

While the war on small kiosks in Moscow is actually a few years old, as the reader can see from the pictures, even medium sized, multi-story shopping centers have been slated for demolition. This article, unfortunately only in Russian, has a map marking the 104 establishments that have either been demolished or are being demolished as I write this.

According to the linked articles, owners of the properties were compensated, but I can hardly see how this works towards Putin and Medvedev’s often stated goal to “support small business.”

9feb

19 Nov 2015, Putin declares support for small business to be insufficient. 1 Dec 2015, Medvedev leads a conference on the problems of support for small business. 9 February 2016, self-explanatory. Cartoon by Sergey Elkin.

Of course the destruction itself has little to do with Putin or Medvedev, unless of course this is only the first step in an elaborate plan to make amends to Ukraine by visiting on Moscow that same destruction the Kremlin inflicted on east Ukraine. Assuming that’s not the case, the real culprit would of course be Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin…OR IS IT?!

I did some in-depth research, and discovered that Sobyanin’s patronymic is “Semyonevich.” So in his surname you already have “ob,” then you take the “m” out of his patronymic and put it before the “a” in his last name and…Suddenly you discover the real perpetrator of this demolition operation!

UPDATE: According to this article by Bershidsky, owners will not be compensated and their leases were legal. We’ll probably be hearing a lot about this in the next few weeks if not months.

Mixed messages

Yesterday a proposal was raised in the Duma to cancel elections so long as Russia was still under “economic pressure” from the West, i.e. sanctions. Yes, the same sanctions they keep telling us do nothing and only hurt the West are apparently causing enough “economic pressure” that the Duma should consider cancelling the upcoming Duma and presidential elections. Sure.

First for you newbies let’s shut down something right here. No, this doesn’t represent Russia’s descent into “Stalinist totalitarianism” or some such nonsense. This is almost certainly not serious and probably won’t be brought up again. This is by no means the first time a Russian politician has suggested suspending elections. LDPR leader Zhirinovsky, despite technically being an opposition presidential candidate, once publicly suggested doing away with all elections indefinitely and renaming Putin “Supreme Commander.” The point is that this proposal is probably just another example of these scare tactics the government uses to panic people and remind them that if they don’t keep their heads down things can get a whole lot worse.

Just one problem though. I’m not saying that the proposal is going to turn into something serious, but in this case the message to the public is really garbled. Most Russians, including opposition supporters, have little illusions about change via the ballot box. Since no one believes in elections anyway, it almost seems like this is a cost-saving measure.

Who is this message even aimed at? The West, which imposed the sanctions on Russia, doesn’t believe in Russian democracy anyway. Therefore one can’t assert that this is some kind of threat like: “Lift your sanctions or look what we’ll do to our own people!” The Kremlin already demonstrated what it could do in that respect with the food import ban.

The message is even counter-productive as well, suggesting that Russia is in such danger thanks to crisis and those Western sanctions (which supposedly were helping Russia), the government can’t even afford to organize and rig some elections.

The most logical explanation I can think of in this case is that it was designed to troll and panic the liberals, which is often the case when you hear about some real draconian proposals being floated in the Duma. Even if they have no chance of winning anywhere, elections have become a sort of rallying point for the opposition and it gives them something concrete to do. Without that, they’d probably be reduced to holding the occasional rally in some sleeping district of Moscow. That and Russian liberals still seem very easy to freak out with bullshit proposals like this. Internet tax, exit visas- you name it and they’ll panic all over the internet for a couple days. You’d think they’d learn by now.

Finally, if it’s not any one of these motives, it could be possible that the message machine is breaking down somehow. Either that, or somebody’s been smoking spice. These days who knows?

So all in all it’s an educational experience and a good case study, but I’m fairly confident that the upcoming Duma and presidential elections will proceed as planned and I’m 100% confident that the United Russia party will maintain a majority while Vladimir Putin wins the presidency.

 

Random Ukraine Article Generator: Alpha Version

Does anyone know a particularly loathed publication I can try to submit this schlock to?

Will Ukraine’s Reforms catch up with Corruption? Or will Corruption outrun Reforms? 

By Sergei Khuinia

This week the news from Kiev was once again dominated by two well-worn topics which are crucial to the future of Ukraine- corruption and reforms.

Some say there have not been enough reforms. These people say that there is more corruption than reforms. Others say the reforms are working, but there need to be stronger, more numerous reforms if they are to offset the impact of corruption in Ukraine. Still others believe that there have been too many reforms and not enough corruption, and lastly there are those who have expressed their satisfaction with the quantity of both corruption and reforms.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has long been an advocate of reforms, and routinely spoke out against corruption. Ex-Georgian president Saakashvili, now the governor of the Odessa region, also routinely speaks about the problems of corruption and the need for reforms. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is also deeply concerned about the pace of reforms and the rise or decline of corruption in the country. But the question remains, is mere concern enough to increase reforms and decrease corruption, or perhaps decrease reforms and increase corruption, if it turns out this obtains better results for Ukraine?

Outside of Ukraine, two parties that have an interest in speeding up or slowing down reforms and increasing or decreasing corruption are the United States and its European allies on one side, and Russia and its ally Syria on the other. US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt recently told the Rada that speeding reforms and fighting corruption is important. Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk agreed, in spite of their political differences. Russian president and ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is hoping that Ukrainian reforms will fail, or be too slow to catch up with corruption. However, some analysts believe that Putin is trying to play a long game, hoping that reforms will be too quick and eliminate corruption so rapidly that there will be no possibility for reform in Ukraine’s future. In any case, most experts agree that corruption in Ukraine is generally a bad thing, and Ukraine definitely requires additional reforms.

Apart from the war in the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, corruption and reform are among the highest concerns for Ukrainians after 2014’s Euromaidan revolution. The movement began with massive protests against corruption and demand for reforms, all so that Ukraine could join Europe instead of remaining in Asia, where it is still currently located. But nearly two years after the revolutionary movement for reforms that drove out pro-corruption, anti-reforms president Viktor Yanukovych, many are left wondering exactly how much reform has there been, and whether or not corruption has increased or decreased.

“I came out to the Maidan because I love reforms and hate corruption,” said Mykola, a 22-year-old espresso dealer working on Independence Square, the very same place where Maidan protesters demanded more reforms and an end or at least significant decrease for corruption back in 2014.

“But now I’m not so sure we’ve had enough reforms, because there is still corruption. Just what was Maidan about? Corruption or reforms?”

Other Ukrainians we spoke to disagreed, such as one souvenir shop owner we met on Kiev’s historic Khreshchatyk boulevard.

“No see, the problem is there have been too many reforms,” Taras the shopkeep told our correspondent. “You get too many reforms, and of course you’re going to see an increase in corruption. What Poroshenko should have done is increased corruption and slow reforms. Then things would balance out.”

Controversy over reforms and corruption has spilled beyond Ukraine’s borders to analysts around the world, who continually debate exactly where Ukraine is in terms of reforms and corruption. Have there been enough reforms? If so, are they fast enough? Are many reforms a good thing if they are also slow at the same time? Or would fast, numerous reforms be more efficient in the fight against corruption? And on that note, how much corruption is there, is it increasing or decreasing, and how fast either way?

While academics, politicians, journalists, and ordinary Ukrainians continue to debate the topic of reforms and corruption in Ukraine, one fact is certain. Ukraine is a country where there are reforms, some of which have been carried out, but possibly not enough, or perhaps not fast enough. Along with this, Ukraine also has some quantifiable amount of corruption, though it’s not clear if it is increasing, decreasing, or staying the same, at what pace, and in what relationship to the reforms.

Sergei Khuinia is a fellow at the Institute for Reforms and Corruption in Ukraine. He holds a Ph.D in reforms, an M.A. in corruption, and gives courses on corruption and reforms at DeVry university. He has recently published a book, entitled Corruption and Reform in Post-Maidan Ukraine: An Analysis of the Interrelationship Between Corruption and Reforms in Ukraine. 

A Tale of Two Cities

Last night I was having a discussion about a topic that causes me significant irritation. I’ve written in the past about the very widespread belief in a sort of national determinism in Russia, whereby people are expected to be representatives of their nation and therefore government, and whatever opinions they might have supposedly derive from that nationality as well. To be fair I’ve also encountered the same from some Ukrainians (Some!), who upon reading my comments suspect me of being Polish. Take a guess why this happens (Click for hint!).

This other thing that grates on my eyes and ears is a similar behavior, where someone assumes that your opinions or views can be determined by the country that you live in. As you might have guessed, I’ve had numerous accusations about being pro-Moscow because I live in, you guessed it, Moscow. Usually this happens on Twitter, where people can quickly pull up my info that shows my location, but rarely take the time to read dozens of tweets that they’d most likely agree with. I suspect that fewer still actually follow the link to this blog and read any of it.

Speaking briefly for myself, yes, I’ve been living in Moscow and the Moscow oblast since 2006. However, there were several occasions when I had considered jobs in Ukraine, and once in Belarus. When I say “considered” I don’t mean simply “thought about.” I’d had interviews and invitations in several of these cases. I have been formulating plans to leave Russia since late 2013, around the time this blog was started, in fact. In the end of 2014 I nearly made it out, and I pursued that same option through about half of 2015. I’m still technically pursuing the option now, but it’s unfortunately a job with very few openings. I have also tried applying for jobs in Ukraine since last November. So while I can say that I definitely don’t hate Russia or Moscow, which has definitely improved in some key areas in recent years, I’m not exactly here by deliberate choice alone. Far more important is that this is by no means an endorsement of the Kremlin’s political line. Besides, when I moved here in 2006, it was a very different country.

Now that I’ve given my own abridged explanation, I’m going to deal with the article that prompted me to write this post. As if by coincidence, I saw it maybe a few hours after that Twitter exchange on the same topic.

The article is by Paul Niland with Kyiv Post, and let me first state that it’s not nearly as bad as the kind of people on Twitter who accuse you of being pro-Moscow simply for living there. In fact he’s not really saying that at all. His thesis, that living in Moscow can lead to bias in favor of pro-Kremlin narratives is a good one. My only problem is it’s a bit oversimplified, one-sided, and doesn’t account for some important exceptions.

Before I tackle some of his specific arguments I should recap part of last night’s Twitter conversation, where I was explaining why so many of these correspondents from major publications are based in Moscow. I know from personal experience that these media companies don’t seem to want their people in Kyiv. The truth is that without the war, having your Eastern Europe correspondent in Kyiv would be like having them in Bucharest or Bratislava. Many Westerners know very little about Ukraine and frankly don’t care. What is more, if your correspondent is in Moscow and something happens in Kyiv or say, Riga, they can hop on a plane and get there with no need for a visa in most cases. The opposite is not true. Like it or not, Russia is a major player in world affairs and while most Westerners, particularly Americans, care about Russia far less than Russians would like, news from Moscow is far more likely to attract their attention than news from Ukraine or any other former Soviet Republic or ex-East Bloc country. Believe me, I have tried to use a correspondent position as a ticket out of Russia, with Kyiv being the destination. I’d spend weeks at a time in Avdiivka or some other front-line location if need be. The problem is they just aren’t buying.

So now that I’ve explained what I think is the most likely reason why there are so many correspondents in Moscow, let me get into the meet of Niland’s article and rebut some of his arguments.

“It’s unfortunate that much of the international writing about Ukraine is done by people based in Moscow. I have noted elsewhere that this peculiarity can lead to Ukraine not being given fair representation because whether they like it or not the international correspondents resident there are all exposed to the constant drip, drip, drip of disinformation stories hitting them from various sides.”

This is certainly a valid concern, but there are a couple comments I could make on this. First, my experience is that the further one is from Russia and Ukraine, the more susceptible they are to Russian propaganda. If you exclude those who have sweet careers with the Russian state media or similar organs, the most rabid anti-Ukrainian, Sputnik-meme spitting Kremlin dupes are typically Americans and Brits.

A lot of correspondents who live in Russia are far more informed about what goes on here, ergo they’re much less susceptible to bullshit from the state media and pretty much anything the Kremlin says. This is why it’s no surprise to see that some of the rabid pro-Kremlin cheerleaders who do work for the Russian media usually either had no background in journalism, or knew nothing about Russia before they came here for a few years and started living the lovely expat life.

“Whether it is at the Dacha BBQ with uncle Vanya, or whether it is listening to opinions from local friends and colleagues which are more formed by the full on information assault, Ukrainian affairs can get painted in all sorts of weird ways.”

Alright a few problems with this. The first is that when we talk about Russian narratives on Ukraine, the kind of pro-Kremlin attitudes and memes you’d hear from those friends and colleagues today are relatively new. In late 2013-2014 I noticed this bizarre “reversal,” where people who would laugh at “patriotic” propaganda and Putin’s image suddenly started spouting pro-regime talking points. It was really bizarre how they’d do it to; when they espoused anti-government views, their points and opinions were varied and diverse. Then they’d just start regurgitating the same talking points word for word until it seemed like you could predict what they would say at any given time.

Next, just as I mentioned that the people most susceptible to Russian propaganda often live far from Russia and have little to no experience in the country. Well sometimes you can have a similar but opposite situation. In my case, I admittedly had a very anti-Maidan attitude, due in large part to poor coverage from the Western media (who made it all about “joining Europe”), but mainly because I had been deceived by a Ukrainian “leftist” group which I first encountered in 2012. Given my experience with “left” groups in Russia, I was naturally suspicious about Russian chauvinism and I was reassured by members again and again that this group was anti-Putin. I was initially concerned about the success of the Svoboda party when I heard about them in 2013, prior to Maidan, so when they made their presence very noticeable during the movement I was justifiably concerned. And not to digress too much on this point, but part of me fears that had I actually moved to Ukraine back in 2007, I might have been duped completely into taking the wrong side. As it turns out, living in Russia the whole time helped me build up an immunity to bullshit, so that it took Ukrainians to put one past me.

Lastly on this point, I think the author seems to be unaware that the same process he describes here, that is personal contacts with friends, family, and colleagues influencing a journalist’s views, can happen just as easily to a foreigner in Ukraine as in Moscow. In fact, many of the assumptions he makes here, including that very statement about “Uncle Vanya,” friends, and colleagues, demonstrate this quite well. There’s already an assumption that someone in Moscow must be surrounded by vatniks regurgitating Kremlin talking points. I’ll be the first to admit that you will here at least some of those talking points from people who really ought to know better, usually getting them second or third hand from people they know, but this doesn’t mean that those of us who do know better just sit there and absorb this without saying anything.

The truth is that foreigners in Ukraine can be just as susceptible to false narratives and talking points for the exact same reasons, colleagues, friends, family members, and so on. Idealistic American goes to Kyiv because he was “inspired” by Maidan. He meets some nationalists, who explain that they’re just “patriots” and not racist or anything like that. They explain to him that Stepan Bandera, a name our American expat friend first heard in 2014 or 2015, was really just a liberal democratic patriot who only wanted to free Ukraine. Anything bad you hear about him is nothing but Soviet propaganda. Oh…Polish propaganda too. Poles and Russians have been engaged in a decades long conspiracy to frame this innocent nationalist leader.

What do you think happens when our hypothetical Kyiv expat sees me write something negative about Bandera from my Moscow-based account? “Hey maybe you should stop reading Russian propaganda! Or are you a paid Kremlin troll!” Little does he know that I started reading on the topic of Bandera and Ukrainian (and many other including Russian) collaborators since 2002, starting with sources that were unapologetically pro-Bandera/nationalist.

I don’t bring up that last bit just flaunt my Bandera cred, but to demonstrate an important point. When it comes to being susceptible to certain narratives, one really important factor is how much a person knows about a country prior to moving there. A lot of times you get these people that come to Russia or Ukraine with no prior interest or study, and then they’re an empty vessel ready to be filled with bullshit. In Russia they have an advantage in the form of a more unified, focused propaganda machine. In Ukraine the nationalist con-men and their apologists take advantage of the extreme obscurity of certain topics.

There are a few more points where Niland shows a close affinity for his surroundings which seem to have induced a bit of bias, but I’ll save that for later. For now let’s move on to his case study, an article by Shaun Walker of The Guardian.

“I most admire is Shaun Walker of The Guardian.

I often find myself agreeing with his analysis, I find his observations to be generally accurate and often the way that he puts them across can be quite funny, I disagree with him from time to time but have found him open to being reasonably challenged. In my last exchange with him he tweeted photos of Azov Regiment fighters inside Boryspil Airport, apparently placed there by non-other than Interior Minister Arsen Avakov himself, to arrest non-other than super-oligarch Dmytro Firtash.

My simple response to that tweet was; “Bullshit!”

At the end of that exchange, I offered to buy Shaun a beer next time he’s in Kyiv, because as it turned out he was largely correct.You see, from my perspective, there were a few things wrong with the proposed scenario. Number one was just the mention of the name Azov.”

Niland goes on to explain the reason he went off at the name Azov is that it has been a got-to bad guy for Russian propaganda stories. I sympathize with this feeling because we all seem to get “triggered” by the mention of certain phrases, names, or words, but come on- Shaun Walker? The Guardian? You’re not reading Sputnik here, and we’re not talking about someone who would read something from Sputnik or RT and seriously submit it for publishing. Besides, Azov and similar groups are a problem and if Western journalists ignore or downplay this they’re only going to leave an orchard of low-hanging fruit for the Russian propaganda machine.

Later on Niland posts some very legitimate complaints, which is why I recommend reading them, particularly those regarding the characterization of people’s motivations for coming out to the Maidan and the politics surrounding it. For example, I like that he helps debunk the notion that Yanukovych was not only rejecting the “European path” but also choosing a “Russian” one, that is toward the Custom’s Union and perhaps the Eurasian Economic Union. But again, to be fair to Walker there are some die-hard Maidan supporters not based in Moscow who have helped popularize that impression.

What better example than this famous article from Timothy Snyder, certainly not and as far as I know never Moscow-based, describing the story of Maidan. Not only is there a clear implication that this was a choice between going with the EU or Russia, in this article that is supposed to cut through the “haze of propaganda,” the chronology of events is idiotically butchered and tons of red herrings are inserted in a condescending, horribly unsubtle way. If you want to understand Maidan better, this is not the article for you. Oh and by the way…It was published in the Kyiv Post as well. This goes the same for the idea of US sponsorship of the revolution. Of course it wasn’t spurred by American puppet masters, but with folks like John McCain shaking hands with Maidan leaders including Tyahnybok, would it be entirely unreasonable for an observer to surmise that the US was strongly backing one side? Nuland and McCain very stupidly created an image which was a boon to pro-Russian propagandists.

Getting back to the subject of biases one acquires living in a certain place, I took some issue with this line, which is rephrased in other ways throughout the article:

“The Ukrainian people have proven several times that they will dictate their own destiny. Their future is not decided for them, but by them.”

Again I sympathize with the author here, because if he’s like me he’s probably sick of Ukrainians, or more specifically those who were involved in Maidan, being stripped of their agency, particularly by people who espouse pro-Russia viewpoints. Chomsky, Ames, Cohen, and a whole host of others, often with radically different views, all treat Ukrainians as pawns who could either side with Russia or be dupes of the US. In reality many people had their own personal motives for going out to Maidan, some noble, some terrible, some possibly mundane. What matters is that they made personal choices and they can take responsibility for them, whether the results were good or bad.

Now that being the case, this sentence is extremely romantic and a bit patronizing. Maybe if it were coming from an actual Ukrainian it wouldn’t come off that way. But I have a problem with Westerners, especially those with no hereditary connections to a country, speaking on behalf of the entire people. I mean suppose I move to say, Namibia, I fall in love with the place, I have lots of friends there, and then I presume to write about what the Namibian people does and who decides their future. I think in that case the problem ought to be clear. It may be in Ukraine and the skin color is the same, but this really, truly smacks of the so-called “Mighty Whitey” trope we see in movies from The Last Samurai to Avatar. I seriously hope I’m not being unfair to Mr. Niland here, but let me just say that these kind of statements sound a lot better when you’ve got a nice noticeable Slavic surname (if not Ukrainian or Russian) to go with it. That, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Shaun Walker making statements on behalf of “the Russian people.”

The other problem with this claim is that it ignores the fact that “the Ukrainian people” is rather abstract, considering the fact that, whether we agree with them or not, there were plenty of Ukrainians who either opposed Maidan in some way or at least expressed disdain for it. Now if you’re about to say that they’re all traitors and they don’t count, well then you’re going against the opinion of the first post-Maidan government, which went to great lengths to make it possible for citizens in Russian-occupied territories to vote in the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014. Clearly they thought that large segment of Ukrainian society deserved a voice, however much they disagreed with them.

Lastly, the Zradamania that has taken place since the election of Poroshenko, which one day led to a bomb being thrown at the Rada and the death of several national guardsmen, tells us that even on one side we have deep political visions and different ideas as to what Ukraine should become, enough to justify toning down the romantic talk about the will of the “Ukrainian people.”

The idea here isn’t to beat up on Niland, but simply to show that one shouldn’t be so quick to assume that the city where one lives is going to automatically influence their work to such an extent. And to the extent which it can, it can go both ways, whether you’re in Moscow or Kyiv. It’s good to call out these narratives that strip Ukrainians of their agency or which explicitly or implicitly support Kremlin talking points, but looking at all the information out there and where it comes from, it’s simply not evident that living in Moscow or Russia is necessary to come under the influence of said talking points.

In the polarized discourse surrounding Russia and Ukraine, we will probably never eliminate these snap judgments whereby we suspect people of being propagandists or dupes of propagandists based on illogical reasons. But we need to work harder to avoid escalating this kind of behavior; in fact we should work to minimize it. One way to do that is to stop judging people’s positions or opinions based on their nationality, and especially the city they live in.