UkraineAlert

Ukraine is embarking on its summer of Europe.

On June 11, summer starts with a boom. That’s when visa-free tourism begins for Ukrainians, allowing them to visit the twenty-six countries of Europe’s Schengen zone, plus four non-Schengen ones, including Switzerland. Only Britain and Ireland are excluded.

To carry the tourists, discount airlines Wizz Air and Ryanair are adding Ukraine to their flight map. This summer, they will add flights from Ukraine to thirty-five European cities, a 50 percent increase. In response, Ukrainian International Airlines, the nation’s largest carrier, is counterattacking with radical fare cuts to its European destinations.

The economic driver of Ukraine’s new relationship with Europe is its free trade agreement with the EU, now eighteen months old. Ukraine enjoys what Britain can only dream of with a ‘soft Brexit’: duty free, low-quota access to the entire EU, the world’s largest and richest consumer market.

These events seem a lifetime away from November 2013, when Ukraine’s lumbering then-President Viktor Yanukovych tried fancy dancing: signing with President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union rather than with the EU, while assuring everyone he was really moving Ukraine toward Europe.

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In April, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked, “Why should US taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” Now, the United States does not always provide assistance or help defend other victims of aggression, so the answer must go beyond the simple observation that Ukraine is the victim of premeditated aggression. I see five reasons why.

First, we defend our allies and interests by helping Ukraine defend itself. Every Ukrainian soldier who fights for his country represents one less American who is needed for the defense of Europe. Ukraine is fighting our war and that of our allies. Helping Ukraine defend itself actually saves taxpayers money.

But the answer goes deeper than that.

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“The person who tells their story best, wins,” said Jed Willard of the FDR Center for Global Engagement at Harvard University in Prague on May 17, succinctly explaining the challenges of fighting disinformation.

Willard and 330 other experts from twenty-nine countries gathered in Prague for a strategic communications summit (STRATCOM) hosted by European Values, a Czech-based think tank, on May 15-19. Focusing on Russian disinformation and propaganda, the meeting shed light on the Kremlin’s influence operations in the West and aimed to encourage deeper coordination between European countries and their partners across the Atlantic. While there were numerous opinions about how to best counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to destabilize Western democracies, experts agreed on the importance of investing in media literacy, and the critical need to call out fake news and its perpetrators.

Media literacy will be the key to battling disinformation, from the Kremlin or elsewhere, experts overwhelmingly said. In this media environment, it is easy for people to be convinced of their own worldview. If news consumers know how to access, evaluate, and analyze the news they are taking in, fake news and disinformation efforts will be far less effective. Speakers referenced the Finnish example, in which media literacy is viewed as a core element of civic competence and efforts are led by a government agency, as a model to emulate.

The challenge, however, is that we cannot all be Finland.

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For years, Facebook has quietly and very intentionally inserted itself into the daily lives of its users. It has succeeded wildly, becoming arguably the world’s most ubiquitous communication platform, with an average of 1.28 billion daily users. But now that it has become one of the world’s most popular sources of news, Facebook is failing to take real responsibility for that exceptional position in order to counter the spread of disinformation.

After being criticized as tone deaf for not recognizing the role that fake news shared on Facebook played in the 2016 US presidential election, the company released a white paper on “Information Operations and Facebook” in April 2017. It explains how hostile actors seek to undermine Facebook’s mission to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected,” through what it calls false amplifiers (trolls), targeted data collection, and false content creation. But, the company writes, it is “in a position to help constructively shape the emerging information ecosystem by ensuring [Facebook] remains a safe and secure environment for authentic civic engagement.”

As laid out in the paper, the company’s response includes the use of algorithms to locate and disable fake accounts, (of which 30,000 were deleted prior to the French presidential election), marking fake news as “disputed” in users’ feeds, working with political campaigns and high-risk individuals to keep personal data secure, educating the public about fake news, and supporting civil society programs focused on media literacy.

Facebook’s plans do not go far enough.

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Kazakhstan has decided to switch alphabets, from Cyrillic to Latin script, by 2025. After decades of Russian and Soviet domination, countries are developing their own cultural code, though some feel uneasy about the change. Yet the Latin alphabet will only boost Kazakhstan’s international integration and its economic, technological, and scientific development. Plus, Latin script isn’t new to Kazakhstan.

In April 2017, President Nursultan Nazarbaev recommended that the development of the new Kazakh language alphabet, based on Latin script, be completed by the end of the year. All official documents, books, and periodicals in Kazakh should be published in Latin letters by 2025. Agreeing on a unified standard alphabet is the next step, and then finalizing the roll out. Starting next year, new textbooks will be written.

Latin script has historically been associated with modernity.

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In the West, many people are ready to write off Ukraine. They wrongly believe that Ukraine’s reforms are stagnating, corruption is widespread, and the country is at war. But Ukraine’s reforms are definitely not done.

To understand Ukraine’s promise, one must first grasp the country’s situation in 2014 when the reforms began. Two decades of a corrupt and lawless oligarchic system had been holding Ukraine back, as had the legacy of seventy years of a dysfunctional communist regime. Add to this the annexation of Crimea, a trade war initiated by Russia, and the Russian-backed military conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the picture is one of a country with major hurdles before it.

But Ukraine has persevered and overcome those hurdles. After a drop of 17 percent in the country’s GDP in 2014-2015, the economy grew by 2.3 percent last year—an increase that exceeded forecasters’ expectations. Even the IMF forecast only 1.5 percent GDP growth for 2016.

The country’s biggest reform achievements have occurred in the areas of macroeconomic stabilization, banking sector clean up, and—contrary to widespread opinion—anticorruption.

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The US Congress has approved $100 million to counter "Russian influence and aggression" and support civil society organizations in Europe and Eurasia. According to the legislation, the funding will be used to "support democracy programs in the Russian Federation, including to promote internet freedom, and shall also be made available to support the democracy and rule of law strategy" under State Department policies.

Last year, the US Congress ruled that assistance to Ukraine should not be used to finance the Azov battalion because of its alleged links to a neo-Nazi group. The US government should apply that same level of scrutiny to Russian groups and political parties to determine if they are suitable recipients of US taxpayers’ money.

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Ukraine Brags about Reforms and Harasses Activists

Oleksandra Ustinova does not scare easily. Ustinova—Ustik to her friends—is a member of the board of the most outspoken watchdog in Kyiv and has led lobbying campaigns which successfully pushed through anticorruption reforms in Ukraine. She’s also a recognizable face with her straight blond hair and light blue eyes. Ustinova is used to facing resistance from Ukraine’s corrupt old guard, but she’s still shocked by what she’s seen in recent months: a targeted campaign of intimidation by the powerful Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) against her and other activists.

The SBU has used a number of techniques to intimidate her. Her flight details when she returned from a vacation in Sri Lanka appeared in the media. Only the SBU could know this information; the new aviation security law allows SBU access to passenger information for domestic and international flights in and out of Ukraine. When she returned to Kyiv on May 7, a bevy of “journalists” accused her of leaving the country while soldiers were fighting in the Donbas. Ustinova lost a close friend in the war last year, but when she broke down at the airport, the “journalists” accused her of “learning to cry on camera.”

Her airport ordeal is just the tip of the iceberg. Ustinova says that her e-mails are read. The day after meeting with members of the Parliamentary Committee on Healthcare, the committee chair called Ustinova and described private emails she had exchanged with colleagues about a hard-hitting article on drug procurement corruption she was working on. Most unnervingly, on May 11 video cameras captured the same airport “journalists” at her apartment while she was away.

Ustinova’s thinks the harassment is tied to two recent events. The Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC)—she’s on the board there—filed a case demanding SBU staff file their financial disclosures as mandated by Ukraine’s e-declaration law and an article Ustinova wrote on SBU’s involvement in corrupt drug tenders.

Ustinova is not the only AntAC executive targeted by the SBU.

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In 2016, the mayor of Ásotthalom, a small Hungarian town close to the country’s southern border, celebrated the opening of Gagarin Street with an obelisk to Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin and a speech about Russia’s greatness. The mayor was László Toroczkai, an extremist politician who serves as the vice president of the far-right Jobbik party; he is known for having organized vigilante groups to beat up refugees and banned Muslims and gay people from his village.

A high-level diplomatic guest attended the event: the leader of the Russian Consulate to Hungary. This case raises two questions. First, why did a far-right politician who had previously been proud of his anti-communism celebrate a hero of the Soviet Union? Second, why was a Russian diplomat openly legitimizing a controversial politician?

The short answer: Moscow sees the advantage of such “friendships” and invests in them.

When it comes to Russian efforts to incite violence, one usually thinks of the “little green men” in Crimea, or Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine. But Political Capital has conducted an extensive research project on Russian actors and hate groups in Central Europe, and has found that Moscow built up diplomatic, political, and sometimes financial ties to violent organizations in Central and Eastern Europe as well, though those activities have received much less international attention.

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On Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, the Russian authorities are suppressing freedom of speech so that no one will really know what has happened there. Journalists in particular are under threat.

The case of Ukrainian journalist Mykola Semena is one example of the situation in Crimea, which Russia has illegally occupied since 2014. His opinions were published in 2015 by Radio Liberty, a US government-sponsored news outlet that the Russian authorities dislike. His crime: he discussed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and supported a blockade of the peninsula. On April 19, 2016, Semena’s house was searched by the FSB, the Russian security service. Within a couple of days, they brought charges against him. His case is in Russian court now, and he faces a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Since then, Semena’s health has been deteriorating—because of the terrible circumstances and because he is in his sixties. According to a conclusion by the Kyiv Institute of Neurosurgery, the journalist needs an operation. The International and European Federation of Journalists issued a statement urging the Russian authorities to allow Mykola to leave Crimea for treatment in Kyiv. Nevertheless, the sick journalist did not receive permission to do so.

Semena’s situation is just the tip of the iceberg. Russia’s repression of free speech in Crimea is systemic. Restrictions were put in place immediately after the arrival of Russia’s "little green men” in the spring of 2014. I was there at that time and saw it firsthand.

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