“The public must clearly identify and follow through on issues”: Interview with Oleksandr Pankieiev
Some representatives of the Ukrainian “establishment” have been heard to comment lately that “the world is tired of the Ukrainian problem.” Is this fatigue in evidence in Canada? Does the mention of Ukrainian problems provoke irritation in the general Canadian population?
We must remember аbove all that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is an aggression against the entire democratic world. I can’t say that Ukrainian issues usually inflame negative attitudes. The whole civilized world—the democratic world, and especially Canada—understands the enormous need to help Ukraine. For Canada it is additionally a strategic priority, with Ukraine being a strategically important partner on many issues—primarily geopolitical ones—despite its geographic distance. All the more so that Canada and Russia are to a certain degree in conflict over territorial claims in the Arctic and in some other areas.
Ukraine is an important outpost of democracy in Europe, this is one reason why the Canadian government gives it a lot of assistance. First, there is assistance in training the Ukrainian army through the UNIFIER program. For example, in autumn 2019 this involved the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) organizing and delivering several briefing presentations on the situation in Ukraine to Canadian military personnel based in Alberta who were being deployed to conduct training with Ukrainian military personnel. Second, the Canadian government supports a variety of humanitarian and educational projects. Also worth mentioning are Canada’s support for implementation of reforms, financial allocations, and consulting assistance. An important achievement in cooperation between the countries was the signing of the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement, which promotes relations between the countries as business partners. In May 2020 CIUS organized an online lecture co-delivered by the Ambassador of Ukraine in Canada, Andriy Shevchenko, and the Ambassador of Canada in Ukraine, Larysa Galadza, who discussed the enormous scale and potential of this agreement.
As we can see, this intergovernmental cooperation encompasses many fields, and I do hope that it will be expanded even more.
Given we have already raised the issue of the war, I am compelled to ask about the information war. Is there any disinformation about Ukraine being disseminated in Canada, and does such fake news influence Canadians’ opinions about Ukraine? Tell us some more about the information war your online publication has faced.
In October 2019 the Alberta Society for the Advancement of Ukrainian Studies and CIUS’s Contemporary Ukraine Studies Program organized a conference dedicated to this very issue—disinformation and countermeasures. We invited experts in various fields, including journalists and academics, to discuss this situation in depth.
The journalism panel, headed by the Kyiv Post’s correspondent in Canada Olena Goncharova and including Canadian journalist Justin Ling and Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro, described how difficult it is to objectively report on real news when faced with such an overwhelming amount of disinformation. This is a problem that comes to the fore every time the newsfeeds of influential news agencies publish incorrect facts about Ukraine, for then the real information space becomes so distorted with disinformation that even professionals have a hard time distinguishing between truth and fiction.
Ling described an instance when many authoritative Canadian media stated that Canadian military personnel had come under fire in Ukraine, even though this could not have been true because they were located very far from the front lines in western Ukraine. Furthermore, given the authority of the news organizations that succumbed to the temptation of disseminating a “hot piece” of news like that, correcting such items is not easy and solutions must be sought using a collective approach.
Important efforts have also been made by members of the Ukrainian community in this information war. Another of the conference speakers, Jean-Christophe Boucher, analyzed Twitter posts and concluded that the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada has exceptionally influential, despite the lack of central coordination, in actively and effectively countering, over many years, even coordinated Russian secret police information operations.
This is exactly the reason that our online Forum for Ukrainian Studies (FUS) is not news-oriented, not focused on putting out the latest news. Our objective is to provide analysis. Thus, it sometimes happens that our reviews of news developments come out a few months after the events in question, but on the other hand everything is thoroughly analyzed, encompassing all the facts, so that nothing is left out. Nowadays, this approach is the best—to analyze situations concerning Ukraine in a dispassionate and deliberate way.
We know of your opinion that the infamous conversation Trump had with Zelensky diverted the focus of public attention from the US president’s impeachment onto Ukraine. How do such episodes affect Canadian attitudes to Ukraine? How is the Ukrainian diaspora reacting to the real scandals going on in Ukraine?
These instances can be considered from several points of view. If we examine just the scandal ar the telephone conversation you mentioned, the effect was quite negative; but on the other hand it reminded the world yet again that Ukraine needs help. I listened at the time to all the impeachment hearings in the US, and I was impressed at the consistent way they emphasized the need for military, humanitarian, and democratic assistance to Ukraine.
We need to distinguish between Ukraine and certain representatives of its political elite. As a country, Ukraine is still young and still developing its political awareness. So such instances do occur from time to time, unfortunately. But their effect depends on how they are interpreted: is it something that occurs in Ukraine systematically or something that we are trying to change. Of course, in a situation like Trump’s impeachment Ukraine has practically no voice; it can only hope for proper media coverage and unbiased opinions of the world’s pundits. And if we read famous publications like the New York Post, they generally write well about Ukraine. But there is also a series of large periodicals that have their own specific political agendas, and their coverage of Ukraine has not been that good. Well, that’s the media market, where there is freedom of speech for everyone, and we are simply called upon to fight so that the truth can be heard. This is what we do at FUS—we produce quality analytical academic output about Ukraine.
As far as I know, one of your scholarly interests is the theory and history of Ukrainian bureaucracy. What is your opinion of Ukrainian bureaucracy today, and how is it better or worse than Canadian bureaucracy?
In the Ukrainian bureaucratic system, the legacy of the Soviet Union is still evident. This must be changed, replaced with democratic and transparent mechanisms. Ukraine’s big problem is that since 1991 we have failed to achieve any kind of great progress in reforming the entire state-run, government-funded sector. This strongly hampers any forward movement for Ukraine. There have been shifts—especially after the Maidan there were many positive shifts. But actually it wasn’t the government that initiated them so much as the Ukrainian public and some foreign partners. They demanded changes at the time, but in society such demands must be constant in order for reforms to take place; only then will the bureaucrats understand that they are being constantly monitored.
This is the difference between the Canadian and the Ukrainian systems. In Canada, if you are caught even once in a corrupt action or something similar, you’re history, while in Ukraine you can still continue your work. It’s a problem caused by а fossilized, closed system, which needs to be changed by conducting very determined reforms in the courts, against corruption, and in all economic sectors. Ukraine is only beginning along this road.
Government corruption is a serious problem. If we look at the statistics, the levels of corruption are dropping, but in truth it is really extremely pervasive, found in the lowest and in the very highest echelons. We need to work more intensively to overcome it, which is very hard, because there is no accountability system. The problem with the lack of proper oversight agencies is critical. Meanwhile, in Canada this oversight—when everybody can see how the system is supposed to work—ensures that the system functions properly. The new Ukrainian system for Ukrainian government workers to declare their income corresponds quite closely to the Canadian practice, where all public servants must publish their income. However, in addition the government publishes the job-related expenses of Canadian public servants and thus we can see if they are spending public funds properly, if the expenses are justified. This transparency helps to monitor and track dishonest politicians—and therein lies the main difference, because in Ukraine these accountability mechanisms are very weak. For example, the recent undemocratic decision by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine—which ruled that a number of anti-corruption policies in Ukraine legislation were unconstitutional—was a huge step backward.
The responsibility for this rests not only with the government but also with Ukrainian society. The public must clearly identify and follow through on issues, otherwise nothing will happen. It is not enough for only one person to be responsible; the public must also take responsibility for their voting choices, who they elect, and how to enforce accountability. These things must go hand in hand.
Unfortunately, it often happens in Ukraine that people who are capable of identifying these issues are the ones who leave. According to a former minister of foreign affairs, every year nearly a million Ukrainians emigrate. In your opinion, does this statistic need to be changed, and if so how? How can Ukrainians be convinced to fight for Ukraine’s future?
Indeed it is an important problem, but it’s not confined to Ukraine alone. Both developed and developing countries have to deal with it. But especially with Ukraine, which has the EU right next door, with its employment possibilities and better social conditions.
In Canada, for example, all the brain drain goes to the USA. Canada is aware of this problem and constantly strives to adapt and create more attractive conditions—for physicians, for instance, many of whom оbtain their medical education at home and then migrate to the United States for their professional careers.
Above all, you have to give people prospects. If they can see prospects, see the development potential in their country, then certainly the desire to emigrate will abate. However, it’s not right to say that there should be no emigration at all, either; in fact, those who emigrate often become ambassadors for their countries abroad. Speaking generally, we need to give all these professionals constant opportunities for growth and to facilitate company growth by supporting entrepreneurs. Today if you have a startup in Ukraine, then you are guaranteed to encounter an unstable market and a lack of legal regulation in the business sector, which is definitely not good for business. So here again, as we discussed, the public must be active and have a clear vision of the future.
Interview taken by Ivanna Avilova, a Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program volunteer in 2021. CUPP is an internship program for Ukrainian university students at the Canadian House of Commons.
Translated by Ksenia Maryniak (CIUS/ASAUS)
Original text was published on 25 December 2020 at https://www.newpathway.ca/hromadskist-maye-chitko-formulyuvaty-i-kontrolyuvaty-zapyty/
Oleksandr Pankieiev is the Editor-in-Chief of the Forum for Ukrainian Studies, a project of the Contemporary Ukraine Studies Program under the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.