Bringing Lessons from Kosovo to Ukraine’s Donbas

July 27, 2017
Attending a media forum in Eastern Ukraine, BIRN Kosovo’s Jeta Xharra and her partner, Alex Anderson, found reporters wrestling with the same dilemmas the media had faced in their own war-torn country.
BIRN Kosovo director Jeta Xhara [second from left] and Alex Anderson, researcher and a member of OSCE/ODIHR observation missions in Russia, Central Asia, Turkey [right] at Donbas Media Forum. Photo: Alex Anderson

On stage in the Green Hay sanatorium, the first speaker on the first morning of the Donbas Media Forum, June 28, was hitting all the wrong notes.

More than 200 Ukrainian journalists plying their trade in the districts abutting the war zone had assembled in the leafy resort of Svyatogorsk, a hundred kilometres from the front line, to discuss conflict-sensitive reporting and maintaining journalistic standards.

Watching aghast was Oleksiy Matsuka, a Ukrainian journalist who runs the Donetsk Institute of Information.

This was the third year that he – a young presence at the centre of a web of online media platforms striving to report Ukraine’s conflict in an open-minded way – had organised the Forum – an annual inoculation for journalists against the countervailing pressure of “hurrah patriotism”.

But the opening speaker, head of a Kiev-based NGO, clearly had not read the memo.

Her Powerpoint slides were an account of an information war that she feared Kiev was losing with its breakaway Russian-backed territories and with backsliding media within Ukraine proper.

She called for redoubled efforts to match Russian propaganda, even floating the idea of bombing the TV towers in the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.

She divided the hall. Half of them applauded. But objections from the auditorium showed that Matsuka has nurtured a significant constituency.

A displaced Luhansk journalist, Andrey Dikhtaryenko, asked why was it necessary to be so closed to shades of opinion and to balance?

BIRN’s Jeta Xharra – like me an invited foreign guest supported by the Swiss government – agreed.

She insisted that churning out propaganda was futile and that only genuine, penetrating journalism would win Ukraine respect. Others asked if the speaker had considered the risk to civilians of her bombing proposal. Her breezy response, that this could be sorted out at a “technical” level, nonplussed them.

The event righted itself as it moved to panel discussions and masterclasses on topics ranging through crowdfunding and new digital technology to fact-checking in Ukrainian regions and psychological self-rehabilitation for journalists.

Jeta Xharra and I took the stage on day two, bringing a blend of conflict-reporting experience from the Balkans and other examples plucked from around the former Soviet Union and the world.

Jeta’s pitch was full of practical tips culled from a career that started in the war in Kosovo in the late-1990s.

“Keep very good notes, they may be needed in a war crimes court in a decade’s time,” she warned the audience in a talk that progressed to combating the corruption of former field commanders ensconced in post-war governments.

My advice was for journalists to distil some of the reporting methods and approaches used by international NGOs that I have worked for, like Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group.

Our audience, nearly 60 strong, applauded upon our conclusion, after some lively cross-questioning. Professor Oleksiy Haran asked: “How can any reporting make a difference in the face of military encroachment from Russia, a nuclear power? How can local reporters possibly access the parties to the conflict – namely Moscow and Kiev?”

I suggested that he lay aside reductionist logic and remember that a war has many fronts and far more stakeholders than the two cited capitals.

Notwithstanding Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, the conflict began with contrasting dynamics and constellations of actors in different areas of Donbas [I had a ground zero view of events in spring 2014], while some of the areas since reconquered by the Ukrainian army remain resentful at being cut off from Russia.   

We had surprisingly little blowback to our sometimes caustic lecturing. Subsequent online articles and social media comments focused on Jeta’s passionate style.

However, amid plentiful “likes”, a screenshot of a chart I presented, contrasting archetypal “pro-peace” and “pro-war” journalism approaches drew an “angry” emoji and the comment: “Orientation towards peace in today’s Ukrainian information sphere instantly gets judged as treachery.”

Bulletholes decorations, Slavyansk sign. Photo: Alex Anderson

While journeying from Kiev to the Forum, a six-hour eastward ride on the fast line to Donetsk built for the 2012 European football championship, Olesya Tsybulko, an official of the newly minted Ministry for the Temporarily Occupied Territories, explained to me that Ukrainian journalists from the Donetsk region are split into two camps, with the hard-line side seeking a complete cut-off of all exchange with the separatist Russian-backed “republics”.

A Facebook user in that camp, going by the moniker Adolf Donetskiy, mauls Matsuka’s “prostitute” News of Donbas website for its refusal to dehumanise the enemy.

Donetskiy argues that this inhibits Ukrainian military effectiveness. “Let’s leave morals aside. There’s a war on,” he said. Ukraine must, for its survival, use the same methods as the enemy.

Putting it more mildly, an audience member at the Forum asked: “Do you want to win the war, or die as democrats?”

In an article reviewing the Forum, the chairman of the Donetsk region journalists’ union demanded to know why the Forum organisers failed either to open the event with the Ukrainian national anthem or mark Ukraine’s Constitution Day.

Tsybulko, from the ministry, is from Donetsk. But the train no longer reaches the city itself, now the capital of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk Peoples Republic”, DNR.

It stops at Konstantinovka, 80km north of Donetsk. Her Ministry for the Temporarily Occupied Territories has argued for a strategy of economic reintegration with the territories wrested out of Kiev’s control. In a challenging policy environment, it even managed to get its Action Plan of measures adopted by the government in January.

But by spring,the ministry’s strategy was undermined as bigger hitters in the government caved in to war veterans blocking railway lines to the uncontrolled territories.

The blockade was initiated by Semyon Semenchenko, former commander of the “Donbas” volunteer battalion – the most prominent of many such units pulled together in 2014 to supplement the hollowed-out Ukrainian army.

Prior to joining the new ministry, Tsybulko had helped him set up the battalion, an experience that left her with deep misgivings as to his motives, loyalties and connections.

In Kiev, Rodion Shovkoshytnyi, a hardcore former volunteer in the east, commented to us: “The blockade was ostensibly to pressure for return of prisoners, but they forgot that on Day 2. The whole thing was oligarch-ordered.”

On 15 March, the government rubberstamped the protest by imposing a complete trade blockade. The perhaps predictable negative result was that the separatist authorities took over a host of industrial enterprises that had hitherto continued to pay taxes to Kiev.

The Forum was held last year in the southern Donbas port city of Mariupol, retaken from separatist forces in 2014 and still within rocket range of the front line.

This year, Svyatogorsk was a late choice. A placid-looking town with river beaches, overlooked by a medieval monastery, it became in Soviet times a holiday destination for coal miners. Many of its sanatoria are still packed with people who fled the fighting in 2014.

Matsuka’s original intended venue was Kramatorsk, an industrial town that was one of the centres of the pro-Russian insurgency, but now a regional capital in lieu of the lost Donetsk since the separatist forces abandoned it.

It has just two hotels, always near full occupation, and could not accommodate an influx of over 200 journalists.  This is where we got off the train from Kiev.

The town was a ready-made test case for the forensic elicitation of the contrasting standpoints I advocate as a model for reporters.

It is a mine of alternative facts. A local taxi driver tells us that since Kramatorsk’s heavy machine-building factories work mainly for the Russian market, “It was easy to start the war here as 99 per cent of people supported it. Nobody here agreed with West Ukrainian ideas about Russia as the enemy. Loads of guys joined the DNR army.”

Yet, back in Kiev, Rodion Shovkoshytnyi, a figure in the Maidan-inspired volunteer movement who has done intensive stints in the East, insists that Kramatorsk is now a bastion of pro-Ukraine sentiment, thanks to the influence exerted by an influx of soldiers, volunteers and cultural actors from the rest of Ukraine.

He shows video footage of a concert played close to the front line, with a band belting out patriotic Ukrainian songs.

He cites pre-war opinion polls that showed a majority in the Donbas favouring Ukraine over Russia, but says much of the support for Russia linked to violence. “It gave the false impression of a majority,” he said.

Slavyansk gnomes. Photo: Alex Anderson

But, sitting in the café of Kramatorsk’s main hotel, the young taxi driver saw it all very differently. “What I liked about the separatists was that they booted out the drug dealers and petty thieves. All that trash has come back with the Ukrainian army,” he said.

“At checkpoints, the separatists put their guns away when I asked them, so as not to scare my daughter. The Ukrainian soldiers are the opposite, they give aggro and brandish them even more. People here don’t like Ukrainian soldiers.” 

His point was illustrated by the surprise appearance of friends who fled to Russia but were briefly back in town. Worried by the Ukrainian military uniforms milling around the cafe, they called him away for a catch-up.

Since 2014, Kramatorsk has undergone a partial exchange of population.

The taxi driver said thousands left for Russia when the Ukrainian army moved in, but that this loss had been more than compensated for by the influx of a broadly pro-Ukrainian contingent who had left separatist-controlled Donetsk, plus administrators and soldiers.

He estimates that the pre-war population of 175,000 has risen to 200,000. There is huge pressure on accommodation. Many now in Russia have rented out their apartments to newcomers – but that process is now complicated by Ukraine’s recent ban on money transfer mechanisms with Russia, one of an array of bans that slice through the town’s hitherto intricate links with Ukraine’s eastern neighbour.

The new Ukrainian bans on Russian social media and web-hosting services have shredded social connections. The taxi driver fulminated at the “stupidity” of banning the Yandex traffic jam notification app and resents that all schools in this mostly Russian-speaking area now teach exclusively in Ukrainian.

He will admit to some benefits of restored Ukrainian rule. “Few shops worked here in separatist times. There were problems with electricity, supplies, and no customers,” he said.

Falling into the internationally unrecognised limbo of the Donetsk People’s Republic would be the worst of all worlds. “I wanted this place to become Russia,” he said. But no such offer was made.

Where Rodion and the taxi driver do agree is that in Donbas it is safer to keep your mouth shut. The taxi driver feared loose talk might get him arrested by the SBU, Ukraine’s security service. Rodion, immersed in exposing smuggling rings, worries that people “have nowhere to report to. Police do not solve cases. They take money to close them. … It’s a big corrupt system.”

We explained BIRN Kosovo’s citizen corruption reporting social media platform and app, called “Kallxo”, which means “Tell” in Albanian.

It has become a more trusted avenue for reporting graft than the country’s official Anti-Corruption Agency. “That is what is needed, a trusted buffer between the citizen and the organs,” Rodion affirmed.

We drove north from Kramatorsk toward Svyatogorsk, passing through Slavyansk. In the early summer of 2014, this town was the heart of the Russian-tinged insurgency, serving as headquarters to the DNR’s military chief, General Strelkov, long since fled to Moscow.

Buildings on Slavyansk’s southern outskirts were devastated in the fighting that year. Many have not been repaired. Among them, we came across an incongruous display of garden gnomes and other colourful gnome-sized ceramic figures for sale – peasants, dogs, cats, geese and other animals, lined up in the yard before what had been a shop, its front windows blasted out. The gnomes have weathered the war, and the saleslady tells us business has picked up.

Following the Forum, Matsuka’s Donbas Public TV put out a report on Slavyansk’s struggling ceramic industry, which “used to feed half the town”, but has now lost its main market – Russia.

Authorities claim to be cracking down with inspections on proprietors who have re-opened their workshops in the same style as “kopanki”, the illegal coal mines that dot the Donbas landscape, mining minor or semi-worked out seams in defiance of labour and health and safety regulations.

On Facebook, Matsuka suggests that even illegal jobs are better than nothing for the blighted town and invites the authorities to organise social dialogue about it. Another user claims that the off-books workers are “essentially on death row. The pollution level in the workshops is just crazy: asbestos, lungs, cancer and no insurance or healthcare whatsoever.”

At the centre of the conundrum, the gnomes keep their own counsel. Their fixed smiles signal flatly that it is good to be back. Donbas-schooled gnomes: behind the façade, they give nothing away.