Statement to the OSCE Conference on Media Freedom in Volatile Environments Closing Plenary

Statement delivered at the OSCE Conference on Media Freedom in Volatile Environments Closing Plenary, June 20, 2017, Vienna, Austria.

My name is Nina Jankowicz and for the past ten months I have served as a Fulbright Clinton Public Policy Fellow in Ukraine, where I have been researching Russian disinformation.

In my research, when I describe the crisis that has erupted over the past several years, I prefer to use the term disinformation, rather than fake news, information war, propaganda, or any of the other terms we have heard over the past two days.

Why? Because disinformation does not just encompass fake news stories, doctored photographs, or coordinated social media campaigns. It is any activity that aims to sow doubt, distrust, and discontent.

With this in mind, let me say aloud something I hope many of us have been thinking: much of the commentary we have heard over the past two days is part of Russia’s robust and long-running disinformation campaign.

Participants have gathered here in Vienna in hope of a dialogue about issues that ought to be universally important to everyone here.

But representatives of Russian government, and so-called independent media and civil society have saturated discussion with eloquently prepared statements that question the very purpose of this conference.

There is no crisis of media freedom in Crimea, they tell us. Russia has not targeted journalists for their work exposing the Kremlin’s destructive behavior. And “fake news?” Our colleagues from Russia are not sure it exists, and think we need to define it more concretely before we talk about solving the problem.

Well, if there is no crisis of media — or any other — freedoms in Crimea, why then, does the Russian Federation block international organizations, including the very body that organized this conference, from mounting an international monitoring mission to the peninsula?

If journalists are not targeted, why do they keep disappearing?

And as for a definition of fake news, I can tell you from personal experience that I’ve read countless definitions of the problem over the course of my research. They all coalesce around one idea: Russia is behind much of the fake news campaigning we have witnessed over the past several years.

So perhaps the problem isn’t that we lack a definition, but that Russia finds the agreed-upon definition inconvenient.

I hope that, leaving here today, participants have not let this disinformation-saturated debate change their commitment to combating disinformation, both in their home countries and in the OSCE region at large.

The Wiczipedia Podcast

Wiczipedia Podcast

I’m happy to share The Wiczipedia Podcast, a deep dive into the issues of Eastern Europe meant to accompany the fun you’re already getting in the form of my weekly newsletter.

This podcast is dormant as other projects have taken priority, but you can find the back episodes here!

 

 

Episode 1: Trump, Eastern Europe, and Immigrants

This month I’m joined by journalists Ilya Lozovsky and Lili Bayer, and we’re discussing the impact of the Trump administration’s Muslim ban on us as American immigrants and the things about Trump that worry us as people who have studied post-communist autocracies.

Episode 2: What’s up with Poland? 

Nina is joined by journalist Christian Davies, who has been living in Poland during the past 18 months of political crisis that have embroiled the country. He explains what’s been going on and why it matters for the larger democratic order.

Read more about Poland in Christian’s long read for The Guardian, “The Conspiracy Theorists Who Have Taken Over Poland” – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/16/conspiracy-theorists-who-have-taken-over-poland

…and follow him on Twitter @crsdavies.

Episode 3: Much Ado About Disinformation



Nina is joined by Ivana Smolenova of the Prague Security Studies Institute and Margo Gontar of StopFake to discuss the topic of the day/hour/year: Russian disinformation and its affect on our societies.

From/About Ivana:
https://twitter.com/IvanaSmolenova

https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/03/25/russias-propaganda-war/#77d26f2a5bf4

http://www.pssi.cz/publications/39-the-pro-russian-disinformation-campaign-in-the-czech-republic-and-slovakia.htm

About Margo and StopFake:
https://twitter.com/margogontar

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/26/world/europe/ukraine-kiev-fake-news.html

Who cares about Sikorski’s Crude Analogies?

This weekend, recordings of Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s private conversations with former finance minister Jacek Rostowski surfaced in Wprost, a Polish weekly. The big bomb for Sikorski, who has been heralded as one of the brokers of what little stability exists in Ukraine, was that he questioned the Polish-American alliance, comparing Polish kowtowing to the US’s every whim to oral sex.

Yikes.

Enter an explosion of racy clickbait on Twitter and a couple of fierce arguments about the journalistic integrity of publishing such recordings and whether politicians should be judged for their private statements, all of which is very interesting, but besides the point. Because Sikorski is right.

Poland has done the United States a whole bunch of favors, and I don’t mean that it threw President Obama a nice party when he visited Warsaw at the beginning of the month. I mean grandiose gestures. Usually ones that involve people, money, planes, and weapons.

In an attempt to comply with NATO regulations Poland spends a higher percentage of its GDP on its military than many of its much richer neighbors–ironically, many of whom are considered more staunch allies to the United States than Poland itself. (Germany, we’re looking at you.) And it is one of the few countries in Europe increasing its defense expenditures. 

Poland was also one of the first countries to commit troops to the Iraq War. Politics aside, you have to appreciate this gesture. Poland cared enough about relations with the United States to send its army into harm’s way in a war based on spurious reasoning.  And they did a damn good job of it. Of the four zones of control in the country post-invasion, two were under US control, one British, and one Polish.

Oh, and there was also that secret CIA prison in Poland where the US hid purported terrorists from the prying eyes of, well, everyone. Poland is facing a case at the European Court of Human Rights for that particular love letter to its American brothers.

What has Poland gotten in return for its commitment to the Atlantic alliance and the United States? Very little. The ballistic missile shield that was planned (and cancelled, and reinstated) since the Bush administration might eventually come to fruition, particularly if Russia continues raising its hackles. Poles can’t easily work in or visit the US, since it is still waiting for admission to the visa waiver program (it’s the only member of the Schengen Zone without visa free entry to the US).

Given this background, it’s understandable why Sikorski might have expressed his frustration with the US when he saw the writing on the wall and we refused to take decisive action against Russia prior to the annexation of Crimea. His words aren’t the shocking part. How they came to light–almost certainly thanks to a certain neighbor hellbent on keeping Sikorski from succeeding Catherine Ashton as EU foreign policy chief–is another story.

Guide for Journalists Covering the Sochi Olympics

Since The Washington Post ran a slideshow of “shocking” photos of Olympic unpreparedness in Sochi early this week, I’ve been increasingly grumpy. Western reporters landed in Russia’s little slice of paradise on the Black Sea and immediately began complaining about everything around them. Some of their anecdotes and observations were funny- I couldn’t help but smile at poor translations on menus around town, which I myself enjoyed while cavorting around Russia- but others just seemed like they were coming from inexperienced travelers with little knowledge of Russia. …That, or whiny teenagers.

And then the tweets and reports kept coming. Facebook friends who likely cannot find the Black Sea on a map were suddenly experts on Sochi’s construction mismanagement. Others sent me their extremely original discoveries as if to say, “Finally, I have something to talk to you about! Also, you studied this craphole?! Joke’s on  you!”

I, along with many other Russophiles, have reached my breaking point.

In order to help journalists enjoy the rest of their time in Sochi and enjoy successful interactions with other non-Western countries and cultures in the future, I have created a handy guide based on the most common complaints I read from journalists:

  1. Can’t use the tap water in your hotel room? WELCOME TO MOST COUNTRIES THAT ARE NOT THE UNITED STATES. A lot of the pipes in Russia are pretty old and may have been in dubious shape even when installed during the Soviet era. You should not drink this water or put it near your face. Showering should be fine. On the bright side, you can practice your Russian at the kiosk down the street where you buy your bottled h2o. Protip: grocery stores have 5 gallon jugs. (I realized while I was typing you probably didn’t even try to pick up some basic Russian phrases. Sigh…)
  2. Is there a sign asking you to throw your toilet paper in the trash can, and not in the toilet? Again, pretty normal. See above re: pipes. They can’t handle the massive wads of Charmin Ultrasoft you like to use, let alone how much rough Russian toilet paper you’ll take to compensate. You should really just be thankful that you have “Western-style” toilets, because – gasp! – squat toilets exist in countries outside of the United States, including Russia.
  3. Awwww, your hotel bed’s a single bed? Are you feeling a little claustrophobic, or was your plan to bring a Russian hottie back to your room for some alone time suddenly foiled by reality? Every European hotel I’ve stayed in (except one) has had tiny, single beds. The construction of your hotel probably evicted a bunch of Sochi residents from their lifelong homes, so at least you have a roof over your head.
  4. If you are going to bash Russia, please do it for things it deserves. Maybe because you are against Russia’s treatment of gays, or because you worry about Sochi’s environmental implications. Don’t make fun of an entire country because you have no travel sense or moral standards.
  5. I’m sorry that you can’t easily dry your hair, take a hot shower, connect to the Internet, or use an elevator to get to your room. Consider for a second that perhaps the correct response is not “RUSHA SUCKZ!” but “Hmmm, seems like the IOC made an oops!”
  6. Most importantly, you are at the Olympics, an event that attempts to promote peace and cultural understanding through sport. Try to embody that sentiment, rather than supporting the reputation of “Ugly Americanism.”

I, for one, will treasure my memories of Sochi from my trip there, and I’m totally amped to watch the Opening Ceremonies tonight.

Is the Russian Trade War Ukraine’s Golden Ticket to the EU?

A Creme-Brulee Roshen bar, via flickr user schoko-riegel.

If Russia places an embargo on your country’s most popular edible exports, chances are the Kremlin is none too pleased with you. Moscow’s most recent political collateral is Ukrainian chocolate, banned from the Russian market July 29. This week, Russia stopped importing Ukrainian goods almost entirely.

After claiming to find traces of the carcinogen benzopyrene in the Ukrainian sweets, Russia’s consumer standards agency, Rospotrebnadzor, stopped import of chocolates from Ukraine’s infamous Roshen company, which garners about $40 million in profit from the Russian market per year. The confectioner’s other top markets–Moldova, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus–continued to import the chocolate, however, as they found no evidence of carcinogens.

In the past, Russia’s political disagreements have sparked embargoes on Polish meat (Russian babushki could only dream of Polish kielbasa from 2005-2007), Belarusian dairy, and Georgian wine (happily returning to the Russian market this year).

Ukraine, however, was not lucky enough to escape with only one affected market. Yesterday, Moscow launched what many are describing as a full-on trade war against Kyiv. All Ukrainian goods have been labelled potentially dangerous, and are subject to lengthy inspections before crossing the border into the territory of the Eurasian Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

As Ukraine’s economy is heavily reliant on exports, 23.7% of which go to Russia, this is a serious issue for Kyiv, but not entirely unexpected; Moscow’s seemingly drastic actions are intended to pressure Ukraine into shunning the EU’s offers of Free Trade and Association Agreements in favor of beefing up its ties with Russia and joining the Eurasian Customs Union.

It’s a poorly thought out move on Russia’s part. Though the cessation of Russian exports could be devastating to Ukraine’s economy, Russia’s bullying might finally inspire the EU to decisive action; Ukraine has had a less than stellar reform record and has done little to curry favor with Brussels, so hopes for an association agreement at the Eastern Partnership’s Vilnius Summit this fall were murky at best.

But Russia’s pressure on the Ukrainian economy–not to mention the obvious motivation behind it–has a chance of awakening the EU’s hero gene, which has played a decisive role in the dissipation of regional conflicts in Georgia, Belarus, and Ukraine itself in the past ten years. The Russian government’s short-term memory is shockingly bad; its economic strong-arming was one of the major causes of the Orange Revolution. This time around, the EU has the bureaucratic structure (the EaP) and a few well-respected pro-Ukraine cheerleaders (Poland, Sweden) that will look past Ukraine’s failings and use an Association Agreement as a shield against an increasingly aggressive Russia.

It seems that among its “carcinogenic” chocolate, Ukraine has found its golden ticket to the West.

Missile Defense in Poland a Sticking Point for Relations with Russia and U.S.

This post is part of my series on Polish-Russian relations. Read the introduction here.

In my last post, I discussed how “Georgia shock” in the wake of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War led Poland to finally establish the Eastern Partnership Program by capitalizing on Europe’s sudden realization that Russia maybe, just maybe, could one day pose a threat to the continent.

Feeling threatened by Russia was nothing new for Poland; even after it brought down the communist system in 1989, defending itself against its eastern neighbor was high on its priority list, and rightly so. If you lived in a country that had been partitioned, attacked, and occupied by a neighboring state all in the span of two hundred years, you’d probably feel threatened too. Poland responded to Russia’s aggressive tendencies through a more active use of Western security apparatuses, a decision which has solidified Poland’s position as a major central European power and continually aggravates Polish-Russian relations.

Since 2002, American plans to establish a NATO Missile Defense system in northern Poland have been on the books in some form or another. The Bush Administration announced its deal to place missile interceptors in Poland (in exchange for some fighter jets and America’s thanks) in 2002. Obama quickly rolled back the Bush plan–which had solicited the criticism of most Western European capitals and the ire of Moscow–in 2009, during the age of the short-lived US-Russia Reset. (Unfortunately for his administration, the move was announced on the anniversary of the Soviet WWII invasion of Poland. Oops.) Instead, Obama favored a “phased adaptive approach,” which would deploy interceptors to Poland much later. In March, this plan was further delayed, but Russia continues to demand that the NATO shield in Poland will never be used against it. Unsurprisingly, NATO has refused to give this assurance.

Poland has–understandably–been a little peeved with the US for not delivering on a decade’s worth of promises. As Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council writes, the American track record has caused Poland to think that, for the US, “security relations with Central Europe [are]…a trade-off in the effort to build a partnership with Russia.”

The United States is not only making light of the important Polish-American relationship (Poland was a longtime supporter of American efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan), but missing the important role it could play in either reconciling Poland and Russia (at least in terms of missile defense) or asserting American defense dominance over Putin’s playground.

Rather than attempting to placate Russia by changing plans for the shield and subsequently offending Poland (again), the United States–and NATO–need to make a choice. NATO may have been born in an answer to Cold War-era defense, but the organization has long been searching for its post-Cold War identity. Perhaps this new identity should include regionally-based cooperation on issues like missile defense. It’s a wild and slightly naive notion, particularly since the US and Russia have such a hard time cooperating on less contentious issues (civil society, for instance). The US has floated the idea before, and was met with much feather ruffling in both Warsaw and Moscow. Unfortunately, we haven’t pushed the envelope since then.

If we aren’t willing to take the high road, at the very least we should be willing to publicly admit that a missile defense system in Poland might one day be used in defense of our allies against not just Iran, not just Russia, but any potential aggressor.

Obama Shouldn’t Cancel Meeting with Russia over Snowden

The pressure is on for Obama to cancel an upcoming meeting with Vladimir Putin over Russia’s granting of asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. In Congress, representatives of both parties including Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ) are calling for the White House to pull out of the meeting, at the very least, while others call for more serious repercussions.

Were Obama to concede and cancel the meeting–which he seems to be seriously considering–the move would be nothing short of diplomatic child’s play. Russia, like a bully on the playground, has stolen something we want while we had our backs turned. It won’t share! So now we’re giving it the silent treatment. Ouch.

But the diplomatic silent treatment won’t work here. One of Russia’s foreign policy priorities is to bolster its image as a major world player; Putin doesn’t really care if the US shows up for a meeting at which, most likely, no compromises would have been made and nothing would have gotten accomplished.

And what does it say about the United States that this is the issue we move to “extremes” over? We could have reacted as sharply when Russia unceremoniously booted our USAID mission from the country last fall. Or over concerns about the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics. Or–perhaps most importantly for the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and supposed gay rights “champion”–as disturbing trends emerge in the wake of Russia’s anti-gay law.

Instead, we’re most concerned about the fate of a twentysomething who caused us some embarrassment on the international stage. Whose image image needs bolstering now?