NGO Launches Pro-NATO Information Campaign

KIEV, Ukraine -- Responding to what it says has been a failure on the part of the government to provide comprehensive information about NATO, a Western-funded Ukrainian NGO has launched an educational campaign to enlighten public opinion and put the country firmly on track toward Alliance membership.

The initiative comes as Ukraine finds itself divided over its NATO membership prospects, with pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko pushing the country toward the Alliance, and pro-Russian Premier Viktor Yanukovych pulling it back.

The Democratic Initiatives Fund (DIF) announced on Sept. 29 the launch of its ‘Ukraine Must be in NATO’ campaign, a six-month project that the Kyiv-based NGO said would provide the Ukrainian public with objective information about the Alliance through the dissemination of “yasnyks,” or news and educational materials.

DIF said that the aim of the campaign is to explain why Ukraine needs to become part of NATO, describing both the advantages and disadvantages of NATO membership for the country.

The Fund’s first “yasnyk,” dated Sept. 29, included a list of 21 pros and six cons regarding Ukraine’s integration into NATO.

Information launch

According to Oleksandr Paliy, DIF’s foreign program coordinator, Ukrainians know very little about the military bloc, which during Soviet times they had seen as a looming threat.

Paliy said the Fund felt compelled to embark on the public education campaign as a result of the “annoying inactivity of state representatives who support the idea of joining NATO, as opposed to their rival enemies, who are working much more effectively to discredit the idea.”

According to polls conducted by the Fund over the last couple of years, very few Ukrainians have a grasp of the extent of NATO’s military activities in the recent past, let alone being favorably disposed to their country’s membership of the Alliance.

A poll carried out by DIF in spring 2006 showed 64.4 percent of respondents as saying they opposed Ukraine joining NATO, compared with 50.4 polled a year earlier, and 30 percent in 2004. The margin of error was 2.2 percent.

Paliy said that the marked increase in opposition to NATO within Ukraine over the last two years can be explained by the use of the NATO issue in the country’s domestic political battles, and the absence of independent news resources on NATO in a political environment where NATO’s opponents wield greater resources to disseminate anti-Alliance information.

Another poll conducted in mid-September by the Sofia Center of Social Research, which included 2,010 respondents throughout Ukraine, showed that 60.2 percent of those polled were opposed to Ukraine joining NATO, compared with 21.5 percent who favored such a move.

In the same poll, 73.4 percent of respondents said that the issue of Ukraine’s membership of NATO should be raised as part of a nationwide referendum. The margin of error in the Sofia Center poll was 2.2 percent.

Like the DIF, the Sofia Center is also Kyiv-based but lists no telephone number or funding information on its website.

The Yushchenko administration has been reluctant to hold a referendum on joining NATO any time soon, as the Ukrainian public is still largely unaware of the issues and more than likely to shoot the initiative down.

Paliy said that Russian media organizations, with their largely anti-NATO views, have had a strong influence on public opinion in Ukraine.

According to Paliy, providing the public with objective information regarding NATO, including historical facts about the Alliance, and information on the social and economic changes that NATO members have undergone since joining the organization, “would be helpful in the country’s integration process.”

“Every week, for a period of six months, yasnyks will be sent to 40,000 emails of journalists, experts and prominent public figures, who can influence public opinion,” Paliy said, adding that DIF’s limited budget does not make it possible for the Fund to reach a broader audience.

DIF’s programs are largely funded by grants from the Renaissance Fund of U.S. philanthropist George Soros, the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy and the embassies of various Western countries, such as the Netherlands, Demark and Canada and the U.S.

Unlike its exit polls, which receive targeted Western funding, DIF said it received no specific sponsorship for the “yasnyks.”

Some other Ukrainian pollsters are less transparent than DIF about their sources of funding, leaving the objectivity of their results in question. This was also the case during the 2004 presidential elections, when a variety of polling agencies published widely conflicting results, most in support of then presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych’s fraud-filled presidential bid. The ensuing Orange Revolution swept Viktor Yushchenko into power , who promised the nation that it would join Europe.

But “the Orange authorities have been absolutely incapable of coping with the task” of educating the public about NATO, Paliy said.

“Today’s [Yanukovych’s pro-Russian] government will try to put even more obstacles in the way of [Ukraine’s NATO] integration,” he added.

“Officials at the Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry [who are responsible for NATO publicity] were busy with technical reforms and never had time to get to Ukraine’s national interests,” according to Paliy.

Paliy said that the only outlets left for information regarding NATO in Ukraine were the more liberal media, which appeared after the Orange Revolution, and “people who think in Ukrainian terms and the country’s interests.”

NATO about-face

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych dashed hopes of joining NATO on Sept. 14 when he told NATO officials in Brussels that he was halting planned moves by Ukraine toward the Alliance, citing widespread public disapproval at home.

“I cannot hold to a state policy that is far from popular opinion,” Yanukovych explained several days later in remarks broadcast on television.

Yanukovych’s words angered President Viktor Yushchenko, who has made NATO membership a priority of his state policy. The Brussels statements also upset other top officials in Yanukovych’s cabinet, including Yushchenko-appointed Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko and Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, who said that Yanukovych’s stance was at odds with Ukraine’s national interests.

According to the Constitution of Ukraine, President Yushchenko can exercise prerogatives in national defense and foreign policy, including the appointment and dismissal of the country’s defense and foreign ministers. But questions such as NATO membership require wider approval.

Yanukovych has said the issue of NATO membership would have to be submitted to a referendum.

Meanwhile, just days after the premier’s watershed announcement in Brussels Sept. 14, the Ukrainian parliament, dominated by Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Regions party, adopted a non-binding resolution Sept. 19 supporting his move to hold off on Ukraine’s NATO membership.

Over the last few months, anti-NATO groups have held protests against joining the Alliance and signed petitions urging an end to official ties with it.

Cooperation between Ukraine and NATO began in 1994 with Ukraine’s participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace project, which involved Ukrainian land and sea forces taking part in joint military exercises with NATO forces and contributing to the Alliance’s peacekeeping activities.

In 2002, President Leonid Kuchma signed the Ukraine-NATO Action Plan, which provided for the broadening of cooperation between the parties through 2005, and involved targeting improvements in Ukraine’s democratic, social, economic, military and defense standards, bringing them closer to those of NATO member countries.

Yanukovych’s predecessor, Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, who headed Yushchenko’s second pro-Western government, had indicated Ukraine would not enter NATO as long as public opposition continued. However, Yekhanurov’s government had still hoped NATO would offer Ukraine a membership action plan at the NATO summit scheduled for November in Riga, which would pave the way for the country’s eventual membership, possibly as early as 2008.

Mykhaylo Pogrebinskiy, the director of the Kyiv-based Center for Political and Conflict Studies, said that there was no better way to debate the NATO issue fairly and transparently than through television.

“The only way to deliver information is to arrange objective television programs, where experts would have equal opportunities to debate,” Pogrebinsky said.

“Experts, not politicians, should talk about NATO,” he added.

He said that at present the Ukrainian media do not provide sufficient coverage of the issue to make a fair debate about NATO, adding that campaigns regarding the Alliance could be useful for the public, depending on who was providing the information.

“Democratic Initiatives is too biased [in favor of NATO] to conduct a fair public debate about the necessity to enter this union, which is still more military than political,” he said.

According to Pogrebinskiy, the Fund will fail to inform the public that “entering NATO implies Ukraine’s support of U.S. global policy.”

“If Ukrainians understand that, they will decide whether Ukraine should enter NATO based on their attitude toward the USA,” he said.

Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, said the responsibility for running an information campaign supporting the president’s intentions to enter NATO should be placed on the entire government, and not just the defense and foreign ministries.

“The Economy Ministry should possibly talk about the influx of foreign investment. The justice minister should talk about guarantees of improvements in the legal sphere,” Lysenko said.

According to Lysenko, the Defense Ministry has a limited budget for NATO-related communications.

“In 2006, the ministry’s television production studio won a tender to shoot a film about NATO, but the film will be more oriented toward military people [as opposed to the public],” he said.

“The government’s communication powers are always weaker than those of certain interest groups, who can afford to arrange meetings and protests to deliver their messages,” Lysenko said.

He added that because the Defense Ministry has no additional money to launch an independent NATO information campaign, all such public initiatives should be widely supported.

Source: Kyiv Post