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Russia, Ukraine relationship going sour, say polls

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Oct. 2, 2008, 3:15 p.m. |
More Russians say they have a bad attitude about their neighbors The attitude of Russians and Ukrainians toward each other has deteriorated in recent months, according to parallel public opinion polls conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology and Moscow-based Levada-Center.

The significant attitude change is the outcome of Russia’s propaganda campaign against Ukraine, some say. The bigger fear is where all of this bad blood is leading.

“Russia spends millions on a propaganda of hate toward Ukraine among its citizens and Russia doesn’t do anything without having a plan,” said Taras Berezovets, director of Kyiv-based Polittech political consulting company. “This all has the clear aim to prepare society for more radical actions.”

It’s no surprise, say experts, considering the war of words that has broken out in recent months over many issues.

Moscow, for instance, is vehemently opposed to Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko’s attempts to have the nation join the NATO military alliance. The Russian government also objects to Ukraine’s attempts to have Stalin’s Great Famine of 1932-33 recognized as genocide against the Ukrainian people. And Russia’s five-day war in August with Georgia became a flashpoint after Yushchenko sided with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili over the Kremlin.

To add fuel to the fire, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is quoted as having made condescending remarks about the divisiveness of Ukrainian politics and the viability of its statehood.

The comments of the leaders are having an effect on the people they represent, especially in Russia’s case, where most of the major media outlets are subservient to the Kremlin.

“Public opinion is the same as state policy,” said Oleg Savelyev, the spokesman for Levada-Center.

The results of the Levada-Center poll held Sept. 12-15 show that only 2.5 percent of Russians have a “very good” attitude toward Ukraine, while another 34.8 percent called their attitude “good.” However, 36 percent have a “bad” attitude toward Ukraine and some 16.6 percent answered their attitude is “very bad.”

That is a sharp deterioration over Russians attitudes in April.

At that time, “very good” had 5.5 percent support, “good” won 49.2 percent, “bad” got only 27.3 percent and “very bad” registered in single digits at 6.2 percent.

Ukrainians’ attitudes to their northern neighbor also worsened, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology poll indicated, but not by as much.

Currently, some 42.8 percent say they regard Russia as “very good,” another 44.9 say their attitude is “good,” while 6.8 percent have a “bad” attitude to Russia and only 2.2 percent say “very bad.”

By comparison, in April, some 47.3 percent said their attitude to Russia was “very good,” 40.7 percent said “good” and only 4.5 percent had a “bad” and 2.3 percent “very bad” attitude to Russia.

Pollsters say the results show that a deliberate campaign by Russia is succeeding in turning its population against Ukraine.

“Mass media [in Russia] is the main reason. Alternative points of view are not presented to the public,” Savelyev said. “So the conclusion is that the attitude toward Ukraine is a result of state propaganda.”

Savelyev said that the change in Russian public opinion between April and September was caused by several developments related to the military conflict between Georgia and Russia, including renewed tensions over the stationing of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol until 2017.

But Russian anti-Ukrainian propaganda isn’t limited by slams on Ukrainian politics.

“Even pieces on tourism in Crimea on Russian TV channels are presented disparagingly,” Berezovets said.

Berezovets expects the propaganda to be accompanied by a more aggressive policy towards Ukraine, just as in Georgia. Before the Georgian-Russian military conflict, Russia started a domestic propaganda campaign against Georgia, Berezovets said.

Russia’s strategic aim is to spread influence over the separate territories of the former Soviet Union. By the war in Georgia, Russia gained influence over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, he said.

“Russia’s strategy in Ukraine is to bring some of Ukraine’s territories out of its jurisdiction”, Berezovets said.

Russia has informational influence in Ukraine and economic influence related to Ukraine’s energy problems. Russia’s aim in Ukraine is to cause Kyiv’s government to lose support and, simultaneously, to provoke a referendum in Crimea to separate from Ukraine, he said.

Another victim of Russia’s negative propaganda was Estonia, he said. The Estonian government’s decision to dismantle the monument to the Soviet unknown soldier in Tallinn in 2007 caused Russians to protest in Estonia.

Ukrainians, in turn, are reacting to this Kremlin propaganda with animosity of their own.

“Russia’s national idea…is a policy of expansion, while most of its attention is paid not to establishing [domestic] order, but to spreading influence,” said Iryna Bekeshkina, head of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, the Kyiv-based think tank.

Ukrainian attitudes, in turn, are influenced by statements from Russian officials such as "Crimea doesn’t belong to Ukraine." Ukrainians also have ongoing fears of Russian “gas blackmail” because of the nation’s dependence on energy supplies from the eastern neighbor. In 2006, a pricing dispute led to a temporary 2006 gas shutoff.

Overall, however, Ukrainian public opinion has not changed as dramatically as Russia’s.

“The attitude toward Russia is determined by Russia itself,” Berezovets said. “And if Ukrainian citizens will hereafter feel that Russia is unfriendly to Ukraine, the attitude toward Russia will become worse not only among people from western Ukraine, always skeptical about Russia, but even among those whose attitude is traditionally good or neutral.”
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