Lessons from Ukraine Five Years After the Revolution
Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk, the head of the independent media network Hromadske TV, co-founded by a journalist - Mustafa Nayyem - that launched the EuroMaidan revolution with a Facebook post, looks back on lessons from Ukraine for the West. The discussion includes important insights for understanding international conflicts generally, like Ukraine and Venezuela, by focusing on the people caught in the middle and resisting seeing the world as a geopolitical chessboard. Gumenyuk shares how, while covering the 2016 election in the U.S., she knew Trump would win. And she provides advice for Americans and journalists living in a political climate similar to Ukraine's given the Putin-puppet in power, enrichning himself and his family.
Andrea Chalupa: Welcome this very special episode of Gaslit Nation. We're looking back on the revolution in Ukraine. February marks the five-year anniversary of the revolution in Ukraine, which—and Yanukovich, the former president, being driven out of town and to Russia by a popular uprising.
Andrea Chalupa: And of course it marks, March then marks the five-year anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea. So, to give us an update on all things Ukraine, especially as the country heads towards a presidential election, I am joined today with—I'm very excited—by a leading journalist in Ukraine, Nataliya Gumenyuk, who is the head of the Hromadske NGO, which oversees a popular independent online television network founded by a group of journalists including Mustafa Nam, who is credited with launching the revolution in Ukraine through a Facebook post and Nataliya is fearless, like all of her colleagues there in Kyev. And we're very honored to talk to her today and feature her insights here in Gaslit Nation. Welcome to the show, Nataliya.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Good evening. And really great thanks for the opportunity to share the story. There is a lot happening here in Ukraine.
Andrea Chalupa: Yes. Okay, so, my gosh. So give us an overview: how is the upcoming presidential election looking?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Wow, that's really, really exciting, first of all. There is a huge discussion. There is a battle. There are a lot of candidates, which means Ukraine is a democracy. However, it also shows that Ukraine is living what the whole world is living.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: There is a little trust to the politicians, so we have a lot of people running. The current president has something just about 10 percent of the support so far. We have a lot of all people who are also running, like for instance the famous Yulia Tymoshenko, who is a former prime minister, finally is seeking an opportunity to become the Ukrainian president.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: But as well a lot of new, totally new people coming, and we have numbers of the polling companies which [are] constantly like counting whom people are supporting. So for instance, in Ukraine we have one of our top comedian actors who really has chances to become the president. We have some anti-corruption activists who are running. We have all kind of the people running, but it's the whole modern world, and the elections, everything you can imagine about modern elections, it's happening also in Ukraine. We are obviously a bit concerned because still Ukraine is in the actual conflict with Russia. There is a war going on, and yes it's kind of frozen. We can discuss that. However, again now it's just two months prior to the presidential elections, and nobody knows the result.
Andrea Chalupa: Well, don't trust polls anyway, because we had that experience in 2016. So tell us about how, just for our Western audience, Yulia Tymoshenko. She's famous in the West for being the Ukrainian politician who'd wear the braid crown in her hair, copying a traditional Ukrainian look. And she also was imprisoned by Yanukovych, and Paul Manafort, one of his closest political operatives, did a whole lobbying campaign in the West to try to essentially discredit her, to justify her imprisonment. And despite that high profile that she has in the West for these reasons, she's not necessarily a trusted candidate by any means in Ukraine today. Could you kind of go into why that is, and sort of what her standing is like in Ukrainian politics now?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: So, she's still one of the most popular politicians. But what's also the, why I think that . . . Ukraine can be interesting for the whole world, is still it's more or less the same. We have a huge populism movement.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: We have all kind of populist being there because they obviously appealing to the people. So Yulia Tymoshenko is clearly something which Western media would name a pro-Western candidate.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: You know she always speak that Ukraine should be a part of NATO, Ukraine should be a part of the EU. She obviously was in jail by the previous president, pro-Russian President Yanukovych.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: However, she really plays to the very basic economic troubles of many people, providing a lot of very clearly populist takes, you know promises, how that like you know like that the gas prices would be way smaller than they should be. Promising huge amount of the things which are just not possible to do that.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Also, if you speak about the Western Ukrainian partners, business Ukrainian partners, her policy is more about this, like, State which would deliver to the people, which is extremely appealing to many, many Ukrainians who really are not very rich. And, you know, when a lot of other people in their cabinets are speaking about reforms, about some kind of IMF deals or sophisticated issues, even like the things like the war, Tymoshenko really speaks to what people care. You know, like, she speaks about the basic pocket economy things. At the same time, she is super professional politician. So she has her team, and what I think would might be a bit interesting that now of course since she is leading in the polls for the last half a year, maybe even bit more, I think like a year ago, people would never even dare to think that she would be leading, because there was a moment when she saw that, like, "I won't fight for this, you know, city millennials who are living in the capital or bigger towns. I won't probably, like, try to reach out to these reformers, or people who kind of try to understand what we should do. I better even don't go to Facebook and other media.".
Nataliya Gumenyuk: She is now everywhere, more or less. She would appeal to the people in the villages; she would appeal to the people in smaller towns, and if you are a Kyev resident, a resident of the city. So for a couple of years, you should believe that Tymoshenko isn't maybe existing, and then you look at the polls, and know that, “Wow. There is something else happening in my country." So that's how it is. She has a strong political force, yet still she has this bad luck that she was running already as a president twice and she had lost, so I know it's a bitter issue for a politician.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: And she also has a very high negative rate because of everything I said. Of course, there is less trust to her because populism in the end is the populism.
Andrea Chalupa: And that's what I've been hearing is that she is enjoying a growing base in the countryside across Ukraine. And so, her closest competitor of course is the current president, Poroshenko, who has been very strong, of course, in defending his country against Russia's invasion. It's clear where he stands when it comes to Putin, whereas Tymoshenko you hear more that she's, from people who have worked with her I've heard that she's more open to getting a deal done with the Kremlin and working with the Kremlin. Are there any concerns, in your opinion, in that regard?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I would be very cautious about this kind of formulation, because that's exactly part of the party line of President Poroshenko, to really try to build this image of Tymoshenko as somebody who is really soft on Putin on something. Which the difference is, like, as any single politician, from Donald Trump to Emmanuel Macron, every ambitious politician believes that if it would be up to him or up to her, they would be able to negotiate with Putin better than the current leader. And that's a bit of the trap put Tymoshenko. So obviously most of the politicians who are running saying that we would have a better, I won't say even deal, because there is a stalemate. There is no chance that Poroshenko would really negotiate with Putin. We would try from kind of a new page, from something like that.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: And yes, Tymoshenko was known for doing a lot of kinds of deals. But I would be also very, very cautious with the way formulating these things, because if you really look at the politics, is her policy, let's say, sounds less hawkish?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Yes, it does. Her language, it's more about economy. While the Poroshenko campaign, it's just so much about, like, the war, the conflict, you know? So Poroshenko campaign is really very much military-driven. It's very much about, like, war. It's really become, if two years ago he was kind of this candidate who would speak about finding the way to bring back the Ukrainian territories, now he's clearly, clearly a war candidate, a hawk, you know. So compared to him, obviously everybody who doesn't speak that way would sound different. So it's true, I know even like that the Western partners and the people in the states have been recently, they would say that, "Oh, we are concerned what would happen if Tymoshenko would talk to Putin," especially because once she was in 2009 Prime Minister, she negotiated extremely bad gas deal with Putin back then, which more or less double the price of the money Ukraine used to pay to Russia for gas. So that was a bit of the point. And, of course, we also really know that Putin himself, you know, he understands Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko has been in the politics as long as he was. She is an old guard, and maybe, yes, it looks like that their communication would be better. But I think that it's rather, the discussion here in Ukraine is a bit different. It's really about more distrust to [the] current president.
Andrea Chalupa: How has the open attack by Russia against Ukraine in international waters, has that impacted the upcoming presidential election at all?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I don't think so. Obviously, the martial law which was imposed for the one month, which in fact was not fully implemented because nothing was really changed for most of the people in the country, of course it was a big story. The people were really frightened, especially in the regions where the martial law had been imposed. Yet, I think in the very same time the martial law had ended, somehow the path of the campaign hadn't really been changed. Maybe it had become for some time a bit more about war rather than about the economy, but now everything is back to the same.
Andrea Chalupa: And how is life going on in Ukraine currently with the ongoing invasion? I mean, obviously if you're in a city like Kyev you don't feel the war and life goes on. In your daily life, how does that, how does the war sort of hang over you?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I think that it's natural for every society, not just about Ukraine, for a lot of people just to get this fatigue because of the war, because, you know, it's so tragic, it's so sad, it's affected a lot of people. But you'll get mad if you really constantly thinking about that, unless you really directly influence. Probably I would remind the currently Ukraine has 7 percent of its territory occupied. 7 percent, it's relatively not that much, yet still it's huge territory because Ukraine is a big country. So we're speaking about the Crimean Peninsula, but we're speaking also about the Eastern Ukraine, two regions, where in Crimea there is up to 2 million people living in the Donbass, it's up to five million people. If you speak about average eastern European country, this is a huge territory if you are in the U.S., you understand that you know for the country of 40 million, it's just 7 percent. So if you live in the capital, you can really not mention that these things, that there is a war, of course. Yet it's tricky, because it's more psychological, like, desire for human being not to mention some of the things, because still Ukraine has up to one million or even more internally displaced. And we are speaking about the people who were forced to leave the Donbass. And you know I think like a lot of people in Europe and the U.S. are speaking about the migration, are speaking about all kind of a refugee crisis. And you know speaking about, like, hundred thousands of people. Ukraine is not a rich country. However, for the last five years, it's been living with a million internally displaced, and till now they had to really relocate to different towns. A lot of people have their family broken. You know, we are a small station, but, you know, I would have a dozen of people around my employees whose families there are in the occupied Crimea, the occupied Donbass, many of people has somebody who had, I don't know, might have either lost somebody in this war. It's, of course, that we have up to 13,000 Ukrainians killed within five years. It's a lot. It's really a lot. At the same time, it's obviously not this kind of stories of the huge massacre as sometimes you hear in the news. Yet still on the emotional level, of course, this war. If you are a citizen, it had impacted you, you know besides all the structural things with the conflict, with for instance how much the economy had lost. But probably the most important that we still have the huge up to like 3, 4 million of people living in the territory which is not accessed to the rest of the Ukrainians. So it's possible to travel, but I mean, like, that's not easy. That's dangerous. The tragedy of the whole thing is that this conflict had been created artificially by Russia, but at the same time, it had been created. Unfortunately, after five years, I should admit that, yes, after five years I know that in this territory there is a generation growing which already knows that Ukraine isn't united fully. You know, for me Ukraine never had been a place for the conflict, and I've grew up all my life in a peaceful country. But now, for five years, the war is something normal. But yes, the life in the biggest towns and in the capital can be very fancy. It can be very fancy as in any European town.
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Andrea Chalupa: The propaganda war that the Kremlin has been waging against Ukraine, it would seem that you're very much on the front line of that running an independent news organization, especially one with investigative journalists who were instrumental in launching Euromaidan which of course overthrew Putin's puppet Yanukovych. Could you talk a little bit about your experiences in this unprecedented time of fake news, and the Kremlin Twitter bots and all of it, and sort of what you've learned being on the front lines of an unprecedented disinformation war?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: The Ukrainian society as a whole but we in particular in journalists, we've got a bit vaccinated. I know I think for the first year it was incredibly difficult to the Western reporter to explain that sometimes there are the politicians or like the Russian officials who just bluntly lie, and not just lying as sometimes the politicians do, but just creating parallel reality, inventing things about Ukraine. Yet after five years, and being the editor, being a journalist, being a reporter, I think that the recipe is very simple: you do good journalism. There is not any other answer. There isn't. We have, at Hromadske, we have taken the policy of not doing any counter propaganda, that somehow it's very tricky to live in the narrative of the fake news and debunk the fake news 24/7, because you're involved in the game somebody puts on you. So in fact it's very important to get out of [that] thinking, be very much aware that you should triple check everything, that your journalists are trained to triple check. There is so much manipulation; there are so many things happening. Yet the most important is really to safeguard the profession, safeguard the journalism you're producing. That would be the most important for us. I should say that there was not a day when there was no, for this five years, Russian disinformation campaign against Ukraine, while I also think that still somehow you don't want to be the object of this war. And I think as a Ukrainian reporter you really also cares what your government does, how your society, you know, reacts on something, because you can't leave for five years in the situation when you constantly say, you know, that Russia is blamed for this, Russia is blamed for this. Russia is really blamed for starting the war and goes into this incredible trauma to Ukrainian society which won't be healed for many years, but it can't be your modus operandi. You'll get mad and you'll become crazy if you wake up every single day thinking about that there are Russian trolls, that there is a propaganda there. We're just trying to tell to the people in the country what's going on in our country. We know this is the reality. I think that there are fact checkers who are documenting all the fake stories about Ukraine, but we also should be extremely cautious that—and people in the U.S. know—that, you know, how some people, how some politicians can dismiss the unpleasant information critical information with the tag that these are fake news. So I think that's a new level of this story. And yes, I've been attacked, our team has been attacked. Within this five years so many, many things happened to, you know, accounts, votes, online harassment from, by the way different kind of political groups. Yet you just do well what you are doing in the journalism, just getting to the place, getting facts right and being very much aware of what is the practice of the Russian propaganda, what they are doing, but not letting this kind of narrative fully overtake you, overtake your mindset. And I think we, for instance, at Hromadske, we've definitely succeeded in that.
Andrea Chalupa: What are some frustrations that you have, if any, about how Western journalists and Western analysts are covering Ukraine?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Well the first year was a huge struggle, because five years ago we needed to explain what fake news are. We needed to explain what our country is at all. We had to get out of the oversimplification. Later, there was a whole story about the usual things, [such] as disappointment after the revolution. Every single journalist globally [that] comes into the place where a revolution had happened a couple of years ago is writing the very same story about how people are disappointed.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: And I think sometimes it's not a narrative I support in the way that we...for instance, I'm not interested in that. I know that after the revolution it's natural some people would be disappointed. Let's see how, what should we do this to succeed. How you really change the system. Okay, you got the revolution had won, but what really you need to do to change the economy, change the political sphere. I think that the problem is that it's still too little people come into Ukraine, too many people, like, looking at the case of, for instance, the Revolution in terms of clearly geopolitics, they're still trying to get understanding that, "Oh, has Ukraine ever provoked Russia? Has the West provoked Russia?" And I think, like, this thinking, it just, it's like the bully: you don't need to provoke the bully. Bully finds the way to provoke. The bully would always say that you have provoked him, but it's not exactly the case. We should get out of this discussion of what was the Western interest in the Revolution. The revolution itself was purely Ukrainian, inner thing. So that is important.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: But I think what is critical, is that unfortunately due to the historical reasons, there was very little information about Ukraine.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: So from the very beginning, it's coming with a bit of the negative stereotype as a bit, for instance, as a failed state, and that is a part of the Russian narrative, to show Ukraine as a failed state. However, Ukraine is a fully operational state. In some of the spheres, it's more functional state than many, many, many other countries, if you go from healthcare to other issues. So, I think this narrative coming from this position is a bit tricky. But today I would tell one story which is probably not that popular and common. It's about the Donbass and about the conflict and about the resolution of the conflict. I think that there is a general belief that, okay Ukraine had lost those territories, and now it's very important for Ukraine to succeed, and those territories are keeping kind of Ukraine behind. And maybe why you should...the Minsk agreement is not working. I'm not in favor of this discussion. I think that Minsk agreement, the agreement for the, like, to kind of stop escalation during the conflict, is at least something. We can't dismiss that. We have to take care more about the people who are living in the occupied territories, and it doesn't matter what you say that negotiations with Putin are impossible. It's clearly impossible. Still, we have to discuss more how we are really bringing back that part of the country, how we engage the people living in the occupied territory, how we do not alienate them, and that not every person who speaks about possible reconciliation or anything is definitely playing to the Russian card. So I would, in this regard, would say that I think that a lot of people in Ukraine think there should be the military option to win. I don't see the way military brings back those territories. And I think this is maybe not that easy concept, but I think that what I hear a lot from the Western analysts sometimes, that, you know, there is no way Ukraine can do something within Donbass. There are a lot of ways still you can do some smaller things to engage the people, at least to show you will. So still I think that a lot depends on the Ukrainian state and society.
Andrea Chalupa: So Ukraine is seen as a testing ground for Russian aggression, from election hacking, to the information war, to the invasion itself, where one security analyst in Berlin told me that the Russian military is using heavy machinery on Ukrainian soldiers that American soldiers haven't even had to fight against. So having Ukraine suddenly be known to a Western audience, where for many years I felt that Ukraine was seen through a Russian lens, and a lot of books of Ukraine's history in academia basically treated it like a little Russia. And I would tell somebody growing up that I was Ukrainian, and their mind would immediately switch it to, "Oh, you're Russian. And so now the revolution that happened which was incredibly dramatic event on the world stage that grabbed the world's attention, that really defined for people that there was a very big difference between Ukraine and Russia. And, of course, the war that followed the shock of Crimea being taken, and then Putin invading, and now it's even bigger with Paul Manafort, Yanukovych's guy coming over and leading Donald Trump's campaign for President. What has that been like for you, seeing your country suddenly matter greatly in terms of providing valuable inside information and context to very serious issues that are being faced right now in America? How has that sort of story unfolded for you personally, what you've been observing and what your impressions are?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: For the Western audience it's very important to understand that something which has happened in Ukraine can happen everywhere. There was no reason for the war. It's exactly the strangest thing. You read about the conflict in the books. You read about Bosnia. You read about Northern Ireland or something like that, and you think that, "Oh there is a conflict. There is a reason. There is a history behind that."
Nataliya Gumenyuk: And then, you're living in the place, and you see that the real military conflict can happen in the 20th Century just like that if somebody wants, and the world can't do anything about that.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: That's really a tragedy, because you couldn't believe in 2014 that if a country which has, for instance, signed the Budapest Memorandum when Ukraine kind of had given up its nuclear weapon in 1994 with a guarantee that one of the countries, for instance Russia, would guarantee the Ukrainian sovereignty...it just didn't happen, and the world couldn't do. Even so far, we have sanctions, we have some of other things, but it's way too little. It's way too little. And also, you see how the conflicts are created. Another story: I've been following the whole case of the Paul Manafort as closely as it's possible being here, and you know, it's interesting, because for us it was so obvious that he is a crook, that it's Ukrainian money being laundered, and the money of the Ukrainian taxpayers, and he has been paid a lot of money for actually creating the conflicts inside of our country for the political reason, and it had taken really a lot of time for the U.S. audience and citizens to get into that.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: And I think the point is that in Ukraine it's comes to mention what's worse. You know, I know that there is investigation going on, and people trying to understand what Manafort had done, but for an average Ukrainian, you're kind of puzzled what else you should find about Paul Manafort. He's done the worst things you could have. For instance, he really make it happened that the president had won. The candidate he has supported, Viktor Yanukovych, was very divisive with a very, kind of, the policy which was built on creating conflict in the society, was very alienating campaign, was trying to find the, you know, like this divide and conquer situation. And he had used all these dirty tactics to get his client to win the elections, and in the end the client who won the elections had become a dictator who was shooting his own people on the streets. And we lost five years ago almost 100 people. Almost 100 people, innocent people who just went to the street to protest, went to the streets to protect their, you know, security, dignity.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: And what else Manafort could have done? What else should we find about him? So for Ukrainians, they are following the story, but they are not really, you know, like they are looking forward and saying that, like, "Oh, the American media would like to find something else in Manafort." Is he really that bad? Yes. He was really that bad.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: And we also saw that this divisive politics based on alienation of the different groups of society, it's really, really something which these people were doing here way before.
Andrea Chalupa: I saw a talk by Tim Snyder where he credited you for having been in the U.S. covering the 2016 election and having accurately predicted that Trump would win. How did you see that Trump was going to win the 2016 election?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Oh, that was very simple. You know, the point was that thanks to Tim Snyder with all his advice, I've been covering three elections. I've been covering the two Obama elections and one of the Trump elections, travelling extensively around the United States.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: So I went to North Carolina. I went to Georgia. I went out of the, you know, usually the Western reporters, they are in the D.C., they are in New York, they may be in Chicago. And obviously I went to Ohio, to smaller towns. And first shocking thing which I've been observing, it was like I was in the Ukrainian Donbass during the time of the war when people were just living to their reality, and which they would just say nonsense. It felt like really that people saying that they were voting against their own interests, and there were people who would speak to so many conspiracy theorists. You know, like, I would meet in a local town a prosecutor who would say that, you know, "The system is rigged. The rule of law is not working. That I know everything is bought." And you would expect that in Ukraine. You won't expect it in the United States, and a lot of people would say absolutely absurd-ish things. You know, like, I would talk to the people who would say that they lost their jobs but they haven't lost that job. But what for me was very clear, I should say, that I've been during the last you know rallies in Ohio and I've been to Trump rally, and to one of the last rallies of Hillary Clinton. And I've been in a small town in Clinton County. And you know, it was genuine. A lot of people who went to see Trump, they were excited.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: They were I know chanting to this crazy words about lock her up, and something which I find really, like, for instance, strange for me, especially about the— remember the whole issue with the tapes and all the things about sex scandal.
Andrea Chalupa: Oh yeah, the grab them by the pussy tape.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: But later, at the same time, I've been to the rally at Cleveland, one of the last rallies of Hillary Clinton where there was Lebron, where there were celebrities, and the atmosphere was not exactly like that. It was like the conference hall wasn't really full, like incomparably. It was, oddly enough, less genuine. And when you really speak to so many people in Ohio and North Carolina, in Georgia, and you understand that they clearly for them the guns are more important than anything else, or like the issue with the bathrooms in North Carolina is more important than anything reasonable.
Andrea Chalupa: The transgender bathroom law.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: And then when you come back to New York, you just know that he has chances. You're not surprised that he would win. You come and you see that when the people in New York say that, "Oh, he has no chances." You just say, like, "No. Back there there are so many people, and the chance is there that he wins."
Andrea Chalupa: So when you go to visit Hromadske TV, you are on the same floor as some incredibly important organizations like Ukrayinska Pravda, which is a leading newspaper in Ukraine, as well as there's a there's another NGO that's focused on fighting corruption in Ukraine. And then there's you guys, and it's a really exciting floor to visit, because you see a lot of not only Ukrainians but as well as Russians, and you feel like a lot of sort of unity and struggle against kleptocracy in Ukraine and Russia. And it's an exciting place to visit. What's really interesting, last time I was there, I think it was 2017, I stopped by your floor just to see you very quickly, and you get off the elevator and I saw a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton right in the lobby in her white pant suit. Why was that there?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Oh, no, that was very simple. We're doing a TV show, we've done a satire show prior to the U.S. Elections because there was so much interest in the Ukraine and it was the cheapest decoration that we could have. So of course the Ukrainians are very interested into the U.S. politics. Ukrainians could afford some years ago not to care who is the U.S. President.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Now I should say we can't afford not to care who is the President of the United States. So for us doing the media, we really explain a lot. We really explain what Donald Trump is doing. Of course, the people are really concerned about the relations with Russia, relations with Putin. At the same time, you know, you probably would understand that the Republicans in foreign policy in the countries like Ukraine, their position is more popular because they always were a bit more hawkish than the Democrats. So, for instance, there is the support for the politics of the State Department, but there is huge concern about, you know, so what are these relations between Putin and Trump? Would Trump betray Ukraine in this regard? We know what he was saying about Crimea. We know what he was saying about a lot of other things. So if somebody is very nice to your biggest, let's say, enemy, and the threat is of course concerning. Still, somehow the other U.S. politicians demonstrate a bit of different policy towards the region. They are more consistent. Yet still we don't know. We don't know what would happen.
Andrea Chalupa: Do you feel unsafe with Trump as president?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Absolutely. I think like a lot of people feel unsafe with Trump being a president. And yes, in Ukraine, you know like for a Russian president, it's so important to show that he has good relations with Trump, that Trump is not very much against him and that's his, kind of, also, tool to run the game. So yes we're, we're concerned. And yes, there is some kind of, as I said, support for the American State, not from Donald Trump but from the State Department, other institutions. Still, I think there is this itching feeling that, "Oh really, and what if Trump would change his mind?".
Andrea Chalupa: Change his mind how? Just stop supporting Ukraine through State Department programs?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Yeah, yeah, like just stop supporting Ukraine, saying some stupid things which would give an opportunity for Putin to really, you know, speak about the legitimacy of the annexation of Crimea, or just making the sanctions not so tough, or like trying to support what Russia does. So a bunch of the things. Anything can happen in this regard.
Andrea Chalupa: So I have to ask you: one of the talking points that the Kremlin has, and I've heard even the people on the left in the West accuse Western nations like the U.S. and EU of meddling in other countries governments by funding independent journalists and anti-corruption crusaders like Hromadske. What is your answer to that?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: We are absolutely not successful for five years to get a reasonable amount of funding from the United States. Somehow it doesn't work for Hromadske. We're struggling, we're applying, but it's probably like a couple of percent of our budget if we speak about the American State. I'm dealing with fundraising. It's extremely hard for an Ukrainian organization, an independent organization, to really fundraise and get a reasonable amount of money. The second point: as somebody, you know, like, with good contacts in the West, I just should reassure. It takes so much effort for the Ukrainian civil society at all to make the Western authorities and countries care about what's happening here. And what the Ukrainians in this regard are doing is just having not an opportunity if there is a local authorities which are really doing something wrong.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: That's, of course, this is one of the ways that Ukrainian civil society tried to have an advocacy campaign with the international organization, international institution and allies to remind that Ukraine has signed up to many, many international laws about the protection of the human right. The Ukrainian authorities sign up according to the best international practices. And yes, there is some economical support for the reform of the Ukrainian economy and it should be conditional. For me it's just like a joke to hear that there is an influence. I think this position to see that we are influencing this country is a bit racist. I'm sorry if this word is very tough, but it's just like you think that somebody has [none of] its own will, and this country, like Ukraine or any other country, that this society isn't capable to understand what's going on. And for me, this is very strange to hear this position, and it's very funny sometimes and ironic that some of the,, I'd say academians who has this position trying to say that, "Oh, the U.S. Consider themselves superior to these countries, so they enforce their politics, their way of financing, blah blah blah blah blah." For me this is the very superior position, to say that I am not a human. I'm personally myself as one of the founders of the station. One of the founders of the kind of great independent media group which we founded with the best minds, best journalists in this country, that we are basically just somebody's puppets. You know, for me it's...it's kind of crazy.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: It's definitely—I'm used to hear that, that we don't have our independent minds. And that's a pity. That's a pity that such ideas are there.
Andrea Chalupa: Your friend Pavel Sheremet—just to illustrate the sacrifices that your community has been making to fight corruption in your country—your friend Pavel Sheremet, a Belarussian investigative journalist who is very much part of the leading nucleus of investigative journalists in Ukraine, he was killed in a car bomb in Kyev in July 2016 and his murder is still unsolved. Could you update us on his case and whether you think there'll be any justice there anytime soon?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Unfortunately, no. Unfortunately, I don't believe there would be any justice. I feel, you know, we are as a journalist we investigated this case, and unfortunately, I should say that the Ukrainian authorities...first of all, they haven't done basic in order to have this investigation be successful. Partly, it's secret, so there is no access for the journalist. It's not fully transparent, which I believe is just a shame. You can't have this kind of one of the important murder case to be not transparent. And the saddest part is that the president himself has said that for him, it's just the matter of the personal dignity, personal responsibility to make happen, [that] this investigation, you know, has some results. But there is no sign to show that something had been done by the Ukrainian authorities. Maybe they're not capable, but they don't bother much to explain even to the, Pavel's family and friends, that they are, and prove that at least they're trying.
Andrea Chalupa: Who do you think killed him?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I don't think in these terms, but we can consider what was the biggest—apart from the life of Pavel—the biggest damage had been done to the Ukrainian investigative newspaper, Ukrayinska Pravda. So those who wanted to destroy this paper.
Andrea Chalupa: So final question for you, because I know you're very busy. What advice do you have for journalists in the West who are investigating a Yanukovych-like President who has his own family that enriches itself off of the government? What advice do you have for journalists in the West that are now facing a sort of Ukrainian political atmosphere at the moment with Kremlin-driven fake news and a Yanukovych-like family in power?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I would probably ask not to simplify the whole story. Not to undermine the role of the humans and the society and the particular humans in that...not to play too much geopolitics in this regard. Trying to understand that, "Oh, this is a fight between the U.S. and Russia. Yet it has become partly like that, but that's really a lot about the average Ukrainians." And I understand that might be less interesting for their American audience on something, but still if you already decided to make a story about Ukraine, then there should be some level of respect to what citizens do in this country, because it's also not really all about the couple of politicians. It's about the interesting case of the Ukrainian society who is in a very difficult environment, and it's very different environment than after the Revolution of the early '90s. It's trying to really transform itself to the democracy, not in the moment when you have everybody in the West just clapping and saying, "Yes, democracy is the best form of governance, and we'll give you support." But the society which is trying to do all those things in absolutely different conditions, when a lot of people in the West says like, "Oh, democracy is in decline." So we actually, our benchmark, there is something wrong with them in this regard. So it's very different. And that would be my advice, to look at this complexity. I think that there should be always these two overarching parallel stories. There is one story which obviously is about how strongly Russia would like to portray the Ukraine as a failed state and using a lot of resources, and you should be aware of that. At the same time, you should also understand that some of the things are at this stage, after five years, you can't blame Ukrainians for what had happened. At the same time, currently it's up to the Ukrainians to sort out a lot of things. We can't afford to wait till the West would come and sort out our conflict, and the more we live with this, we understand that. We appreciate the support of, you know, the partners or the allies. At the same time, you see that they're not that much involved, and that you hardly believe that they would play a huge role in any kind of solution of the conflict.
Andrea Chalupa: Gaslit Nation is produced by Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa. If you like what we do, leave us are you on iTunes. It helps us reach more listeners. And check out our Patreon. It keeps us going.
Sarah Kendzior: Our editors are Karlyn Daigle and Nicholas Torres. This episode was edited by Nicholas Torres.
Andrea Chalupa: Original music in Gaslit Nation was produced by David Whitehead, Martin Visenberg, Nick Farr, Damian Arriaga and Karlyn Daigle.
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