Russian, Ukrainian groups go digital to define conflict

EMBASSY, Wednesday, April 29, 2015—10


Russian and Ukrainian groups in Canada want to set the record straight—they just can’t agree what straight is. A tenuous ceasefire has curtailed some of the real fighting in Ukraine, for now. But the battle to define the conflict has continued between those who oppose and support the government in Kyiv. In Canada, organizations that promote the cultures of Russia and Ukraine have gone public to counter what they consider false or misinformation about the conflict, and have waded into a heated and some-times nasty public debate.

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress has published daily updates on the conflict since it began, for example, pushing back against what it calls propaganda from Russian news and government sources.

It recently helped convince the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to cancel a scheduled appearance from pianist Valentina Lisitsa at the beginning of April.

Critics of that move, including the Russian Congress of Canada diaspora organization, said Lisitsa—who was born in Ukraine but has some Russian heritage—shouldn’t have been punished profession-ally for her political views.

The UCC and Toronto Symphony Orchestra said the problem wasn’t Lisitsa’s politics, but the language she directed against ethnic Ukrainians. They circulated a collection of tweets from her Twitter account that they considered offensive, including one with a picture of a concentration camp. The UCC’s most important role during the conflict has been to ensure Canadians understand what is happening in Ukraine ,said executive director Taras Zalusky. That means countering an “army of trolls” employed by the Russian government spread misinformation, he said.

The Russian government has established an unofficial operation to pay workers to post pro-Kremlin and anti-Kyiv or US government messages on blogs, news websites, and elsewhere on the internet, according to a report by the UK-based Guardian newspaper from the beginning of April, which included interviews with two individuals who claimed to have worked in that operation.

The Russian Embassy in Canada offered no comment when asked to respond to the allegation that Russia was paying people to post messages about the conflict online.

The UCC’s role as a “watchdog against misinformation” is mostly limited to countering what it considers falsehoods published widely in Russian media, circulated repeatedly online, or republished erroneously in Canadian media, said Ottawa chapter president Yaroslav Baran. The UCC does so through press releases and blogs on its website, Facebook page and Twitter feed, by briefing government officials when given the opportunity, by inviting guest speakers to public events, and by writing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces for newspapers.

Likewise, the Russian Congress and the Russian Embassy itself have been using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to put forward their own views on the conflict.

The RCC uses its Facebook page, for example, to invite supporters to public demonstrations, including the “Odessa Massacre Memorial/Against Canadian Government’s Interventionism” gathering in Toronto on May 2, which is being organized by a Facebook group called Ukraine Without Fascism.

The RCC also sent an open letter to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra protesting the cancellation of Valentina Lisitsa’s performance. The group has been registered as anon-profit since October, and includes about400 members, said president Valentin Lossev.

The Russian Embassy’s Twitter account also recently argued with Mr. Baran’s Twitter account over the conflict, after an Embassy story was published.

The Canadian media “does not reflect the situation correctly” and includes “speculation” about the Russian government’s role in the conflict, said Mr. Lossev.

The mean-spirited nature of the debate, and “propaganda and counter-propaganda” from some of the parties involved has made it difficult to get Canadians engaged in the debate, Mr. Lossev said.

The long, complex and sometimes tragic history of Russia, Ukraine and the Soviet Union is part of the reason the debate around the conflict is so heated, even amongst people many years and miles removed from life in the area, said Mr. Lossev. The memories of massacres and atrocities stay with families for generations. “It’s like a personal thing for every-body,” he said.

Ukrainians have pushed for independence from Moscow for centuries, Mr. Baranargued, and they have seen aggressive responses before. “People who know history know these things don’t end well,” he said.

The animosity some Ukrainians hold towards Russia’s government has at times spilled over towards members of the Russian-Canadian community, and vice versa.

A Victory Day parade in Winnipeg last spring commemorating Russian WWII veterans nearly turned into a “shouting match” after members of the Ukrainian Canadian community took exception to the display, said Alina Klinaeva, spokesperson for the Council of Russian Canadian Cooperation.

The council has had trouble organizing and finding participants for cultural events since the conflict began, she said. Identifying oneself as Russian can invoke a stigma of being an “aggressor” among members of the general public, she said.

The council has used social media to promote its cultural events, and some members have spoken to Canadian media to explain the complex nature of the dispute, and its origins in different parts of Ukraine, she said. Canada’s media have oversimplified a complex issue into a black-and-white dispute, she said.

The Council of Russian Canadian Cooperation is a non-political organization that focuses strictly on Russian culture, she said. However, the council’s Facebook page includes a post from last June inviting readers to attend a rally in Toronto in support of the breakaway regions in Eastern Ukraine.

A handful of Canadians founded another Facebook group, Russian Speaking Canada for Peace, last year as a forum for Russian-speaking Canadians who opposed “aggression of one country against another.” The group, which now has more than 1,700 members, was needed to avoid verbal attacks and bullying from pro-Kremlin posters on other social media groups, said Inna Platonova, one of five administrators of the group.

Russian Speaking Canada for Peace was created to serve as a “friendly, civilized environment” to discuss the conflict, she said. The group has also been involved in organizing protests in Calgary and Ottawa earlier this year, including demonstrations against Russian involvement in Ukraine and calling for the release of Nadiya Savchenko, a member of the Ukrainian military imprisoned in Russia after being captured during the conflict.

The RCC is also trying to organize avenue for civilized discussion around the conflict, said Mr. Lossev. The group is currently fundraising and looking for a university willing to host a panel discussion on the situation in Ukraine, he said.

“We’re trying to make our voices louder,” he said.


Russian, Ukrainian groups go digital to define conflict. “Embassy” Newspaper, Ottawa. April 29, 2015

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