All posts tagged Europe

Western media and Ukraine: global ideology versus local realities

Posted by / 23rd July 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

With past week’s tragedy still dominating headlines across the world, the differences between local and Western press in how the conflict in Ukraine is viewed are starker than ever. This is a recurring phenomenon in our globalised world, with local and global media offering completely different interpretations of the same events as long as victims can be abstracted at a global level. Now that victims of the Ukrainian conflict include Western toursists, global and local perspectives will begin to converge. In the case of Ukraine, the difference between local and global perspectives goes back to the very beginning of the open conflict. The initial phase was seen as one of a clash between the West and Russia, in which the former considered it a struggle between the defenders of freedom against those who want to resuscitate authoritarian practices of the past; a conflict between those who are fighting for democracy against those who violate international law. Local media, on the other hand, focused more on cultural and geopolitical concerns, with Ukraine divided along ethnic lines and torn between spheres of influence.

Western mass media celebrated the fall of Yanukovich’s regime as a step towards the consolidation of democracy in the country, pushing it away from Russia and towards Western society. The actual local actors behind the two camps were overlooked in the process, at least by global media. Local media did pay attention to the fact that political parties had nationalist profiles with hints of clear xenophobia, but not so much in the West press: there, the victory of democracy facing the authoritarian oppression represented by the threat of Russia was the dominant narrative. Parties such as UNA-UNSO (Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian People’s Self- Defense), Svodoba (Freedom), Batkisvshchyna (Freedom)  have been supported by the international community as well as by media without much regard for their actual local agendas or suspect ideologies.

The context in which these events took place matters. When the suspension of Russian as a co-official language was approved in Congress, the delay caused a direct confrontation with Russia. The fact that Russian is the most spoken language in the eastern part of Ukraine- used by half of the population, and even more so in Crimea- showed how much this was a local issue, rather than an ideological clash for freedom. Yet this was mostly ignored by Western media despite being such an important factor in triggering the crisis.

Reviewing past newspaper editorials, there is no surprise to find out that the perceived enemy of European and Western democracy was lurking large in the interpretation of the local conflict: Vladimir Putin has been raised to the status of the greatest threat to Western stability, and therefore also seen as the main agitator opposing Ukrainian freedom. This perspective has been present throughout the crisis, and since the MH17 crash is a dominant factor in any Western analysis once again. The Russian president’s actions are thoroughly analyzed whilst those of other involved parties are not. The European energy situation and its clear dependence on Russia- causing a blatant clash between words and actions on behalf of European governments- are barely discussed. Authoritarian attitudes are criticized while simultaneously a remarkable dependence on that very same antagonist is created. The analysis of the Ukraine and last week’s disaster is framed within a moralistic discourse, while behind the scenes the same practical ambiguity continues. European realpolitik supported by helpful media choosing to ignore any moral complexity about responsibility of their own leaders and societies.

At a local level, things are different. Ukrainian media extensively covered the crash, of course, but did so from a perspective of a long conflict that has caused victims throughout: Ukraine’s dilemma is one of sustained violence, not one isolated incident. And yet, the local consequences of the MH17 crash may be greater than any of the violence that has occurred before or after, as it brings Western victims into the fray. The dichotomy of Western media discourse on the one hand, and ambiguous policies on the other, is no longer sustainable now. Local and global may join the same reality now, with both types of media covering the practical situation rather indulging in ideological judgments.

It is understandable that the idea of the conflict changes depending on the source of the given information. It is also comprehensible that the information provided is influenced by national matters, depending on how the particular country could be affected. But, as the current situation shows, the intention of giving global coverage cannot be done without starting from a local perspective. In this particular case, the actions taken by Europe to expand its borders to the East, or the ones taken by the NATO in the same direction, together with some deficiencies of these institutions, must be included in the analysis. The responsibility for local suffering cannot be projected solely onto the dictatorial face of Vladimir Putin. It is shared by many, including the free European press.



The Chinese Dragon and the Western Whale in Africa

Posted by / 30th November 2011 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , / -

With all the attention dedicated to the economic crisis, it is easy to forget in Europe or the US that there is a whole different dynamic going on in sub-Saharan Africa. Many African countries are increasingly the battleground of a struggle between two global giants: Western forces from Europe and North-America on the one hand, and the Chinese State on the other. The difference? One consists of loosely defined conglomerates with diverse cultural, political and economic interests, whereas the other is a centralized and well-oiled state machine that is unburdened by morality or ambiguous agendas. It will be a surprise to no one that the latter is winning. Whether that is good news for Africa remains unclear.

When looking at countries in the Sahel or central Africa, ghosts from the Cold War era seem to linger everywhere. Two large powers battling it out over the backs of local populations, manipulating governments, and viewing Africa as a tool for global advancement, rather than as an independent entity. Yet, one cannot help the feeling that something is completely different as well.

The West is still doing what it always does, putting itself in the impossible position of wanting to be a force for universal “good”- as flexibly defined in offices in Paris, Washington or London, but usually including golden oldies like “democracy” and “human rights”- while at the same time being unwilling to escape from the clutches of self-interest and internal lobbies. Add to that the fact that “the West” is an eclectic collection of mostly uncoordinated state actors, multinationals, cultural movements and NGOs, plus some supposedly supranational organizations thrown into the mix, and one automatically feels sorry for local communities that need to deal with such chaos.

In contrast to the Cold War, however, the Soviet Union has been replaced by a decidedly original type of player: the People’s Republic of China. Unlike its extinct communist relative, China has no interest or time for exporting ideology or ethical values. China wants resources, and China wants influence. And lo and behold, China gets resources. And China gets influence. Unlike the eclectically burdened Western forces, Beijing’s practical approach is free from any type of limits on its willingness or ability to attain is objectives. Needless to say, this is an enormous competitive advantage over its direct competitors.

In a way, China plays the Westphalian game the way it should be played: it follows the strict rules of having a singular representative of its own territory being responsible for planning and communication with the outside world. As an African political leader, you know who you are dealing with, and you know the cost-benefit analysis of doing business with the Asian superpower.

Contrast this to dealing with the Western conglomerate: one has to manage the complex political structures between European and American nations, while at the same time balancing their words and needs with those of NGOs, business and other external actors with distinct and often conflicting agendas. No wonder that African capitals are increasingly filled by Chinese contractors! If you want to get things done, call Beijing. If you want a diplomatic nightmare of economic interests covered by a sauce of neocolonial arrogance, call Washington (as long as afterwards you call New York, London, Paris and Berlin, plus the headquarters of a few dozen international organizations as well, just to make sure that everyone is alright with your initial call to Washington).

The West has evolved into a giant network, a creature, no longer capable of dealing with the natural (Westphalian) laws surrounding it. It is like a whale on dry land, creating a headache for any local leader that has to deal with such a monster washing ashore. Sometimes it is sincere, often it isn’t, but it is consistently an unwieldy burden on local populations.

The Chinese dragon, on the other hand, flies wherever it deems necessary, offers some gold, threatens with fire, and soon moves on to other areas that catch its eyes. It feels at home in the Westphalian environment, in which it can bully and bribe while still behaving according to the systemic rules that supposedly regulate global affairs.

What does this mean for Africa? It is too early to say, and it will mostly depend on the ability of African leaders to manage the rivalry between these two global giants. Instinctively, however, it is hard to sympathize with Western hypocrisy. At least China does not pretend.

It is said that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. The Cold War elephants no longer exist. It is now the whale and the dragon that compete. And at the risk of abusing that metaphor, one can’t help wondering which the African grass prefers: an unwieldy whale, rolling and struggling to find a comfortable spot? Or a dragon that may burn some meadows with its flames, yet is agile and practically oriented, without overextending its stay?