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Transformation of Ukrainian and Serbian Media Identities during the Velvet Revolutions: The Impact of the Global Media

Olesya Venger*

Marquette University

*Corresponding Author:
Olesya Venger
825 North 22nd Street
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Little has been done to assess the impact of the global media on the Ukrainian Orange Revolution so far. The world’s perception of Ukraine has changed thanks to the widely broadcast Orange Revolution by the world’s major TV-channels, dominating headline news for some time in late 2004. Still, the real impact of these reports on the media in Ukraine as well as in Serbia has not been studied seriously. This paper will try not only to answer some of the questions that may be posed about the Ukrainian media in times of the Orange Revolution, but also to compare the situation that was faced by the Serbian and Ukrainian media during revolutionary times in the context of media globalization.

Mass Media and Globalization: the Good and the Bad

As much as globalization can be seen as a great good as well as a great evil, it can also be a constraint as well as an aid to the democratic functions of the media.

“For me globalization began with the fall of a bomb on my balcony”, said Vladimir Marcovi, one of many Serbian journalists who worked in Serbian mass media during the early 1990s in Belgrade (Marcovi, 2005). Unfortunately, the above-mentioned balcony is not the only thing to fall victim to the force of globalization in Serbia. At the time, one of the major concerns in Serbia was the unconditional freedom given to mass media directly after the Tito regime came to an end; a dangerous freedom that awoke the media from a sleep and allowed mass media organizations to disseminate the seeds of hatred among the Serbian and Albanian peoples. Moving forward about thirteen years to a place in the north-east section of Ukraine where protesters placed their tents in the fall of 2004, a similar picture can be seen in a sense that some media made clear attempts to incite hatred between the Russian-speaking and Ukrainianspeaking populations. But there were additional factors. The Internet, new communication technologies, and the uniform attention of the world media to the development of events in Ukraine made the opinion of ordinary Ukrainians known and the actions of all parties scrupulously analyzed by the world. Intellectual discussions were done in many spheres, with the Internet becoming the main distributor of information that helped the world understand the real intentions of the Ukrainian people (Kvit 2005). This was arguably the time when the pressure of responsibility on all Ukrainian media due to the world reaction was at its peak.

To understand the phenomenon of media globalization one should not forget the how media functioned in the recent past, especially the communist media of the former USSR and Yugoslavia. No one at the time was bothered by the question of what the effect might be of altering the entire system of communication, or of changing a basic variable: the reclusive existence of the media within the national boundaries of a given state. From the point of view of international relations, media were seen as components of the domestic order, relating to national politics and public opinion (Randall 1998; Horvat 2002). Before the death of Yugoslav president Tito, during the “velvet dictatorship” of 1945-1980, most people were satisfied with the media situation in Yugoslavia. But soon enough the long forgotten ethnic divisions started gradually gaining strength during 1968-1981 in a state of general praise and obliviousness to the growing snowball of intolerance. The conflict began to surface in the early 1980s, long before 1991, when the old post-World War II problems heated up. With the universal turmoil caused by the break up of communist Yugoslavia, media outlets, whether half privatized or still state-owned, were forced to alter their strategies. After a few unsuccessful attempts to maintain old style control over the media in the 1990s, they saw new possibilities that opened new horizons. New programs appeared on the screens immediately, many issues were opened to public discussion. On the other hand, along with the good effects of the new era for mass media, the industry confronted some major problems. Mass media were flooded with foreign products, often of inferior quality: movies, talk-show programs – which left no chance of success for national production. Those were the very first effects of globalization in the former communist republics. This process has been slowed down in Ukraine and the rest of the post-USSR countries due to a significantly lower degree of openness in their societies compared to Yugoslavia.

Global Media and Democratization

One of the emerging issues in the age of globalized communication is whether new information technologies such as the Internet have an impact on democratization. The ways the media frame the issues and render their sympathies will affect the balance of power in a public debate. Essentially, the media represent resources that can be mobilized to demote or promote democracy. Internet outlets were the first to disseminate information among opinion leaders in the time of revolution in Ukraine. The Internet mass media were the main carriers of the basic democratic functions of the media at those times by:

• spreading democratic ideals;

• reflecting the voices of contending parties;

• providing the public with quality and relevant information;

• articulating the social choices;

• facilitating public deliberation.

Theoretically, if the media fails all these functions, democracy will be undermined. In such a case, the media will do a society a disservice by supporting and justifying the actions of the power center, marginalizing the contending voices, diluting critical information, precluding genuine options, shortening public debates, and demobilizing collective behaviours. As Chan (2002) argues:

“The international media...can undermine the governing elite’s monopoly of information in authoritarian systems. A good illustration is the significant impact of Western films, literature on the collapse of Eastern Europe...The influence was particularly strong when the Soviet Union’s withdrawal had left a ‘widespread ideological, media, and cultural vacuum.” (para. 16)

Indeed, after the collapse of the USSR national mass media were virtually inactive because they did not know how to behave, what to transmit, and what to be. The situation changed gradually, the communist party elite transformed into the country’s elite. They were no longer communists because they threw away their party tickets, but they were still in power. During the Soviet regime almost all opposition was eradicated by the authorities in the USSR. That is why the seeds of corruption and communist party habits were once again planted in the ground that was ready to accept the seeds of democratic changes in the society. These actions could not suppress the emergence of young leaders of such countries and home grown opposition was born. The forgotten nationalist tradition was reincarnated by the people at the front line of the revolutions. And part of the media followed their example (Kvit 2005).

People are inspired by events that happen far away. It is no coincidence that one country after another was baptized by democracy in the 1990s (Chan, 2002, para. 15). In fact, the global communication network is a network that helps foster global diffusion of democracy. Contemporary media indeed provide an efficient link among the elites around the world. People power, as practised in Georgia during the Revolution of Roses or Georgian peacefull revolution of 2003, was a source of motivation for many that struggled for democracy in Ukraine, Byelorus and Kyrgyzstan (Shelley et al., 2003, para. 7).

Ukrainian and Serbian Media Identities: the Capstones of the Transformation

Two countries: two types of nationalism

Apart from many differences among Serbian and Ukrainian societies during the velvet revolutions, one of the most important ones was the nature of the nationalism that was on the rise in both countries. Kuzio (2002) asserted, that the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism “is blurred and confusing as all nations stake out historical claims and boundaries and all are therefore exclusionary” (p. 137). But if we try to discern ‘good’ from ‘bad’ nationalism by differentiating it into Risorgimento and integral nationalisms respectively, we might succeed. According to Kuzio (2002), risorgimento nationalism is “that of the oppressed seeking to create their own nation state by separating from an empire or by uniting separate branches of the same nation” (p. 138). Following this interpretation, the national democratic movements in the former USSR and during the early years of Ukraine’s independence united democratic reformists with Risorgimento nationalist demands.

Integral nationalism, on the other hand, is that most commonly associated with fascism or Nazism since the 1930s and is defensive, xenophobic as well as aggressive towards both national minorities and foreigners within an existing nation-state and its neighbors. Kuzio (2002) maintains that although risorgimento nationalism “can be intolerant towards regional cultures and minorities in the drive towards building a nation-state…it is perfectly compatible with an inclusive, liberal democracy and sustains civil society (unlike its integral variant)” (p. 138).

The findings of Khmelko (2004) on demographic change in Ukrainian population before the Orange Revolution support the idea that ethnically the structure of Ukrainian society did not change much between two recent censuses. Instead, Ukrainian consciousness strengthened noticeably giving the grounds for the development of resorgimento nationalism. Substantiated evidence to this fact is provided by Khmelko (2004) in his study on ethno-linguistic structure of Ukraine. For instance, he found that the Ukrainian/Russian share of the population changed from 70.6%/19.7% in 1994-1999 to 74.7%/17.9% in 2001-2002 (p. 16). It is interesting to note that Russian ethnic nationalism per se in Ukraine remained weak during all years of independence “because the Tsarist and Soviet empires never encouraged Russian nation building but subverted its identity within an imperial-state one. Hence, Russian ethnic nationalists either from Russia or within Ukraine have always fared badly in elections” (Kuzio 2002, p. 153).

The situation was completely different in Serbia before the Serbian velvet revolution. The explanation of Serbs' complaints was developed in the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, which was not officially publicized at that time. This memorandum was the most important paper to lead to the rise of Milosevic.

The main problem Yugoslav society inherited after the death of Tito was discrepancy of ethnic groups’ preferences towards the state as the unsolved World War traumas were defrosted (Marcovic 2005). As long as a possibility of creating institutional weapons that can be used against other ethnic groups was surfaced, it was immediately put to the test by Milosevic. The first problems arose with the understanding of the need to relocate Serbs not living in Serbia to Serbia (by that time there was 60% Serbs in Serbia).

Serbia welcomed the rise of the integral nationalism with acceptance of such key statements of the Memorandum as:

• Serbs in Yugoslavia are oppressed as a nation. This oppression is especially brutal in Serbian province Kosovo and in Croatia.

• Serbia is economically exploited, being subjected to the political-economical mechanisms that drain much of her wealth and redistribute it to Slovenia, Croatia and Kosovo (Gagnon Jr. 1994/1995, Conservative response to the threat section, para. 5).

Serbian integral nationalism was expansionist and optimistic, viewing its successful rule over Kosovo and other troubled regions of former Yugoslavia. With newly obtained media freedom and nationalistic moods on the rise in Serbia, the moment was calling for the rise of a dictator. Milosevic was a figure who appeared at the right time and in the right place in Serbian politics. The situation became more gruesome after the infamous Martinovic case in 1985. Serbian nationalists were calling for revenge, for protection of those Serbs who were unable to defend themselves and who were offended by the Albanians (like Martinovic).

While in Serbia the ethnic nationalistic motives were the ones leading the dictatorship to power, in Ukraine the reasons have been quite different. Mounting public dissatisfaction with shady deals in the highest echelons of power and resulting intellectual discussions in some media as early as 2001 were the early symptoms of the credibility gap that ultimately led Ukraine towards the Orange Revolution. At this stage, the Internet developed itself not only as an arena for those journalists who were not afraid to be critical of the authorities and who were willing to give the public an alternative account of events, but also as a transmitter of uncensored information. It did not take long for a political satire genre to be reborn and reinvented; the publicist genre was renovated and brought to the pages of the World Wide Web (Kvit 2005).

It should be mentioned that though the effects of globalization may in the short term be benign or positive, in the long run it threatens “democratic politics” (Street 2001, p. 163). Indeed, after a period of relative freedom of the media in Yugoslavia, one could see the appearance of the media conglomerates, whose aim was to report facts in favour of their political interests or in the interests of their owners (Siochru 2004). Until today the ownership of the media is still in transition from state to private. Although 90% of Serbian media is private and the other 10% belong to the state, the ownership issues are highly debated and in the center of everybody’s attention.

Transformation of Media Identities in Revolutionary Ukraine and Serbia

While looking at the transformations of the media identities that happened after the velvet revolutions in Serbia and Ukraine, it is worthwhile to focus on the media’s cultural environment as a key element in the problem. It happened so that before the 1990s the media succeeded in igniting the conflicts further, separating the peoples in Yugoslav society. Among the renowned participants of this discourse were the following daily newspapers: “Politika”, the “Old Lady” with tradition of intellectual readership (that is still setting up standards nowadays), “Danas”, the newspaper the first to uncover the civil society option, “Vechernie Novosti”, the working class hero (still burdened with nationalist baggage today), “Glas javnosti”, Blic (sinking into yellow right now). The rest of the press cake was divided between printed media magazines, such as: “Vreme”, “Pogledi”, “Reporter”, “Nin” (serious news magazines, analytical, investigative). On the one hand, in the early 1990s, the media played a discursive role in society, but, on the other hand, they were responsible for growing fear, nationalist extremism and hatred. Media duels became popular: “RTS” vs “HTV”, “Politika” vs “Vjesnik”, “Nin” vs “Danas” (Marcović 2005).

In the Ukrainian context, the media created a picture of division in Ukrainian society during the Orange Revolution as well; here the East confronted the West. The only oppositional “5th channel” confronted the “TRK Ukraine” channel, the mouthpiece of the authorities, and fought the ignorance and, what they called, ‘a betrayal of professional principles’ of most of their colleagues from other TV channels. Along with “TRK Ukraine”, all state owned media were the slaves of the anti-Yuschenko smear campaign. The evidence for this fact was first provided by the Ukrainian Association of Periodical Press Publishers that conducted content analysis of the TV news during the first and second run of Ukrainian president elections in 2004 (before the Orange Revolution). Among the other things, the report calculated the time allotted to every candidate on the TV in the first run of the elections, as well as the time allotted to candidates from the opposition (Victor Yuschenko) and the authorities (Victor Yanukovych) in the second run. The report found that most of the information about Yuschenko was whether neutral or negative, instead, most information about Yanukovych had a positive connotation. Also, the time allotted to the latter candidate by the TV channels exceeded Yuschenko’s time considerably (Ivanov 2004, p. 21).

Understanding that his party is losing the battle for the official mediums like television and newspapers in the mind of the audience, Yuschenko and his team mates did not fall into oblivion, but found a way out of this gruesome situation. First, the Internet became an arena for political discussions. Many unexpected challenges facing television and newspaper’s identities during Ukrainian revolution were posed by the Internet. Second, a special atmosphere was created in Ukraine and in Kyiv, especially, by the Orange supporters that were encouraging the people to show their support for the oppositional candidate by wearing orange (Internet also played a major role in creating this atmosphere, the opinion leaders used e-mail messages to distribute this information). Soon enough the streets of Kyiv were full of this bright orange colour and people were singing “Yuschenko! Yuschenko!” while walking on the streets of Ukrainian capital. They were united by the thought of pertaining to the opposition community and they were bravely showing their sympathies in such a way that as D’Anieri noted, “all the state control over the media could not do anything to counter the message sent by all this orange” (D’Anieri 2005, p. 242).

Examples from various parts of the world show that the media can both facilitate and obstruct intercultural dialogue in multicultural societies (Abdelnasser 2004). Media catering to specific ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious groups have a possibility to create and reinforce an image of categorization, according to which individuals develop a strong identification with their own ethnicity, culture, language or religion and an antagonism towards the “other”. In both cases, in Ukraine and in Serbia, this idea was exploited by opposing parties far too well: the prominent examples for this fact are smear campaigns against Victor Yuschenko in Ukraine that portrayed him as a fascist and a supporter of the idea that Ukrainians should be sorted into three sorts of people; Anti-Albanian cases in the Serbian media and vice versa that led to the creation of a conflict which may not be solved for many years to come in Serbian society.

Both Ukraine and Serbia before the velvet revolutions did not have an opportunity to have free and unbiased media agenda, the language and concepts used in discussing this media agenda were also biased; also, the prerogative to fulfill the tasks of the democratic media in both countries was in the hands of those in control of politics and the state.

Starting from 2000s, Ukrainian society witnessed an important change in mass media policy: from the Orange Revolution onwards, Ukrainian society in all its diversity started to set the agenda in the media. Serbia, on the other hand, is still recovering from the revolution and Kosovo crises. Unfortunately, Serbian TV programming can not boast about the quality of its programs today. The yellow press is as popular in the country as never before and the cultural awakening is still pretty far away.

Greater Serbia times taught Serbian people a very valuable lesson they will never forget: the media can be used as a perfect tool for shaping consumers’ attitudes in times of change; indeed, the media in Serbia, similarly to some Ukrainian media, served as a platform for spin doctors herding the masses and trying to blend them into a desirable state. In some cases they were successful in achieving this goal.

Overall, Ukrainian and Serbian media revolutions succeeded in creating a sense of belonging for Ukrainians in Ukraine and Serbs in Serbia. The media enhanced values rooted in the national memories, local prejudices and characteristics. The search for media identity in both countries formalized and diffused national values, as well as included in the definition of media transformation some of the core capstones needed for life modern civic society.

The Impact of the Global Media on the World’s Perception of Serbia

To this day, Serbia remains one of several countries which, whenever they are mentioned in the media, leave the reader with the impression that something must be done about the internal or external conflicts in society. Cuba, North Korea, and Iran are some other similar names that belong to this category (Yugoslavia, the Media, and the Globalization Agenda 1999).

Although the recent peaceful referendum in the state of Union of Serbia and Montenegro proved that the issues of Montenegro’s independence can be resolved without bloodshed, the memories of Kosovo war are still alive and ignited further by the discussions about Kosovo’s possible autonomy.

The conflict in Kosovo began with increasing tensions between the Serbs and the Kosovars, which were fuelled by the Serbian, Albanian, and, to some extent, western media. Nevertheless, during a short period of time, namely in 1990, there was a chance: the Yugoslav economy was able to form its civil society option proposed by Ante Marković. But this phenomenon could not last long. The second phase of the media clash did not allow anyone to relax and the media were involved in war propaganda overtures (Marcović 2005). At the same time Milošević used his power to facilitate his policy, control the police, the army and the media. Experienced journalists were first sent to lay-offs and then fired if they did not agree with Milosevic propaganda on RTB as well as in other mass media. The centralized and closely governed network of mass media was established. Despite all these events, the anti-Milosevic block was getting stronger and the independent media getting more widespread and influential. Serbia has found itself involved in a decade-long revolutionary struggle. Independent electronic media united into ANEM (an association that united 16 television and 28 radio channels). Later, in October, 2000, the RTS building was demolished and partly burned during the riots against Slobodan Milosevic. After October 5, 2000, RTS was sometimes called Nova RTS (New RTS) to symbolize the liberation from the control of the Slobodan Milosevic regime.

The late 1990s were the golden days for the Serbian organisation Otpor, which brought down the dictatorship of Serbian President Milosevic in 2000. But war rhetoric and war propaganda played its role. The confusion about the real situation in Belgrade caused by the inability to assess ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ by the western media accelerated the NATO decision to deploy troops in Yugoslavia. The decade of NATO bombing in Serbian and world media started. Milosevic regime fell.

The unwillingness to cooperate with the UN was one of the key reasons to invade Kosovo. Even after the invasion, the western media continued to play the role of spin doctors, portraying the things the way they needed to. For example, when the Serb and the Russian position prevailed, it was the Russians and Serbs who were portrayed as shifting their positions, when it was NATO that had actually backed down. In this way myths supported by western media were created. The journalistic process was captive to the art of spin-doctoring. This was made, first, to maintain the guilt of the victim and the rightness of the community's action in murdering; and, second, to revisit and re-enact the violent event which the community now described as its birth. In other words, ritual and religion emerged to keep the story going (Rendall 1999).

We live in societies in which the scapegoat mechanism continues to provide the basis for most of our cultural institutions (Hunt 2001, para. 32). As long as we realise that, we should not be surprised to discover that it provides the basis for the institution of journalism as well. The most important implication of this fact is that journalist reporting will unconsciously serve the maintenance of that culture, unless the society develops the anthropological insights to move beyond.

The Impact of the Global Media on the World’s Perception of Ukraine

Ukrainian nationalism and yearning for freedom inspired the country to peaceful revolution. Global media also helped. From the first moment of the protests on the main Ukrainian square the world was receiving information about the Orange Revolution. The pictures were more informative than the words: if the Ukrainian officials said that there were no more than 50 000 people, the pictures showed the real scale of the events.

The first newspaper to show to Ukrainians the real scale of the events was “Gazeta Po-Kievski”, which published a photo of the protestors who gathered on the main square of Ukraine on the front page. But the real scale of the people’s revolt can be seen on the Internet. “Ukrayinska Pravda”, the Internet newspaper founded by killed journalist Georgiy Gongadze, as well as many other Internet portals started their protests coverage immediately. The TV and radio channels, mostly controlled by the authorities in the country, still sang the same “everything is all right” song though. The opinion leaders guided by the Internet outlets were already among the protesters.

The Internet became the arena for the expression of the views of professional journalists and opinion leaders during the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. It so happened that the intellectuals did not have the mentality or the courage to make their views known after 1991. During the rule of “two Leonids” (from 1991 till 2005), the Ukrainian intellectual elite was also dormant. The occasionally disgruntled with the regime people were expressing their outrage on the streets of the Ukrainian capital, but the majority of Ukrainians were just passers-by. Such an attitude was common among Ukrainians before 2004, before the Orange Revolution, when a series of protests and political events took place throughout the country, and the real Ukraine spoke.

The Orange Revolution can be seen as a direct democracy (Kvit 2005). In fact, the people barricaded offices of corrupt officials, so that they were unable to get to their work places. The opposition adopted the very same tactics of non-violent resistance and intimidation that proved to be so successful first in Belgrade, Serbia and then in Tbilisi, Georgia. The core forces in the Ukrainian revolution were the Pora squads. Styled after the Serbian Otpor and Georgian Khmara, the movement dominated by Western-Ukrainians prepared itself intensively, and displayed wonderful discipline and control. Orange Revolution slogans were the slogans of the Ukrainian renaissance; therefore, the Orange Revolution had its roots in Ukrainian nationalism (Kvit 2005). The nation was organized facing the threat of being outwitted by those in power.

There were difficult times, when as a result of a media war during the election campaign, the two parts of the country were brainwashed in different ways. Before the elections the media was divided into the followers of the ruling party and opposition. All main state owned channels, including private channels owned by corrupt politicians, were reporting biased information about the country’s leadership. Only a few oppositional media were functioning. Internet journalism, including blogs, became the main source for unbiased and professionally written journalistic information. As soon as many Ukrainian opinion leaders had access to it, they were informed about the latest events and related this information to the people. The most important thing was that there was absolutely no possibility to pressure the Internet web sites to favour one political party or another. That is why the Internet played an important role during the Orange Revolution. The triumph of the opposition on the Internet, and, consequently, among those in search of unbiased information, as well as opinion leaders, was overwhelming.

Conclusion: the Global-Local Media Impact in Ukraine and Serbia

In the era of globalization, it is important to understand that events half way around the world are capable of influencing other countries' futures. Mass media are the main means of acquiring and disseminating such information. The Ukrainian Orange Revolution was supported by the revolution in the media.

In fact, the media war in the context of the revolution was evident because both oppositional and ruling party supporters had their own media representatives. The coverage of the events on the channels that were ruling party sympathizers was unbalanced and subjective. But the situation changed even before the change of the regime. The journalists of the TV channels that previously favoured the ruling party decided to be with the revolution, to report the facts in an unbiased way. The question of journalist ethics arose and the journalistic standards prevailed.

Although the problem of the split between mostly Russian-speaking Eastern and Ukrainian-speaking Western Ukraine was created artificially, the consequences of such misrepresentation even in the political advertising campaigns could have been bad enough for the success of the revolution. The public relations campaigners compared the developed East with the undeveloped West, which resulted in reiteration of the old Soviet style attempts to disintegrate Ukrainian society into “us” and the “others”.

On the other hand, nowadays, in Kosovo the situation worsened to the point where you could be killed only for speaking a language which is similar to Serbian. This is what happened to the Bulgarian official from the UN mission. As it was explained, he and two of his drivers were killed because of his Slavic origin in the region supposedly controlled by UN peacekeeping forces.

Eventually, the truth becomes inevitable: there is absolutely no way of resolving ethnic conflict by means brought in by outsiders. There are many projects aimed at the reconciliation of the people from former Yugoslavia, but this conflict still has a long way to go before it is resolved. The Kosovars want the UN troops removed from the region and demand independence for their region. Serbia wants to continue talks on the status of Kosovo, while many Serbians still continue talking about Kosovo as a Serbian part of the country. The nationalist ideals of Serbia took a new turn, now showing the world another ethnic truth of Kosovo: the wish to be independent from Serbia, free from military presence, and able to determine its fate by itself.

What was the core component of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution? Western observers admitted its non violent character, as well as the high political culture of Ukrainian society. The Ukrainian nation realized its right to live a life worth of respect in an independent country. While being a grand social venue, the Ukrainian Orange Revolution also became a precedent. It gave an impetus to the never ending process of national self-perfection for the sake of prosperity and a rise of national ideals; it was a wake-up call as well as a call to continue the fight that was fought for centuries: the fight for the freedom of the nation, for the right to be told the truth and not to become blinded by refined and exquisite lies.


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