As disinformation, and especially disinformation related to the war in Ukraine, has remained a major challenge, two notable speakers debated the issue in an online panel on 7 June 2023 within the conference The Role of Civil Society in Countering Disinformation and Promoting Media Literacy. The speakers were Christo Grozev, Investigative Journalist, Bellingcat and Ivan Krastev, Chair of the Board at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM), and the panel was moderated by Irina Nedeva, President of the Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria and journalist at the Bulgarian National Radio.
Ivan Krastev believes that “One of the strengths of Russian propaganda, particularly before the war, is very much based on weaponizing mistrust. From this point of view, this is critically important – the major story of Russian propaganda is not so much to sell us their narrative but basically to roll back the narrative that is coming from our governments and also from the mainstream media.” Krastev added that “If the Soviet Union believed that it is better than the West and that was at the heart of their propaganda, now the major argument is that we are not different.”
Ivan Krastev elaborated on his main argument that “We are living in a world in which mistrust is the default option. So never mind what source of official information you are getting, this is true for all societies, but this is also true for Russia. The problem is “Why they are telling me this?”. Ivan Krastev’s position is that “The major idea of disinformation is about creating a grey zone in which everybody is equal, no argument is better than the other argument and everything is not what it looks like. And the major message is “Don’t trust your eyes”.”
Ivan Krastev dwelled on Russia’s policy and behaviour to explain current development. He put forward the argument that Russia’s President Putin has intentionally employed open dishonesty as a tactic in order to equate Russia’s actions in Ukraine with those of the West in Iraq in 2003 and elsewhere. According to Krastev, “…that this type of game, in which you all the time is doing something excessive, trying to be exposed and after that you weaponize it – the famous kind of judo metaphor the Russian president was so much happy to work with…” as the start of the war in Ukraine in 2014 showed. During the annexation of Crimea, President Putin lied about the presence of Russian special forces on the peninsular, knowing all too well that the Western leaders knew there were Russian forces. According to Ivan Krastev this was done intentionally as a power-play with the West – “You are lying to be called a liar. So you can say “a liar like you.””, i.e. to expose the West’s own transgressions.
Ivan Krastev underlined President Putin’s obsession about Russia’s demographic, triggered, among other things, by his belief in the prediction by the famous Russian 19th-century scientist Mendeleev that in the year 2000 they would be 500 million Russians in the world, while they were only about 150 million now because of the revolutions and other events. Putin’s profound demographic anxieties made him ”fear that there are not enough Russians in the world” and changed the kind of classical imperial project, which was based on a multi-ethnic type of empire to an idea of Russian ethnic states, in which Ukrainians should be converted into Russians. Eventually, these reasons contributed to the 2014 invasion and annexation and the fully blown war in 2022.
Ivan Krastev also dwelt on the role and types of nationalism, nation-formation as drivers in the current context. “Russian nationalism of this type is a latecomer”, Krastev said, referring to modern nationalism, as in the past in the Soviet Union “Russians as an ethnic group have been trading power for identity”, reminding that there was not a Communist Party of the Russian Federation and there was not a government of the Russian Federation within the Soviet Union, but as a rule there was an ethnic Russian leader as a key figure in command of the national republics of the USSR and that back then national identity was much stronger on the periphery and much weaker at the centre of Russia.
There is a paradox, Ivan Krastev concluded, in that people like Yevgeni Prigozhin very much envied Ukrainian modern nationalism and Ukraine’s wartime president in that “…he is envious of the Ukrainians, they want to have this type of nationalism. They want to have a leader like Zelenskyy.” Krastev responded to a question about the likely future myth-making in Russia after the war in Ukraine has ended in one way or the other, considering national identify making as a factor.
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The conference took place on 7-8 June 2023 in Sofia, Bulgaria. Organized by the Active Citizens Fund operators from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia, the event brought together civil society organizations, activists, experts, government representatives, and other stakeholders to address the pressing challenges of disinformation and the need for the promotion of media literacy in Central and Eastern Europe. 60 participants from eight countries – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, and Slovakia – took part in the event.