Soft power is to help Ukraine form the public opinion in Italy – Italian writer


Narration about Ukraine in Italian media has often been biased and untruthful, this became evident when Euromaidan started. The template for such coverage was formed earlier. There is a number of reasons for that. Among them are Italy’s close historic ties with the USSR, lack of qualified experts on Ukraine in the country as well as insufficient academic and cultural information about actual Ukraine coming in.

Kyiv, July 6, 2016. In November 2013 when Euromaidan started, in Italian media the template for biased coverage of events in Ukraine already existed. Why it happened that way, explained Massimiliano Di Pasquale, journalist, writer and author of the book “Ukraine Borderland. Trips in the Unknown Europe” at a press-briefing at Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

On June 28, 2016 Di Pasquale who has been researching Ukraine for over 10 years, presented a report entitled “Euromaidan and the Donbas War in Italian Media” at the conference organized by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

Before the Orange Revolution of 2004 Ukraine was not present in Italian newspapers, magazines and on TV as an independent actor, Di Pasquale said. “Italy always had a close and  a privileged relationship with the Soviet Union and thus struggled to come to terms with the idea of Ukraine as an independent state. Despite the fact that the USSR was a federal union of 15 constituent republics, Italian intelligentsia often identified the Soviet Union with Russia. The Soviet Union and Russia were frequently used as synonyms by Italian politicians and journalists producing misunderstanding and confusion amongst the general public,” elaborated the researcher.

Another peculiarity that has produced an impact on coverage of the Ukrainian theme in Italian media is a small number of qualified experts who specialize on Ukraine and a limited access for them to the media that form the public opinion. Instead the in-demand speakers on the Ukrainian theme in the media have often been the experts whose opinion coincides with the pre-accepted narrative, while their knowledge of history and politics of the country is not always exhaustive.

For example, the geopolitical magazine “Limes” was one of the first – in the beginning of the 90s that started writing about Ukraine, portraying it as an appendix to Russia that will sooner or later join it. “Apart from some qualified exceptions the so-called Ukrainian experts writing for ‘Limes’ were mostly former Moscow correspondents during the Soviet times or even Kremlin consultants”, elaborated Di Pasquale.

Over the first years of its independence Ukraine did not have its own voice in the Italian media space. The country was narrated using the information of Russian news agencies and TV channels. In 2004 when international media attention was drawn to the developments of the Orange Revolution, Italian media was sending their Moscow-based correspondents to cover the events in Ukraine. Biased coverage often came as a result. “The situation was so embarrassing that the President of the Italian Association for Ukrainian Studies Giovanna Brogi sent an open letter to RAI TV, the Italian national public broadcasting company asking for a more balanced coverage of what was happening in Ukraine,” says Di Pasquale. However the letter received no answer, the researcher adds.

“2008 is a pivotal year for geopolitics of the post-Soviet space,” Di Pasquale says. It is the year when the Kremlin for the first time applied the concept of hybrid warfare in Georgia. At the basis of these actions is the principle of force. According to this concept suggested by Kremlin consultants Aleksandr Dugin and Vladislav Surkov it is not the international law but the principle of force that defines sovereignty and borders. It was exactly in 2008 when “Limes” magazine presented maps of Ukraine and Georgia on its pages, split into parts, as well as the articles, the names of which suggested this idea. It was for the first time during the independence period that the legitimacy of borders of the sovereign state was openly questioned.

When Euromaidan and later when the war in Donbas started, “what was initially just a pro-Russian standpoint turned into a Moscow-centered narration. None of the major TV channels was immune to it,” elaborates Di Pasquale. Even biggest national newspapers “Corriere della Sera” and “Repubblica” along with balanced articles published reports and editorials that conveyed exactly the same rhetoric of Russian propaganda. Newspapers that present both the right-wing standpoint, like “Il Giornale” as well as the ones presenting left-wing views, like “Il Manifesto” described Ukrainian people demonstrating in Kyiv as right-wing extremists.  

An example of the most wide-spread concepts inspired by the Russian propaganda that could be found in Italian media is the story from TV channel RAI2 “Brother against Brother” broadcast in February 2015, the researcher notes. The following ideas are present in it: the conflict in Ukraine is a civil war; central authorities in Kyiv are a Nazi junta; the fighters of the so-called “LPR” and “DPR” are antifascist patriots; sooner or later Donbas will be liberated and along with Crimea and south-eastern Ukraine will be part of Novorosiya.

Another instrument used for transmitting the Kremlin’s narrative as to the events in Ukraine are Russian cultural associations that use various channels for various audiences, Di Pasquale says. They organize conferences, engage hundreds of trolls on social media and use pseudo experts on the Ukrainian theme.

Answering the question on what Ukraine can do at the level of the state and civic initiatives in order to form a truthful picture that would present it accurately in Italy, Massimiliano Di Pasquale noted: “The Ukrainian government should invest much energy and resources of soft power in order to increase the knowledge and perception of Ukraine in Italy. It may be for example the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Italy. The most important thing is to invest in culture.” It also means to let Italian people know that there is contemporary Ukrainian culture and that it is not just limited to the folklore. Different audiences need to be targeted with the up-to-date quality product.

“Italy should translate some important books about Ukrainian history,” went on Di Pasquale who himself is the author of several books on Ukraine. There is currently only one comprehensive book in Italian on Ukrainian history and culture – “Ukrainian Literary Civilization” by Oxana Pakhlyovska written almost 20 years ago. Interested editors need to be engaged in these activities, to achieve this soft power needs to be used and work on promotion of the right image of Ukraine needs to be done, noted Di Pasquale.

Reference: Massimiliano Di Pasquale is an Italian writer and journalist. He is the author of several books on Ukraine: a photographic book “In Ukraine. Pictures for a Diary” (in Italian: “In Ucraina. Immagini per un diario”, 2010) and a cultural travel book “Ukraine Borderland. Trips in the Unknown Europe” (in Italian: “Ucraina terra di confine. Viaggi nell’Europa sconosciuta”, 2012). Massimiliano regularly writes about Ukrainian culture and politics for Italian magazines and newspapers, takes part in international conferences with presentations on Ukraine. In autumn 2015 he published a new travel book called “Magic Riga” (in Italian: “Riga Magica”). Massimiliano is a member of the Italian Association of Ukrainian Studies.