Who Pursues the “External Governance” Narrative in Ukraine And Why They Do It

External governance, Russian disinfo narrative spread in Ukraine
Tap to see more

Ukrainian government tentatively attempts to reestablish trust with International Monetary Fund (IMF), which received a heavy blow after resignation of Yakiv Smolii – a former head of the National Bank of Ukraine. As his successor does damage control and insists Ukraine will fulfill its obligations in full and on time, these claims trigger different reactions. Some hope that Kyiv will further pursue cooperation with Western partners and international institutions, while others (and, as demonstrated below, they are a very particular crowd) detest the idea and label it as the continuation of “external governance”. 

What’s Behind the Narrative

“External governance” is one of the top anti-Western narratives promoted in Ukraine – according to the recent study by UkraineWorld, it ranks second. The term is coined in a specific context that stipulates Ukraine has lost its sovereignty and is, essentially, governed from the outside. While the culprit may be different, it is always an actor representing the West: American government in general or Democratic Party of the USA, Brussels as the capital of European Union or international organizations, among which IMF is targeted in particular. Ambiguity of the term allows shifting gears as necessary while building the hostile image of the West. 

This narrative may be considered a centerpiece in a network of anti-Western messages, as the majority of them are linked to the idea of “external governance”. For example, a distinct smear campaign against George Soros that intensified in March 2020 and expanded to target Ukrainian civic society fits this framework. According to it, institutions and actors linked to (or labeled as such) Soros are involved in undermining Ukrainian sovereignty and turning it into the US “colony”.  Some of the relevant messages inch even closer to conspiracy theories, such as the claim that international elites devised a plan to reduce Ukrainian population down to 10 million people.  Some are used as an attack against particular institutions, e.g. insistence that the West controls National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine and uses it for political purposes – or rules the National Bank of Ukraine via leadership appointed by the President and parliament who are portrayed as weak players doing Western bidding. 

In these terms, memorandum with IMF was portrayed by some actors as signing off Ukrainian independence and “establishing the external governance policy”. Rules that the Kyiv has to abide by in order to ensure more transparent and effective financial system are consistently twisted and pictured as an attempt to impose foreign rule over Ukraine. Financial assistance from IMF helps Ukraine to overcome a threat of default against the backdrop of ongoing Russian aggression and COVID-19 pandemic. Default would not only deliver a heavy blow to the welfare of Ukrainian citizens, but also distance Ukraine significantly from the Western partners and leave face to face with Kremlin. However, actors attacking IMF as well as American and European partners in general, argue that default would be a chance to get rid of “external governance”. Who are these actors then, and what is their goal? 

Who Promotes the Narrative in Ukraine?

Channels of communication involved in spreading the narrative vary – but the majority of them are linked to pro-Russian agents of influence. TV-channels most heavily pushing the “external governance” messages (and increasingly so) are 112, NewsOne, ZIK and Nash. The first three are linked to Viktor Medvedchuk, a notorious pro-Kremlin politician and leader of the “Opposition Platform – For Life” (OPFL) party. Party’s media resources naturally contribute to the campaign, from OPFL official web-site to personal YouTube channels of its members. “Nash” is a channel linked to Yevhenii Muraev – a leader of a smaller pro-Russian force “Nashi”. Both parties are rooted in the pro-Russian “Party of Regions” that was behind 4th President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, deposed in 2014 as a result of Euromaidan and having taken refuge in Russian Federation.

Although “Party of Regions” as a formal structure has turned into political phantom after 2014 – majority of its key members joined other forces, trying to disassociate from the former President, and more than 1 million members left the party before June 2014, – it is still informally present in Ukrainian landscape. Personalities such as Olena Lukash, a Minister of Justice under Yanukovych, and Olena Bondarenko, an MP during his rule, as one of the most active proponents of “external governance” narrative (for example: 123)  receive substantial representation in the local information field. They do so via the abovementioned channels linked to Medvedchuk that frequently invite them as experts and give opportunity to run their own political programs. Same goes for Andriy Portnov – a Deputy Head of Presidential Administration under Yanukovych, who has recently released a documentary program titled “New intervention. Everything about external governance of Ukraine”. He also hosts a “Crime and Punishment” political show on NewsOne, in addition to his frequent appearances as a guest at NewsOne, 112 and ZIK. 

Andrii Palchevsky, a pro-Russian candidate in the upcoming Kyiv local elections [more information on his ties to Moscow and campaign manipulations available here] also spins this narrative on air of Medvedchuk-linked channels. So does blogger with political ambitions Anatolii Shariy, who has been publicly endorsed by Medvedchuk himself as an ally in ending “external governance and anti-Russian hysteria”. In this particular video he insists that Ukraine will be under “external governance” after passing the banking bill. The bill in question, prioritized by IMF, was designed, among other things, to prevent the possible return of Ukraine’s biggest bank PrivatBank to its former owner oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, under whom the institution was close to bankruptcy that would threaten the stability of banking system as a whole. Kolomoisky remains dissatisfied with the case, utilizing his influence to undermine cooperation with IMF and amplify “external governance” narrative. He does so by proxy of MPs linked to him such as Oleksandr Dubinsky, a member of the presidential “Servant of the People” party who also echoes the messaging on destructive influence of the West, George Soros and alleged American colonialism.   As Kolomoisky and Medvedchuk have formed a situational anti-Western alliance, Dubinsky, among others, receives substantial amount of air time on 112, ZIK and NewsOne. 

These particular speakers are far from constituting an exhaustive list of “external governance” proponents. They, however, represent a trend: the narrative is favored by pro-Russian oligarchic forces. 

To What End?

It comes as no surprise, then, that the message itself originated in Kremlin. It was one of the top narratives on Ukraine promoted by Russian state-controlled television. It is also not the only case of local agents adapting Russian messages for Ukrainian information space – another recent example is the case with conspiracy theory on “American military biolabs” in Ukraine that were linked to COVID-19 pandemic. Spread by OPFL and amplified by its media resources, it is a revitalization of the older Russian narrative that targeted laboratories under biological threat reduction program and accused them of developing biological weapons. While Lugar Center in Georgia is the most frequent object of these attacks, institutions in Ukraine have also been high on Moscow’s agenda. 

Facilitating “external governance” narrative is clearly beneficial for Kremlin as a part of reflexive control. Sewing distrust towards Western partners and supporting local political parties that do so would be helpful to bring Ukraine back into Kremlin’s field of influence – with the hands of Ukrainian voters themselves. Votes are precisely the focus of this campaign carried out by Moscow-oriented political actors: upcoming local elections are treated with all seriousness as a stepping stone to further advancement in Ukrainian political landscape. Medvedchuk-linked media, individual channels of communication at the disposal of pro-Russian politicians, pro-Russian online media, and anonymous Telegram channels likely administered from the Russian Federation have long been building dissatisfaction in Ukrainian society. They have often made economic struggles a key focus point, disregarding the toll ongoing aggression, among other factors, has on the system and redirecting it to the West and “Western-imposed” politicians. Further spinning the narrative and building a negative image of American and European partners as “colonizers” triggers an emotional reaction within the target audience, part of which may not have pro-Russian political views but is deeply disturbed by the perspective of losing the state’s sovereignty. It pushes them towards the force that promises “restoration of independence” – while its ultimate goal is, ironically, quite the opposite.