_ By Radu Magdin, international affairs analyst and communications consultant_
Ukraine is a big country with big resources, both in terms of human capital and other natural riches, although it does not have a history of good management of its national wealth. For some of its neighbours as well as for a lot of the West, the country is still a big unknown, despite this Eastern Europeans state having so much to offer, on topics ranging from culture and tourism to major investments. The country is getting ready for its biggest ever privatization wave since independence (almost 900 State owned companies to be privatised through 2020), but it still focuses mostly, in terms of communications, on the war in the East.
There is opportunity, around Independence Day (beyond the symbolism of partner countries’ delegations at the military parade marking the 26th anniversary of independence) to set out on a new path. The time has come for the country to focus on economic aspiration and growth prospects. There is therefore momentum for a renewed communications strategy to accompany such a needed change of mindset.
Ukraine’s country image basically needs a shift in focus from challenges to opportunities. Of course, security is important, a country’s borders are not negotiable, and stability is key to any major business opportunity. One cannot and should not negotiate sovereignty and integrity. But the authorities in Kyiv tend to place too much of their emphasis on the security card and less on attracting investors and tourists: in the end, if the majority of news on a country is about war, why would you want to come and invest or spend a family weekend? Ukraine has, of course, to fight for its just cause and respect for international law, but it’s also important to start presenting itself more seriously also as a safe land for investments and tourists. This is a way better path to gain international “attention and affection” than to continue the war mantra, which is inevitably burning out in terms of results: in the end, unfortunately, the global agenda is so fluid that it shifts rapidly from North Korea to the Middle East and then to Venezuela.
‘Too much news about weapons’
The reason for my plea is in response to a question from a good Ukrainian friend, upon a recent visit to Kyiv: how do you see Ukraine in the international media? The reply was: too much news about weapons, too little on economic opportunity and reforms. This has to change for a Ukrainian success story both at home and abroad. This is a story that Ukraine deserves, and not just on the occasion of its independence day. It’s also a wise path to take in terms of advantages and disadvantages. In this conflict, time is against the Ukrainian government as a result of international attention fatigue regarding Donbas. But Ukraine can fight back without weapons if it can find a place on the world investor and tourist map as a country of choice in 2017 and beyond. A vibrant, investment friendly, corruption-fighting, Ukraine can be at the same time a great source of storytelling for the international media and a success story to tell, by force of comparison, within the former Soviet space. That, Kyiv might agree, would freak out leadership in the Kremlin since it would prove that going the Western way pays off.
This autumn should be dedicated to both reforms and strategic communications, there is an emerging case for a European and international charm offensive by the great Ukrainian people. During the last EU – Ukraine Summit in July 2017, EU and Ukrainian leaders welcomed the ratification by all EU countries of the association agreement, including the deep and comprehensive free trade area. It will enter into force on 1 September 2017. This, like the buzz around November’s Eastern Partnership summit, should be on the stakeholders’ priority list. Speaking of trade, the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement is also expected to create countless opportunities for entrepreneurs from both countries.
The resolution of security challenges is key to Ukraine’s stabilization and development in the coming years, while the country is seeking membership to the European Union and NATO. Important are also high-level visits like the symbolic ones by US Defense Secretary Mattis and US Special Representative Volker, joined by promises of defence defensive support for the Ukrainian army. However, a story of genuine Ukrainian success can only be built on economic dynamism and opportunities both at home and abroad. It has to be aspirational, not just security related. Offensive, in a positive sense, not defensive.
As a first step, it would be wise is to set up an action group for improving Ukraine’s country image abroad, with local and foreign experts as part of the branstorming and execution process. Of course, PR is not everything (as the invention of a Ministry of Public Information can stand proof of), yes, reforms and a country plan/ vision are critical for success. But if Kyiv signals properly that is it keen to contribute to a “success story” at EU/Nato’s Eastern border then so will the member states reciprocate in terms of continued attention and assistance, despite competing public agenda hot topics. In the news last week was the promising-looking headline “Development of the national economy is one of the most important priorities for the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine”. If this is really the case then an international business and PR strategy is highly needed.
The “hot war raging” in Ukraine’s East, that US Special Representative Volker mentioned recently in Vilnius, cannot be ignored but Ukraine can manage the conflict better through a strong and innovative strategy worldwide. In the end, the economy cannot wait for a ceasefire, the population legitimately expects to live better, a few years after the Maidan. As written in a previous Euronews op ed , a few months ago – a combination of delivery on reforms, timely international communications, and a charm offensive, by also working behind the scenes in the West, is still a prerequisite for success.
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