Inteview with Martin Hagström and Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina (02.08.19)

In this episode, the guests are Ambassador of Sweden to Ukraine Martin Hagström and Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina – a journalist and a writer.

Popova: Hello, I present a new episode of the “Eurointegrators” program. My guests today are: the Ambassador of Sweden to Ukraine Martin Hagström and Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina –  a journalist and a writer.

Martin, the first question is to you. What you can say about cooperation between Sweden and Ukraine after Ukraine’s signing the Euro integration agreement? Which companies are actually the biggest investors to Ukraine?

Hagström: I think, the first thing to say is that we have a very positive dynamics. We have around 100 Swedish companies that are present in Ukrainian market. There are some companies that have invested in production. There is a company called “SKF”, they have a very big factory in Lutsk. “Electrolux” – another Swedish company, they have a factory outside Ivano-Frankivsk. Of course, they are big investors, because they have invested in industrial facilities. There are some IT companies that also have big presence in Ukraine, like “Ericsson” and “Sigma” software. They have quite a lot of employees. Of course, one Swedish company, which is very big in terms of employee as well as part-time employees is “Oriflame”, quite a lot of Ukrainians are working part-time for “Oriflame”. If to look at the trade flows, one of the biggest export products from Sweden t Ukraine is nuclear fuel, it’s a company called “Westinghouse”. Another big part of the export portfolio is telephone equipment “Ericsson”, in particular with a very massive growth in 3G, now we are looking at 4G development.

Popova: Liza, you have spent a lot of time, especially during last 2 years, as I noticed, in Sweden. Based on the speech of Mr. Ambassador, are Swedish companies and actually Swedish people socially responsible?

Aleksandrova-Zorina: I spend quite a lot of time in Sweden thanks to Sverker Åström Swedish Foundation. I have already got a second grant from this Fund to learn the freedom of speech in Sweden, to learn how the Swedish media and editions work.

Popova: And you are engaged in project connected with literature, right?

Aleksandrova-Zorina: We launched this series of books. Russian authors write on some topical issues, they are being translated and published in Sweden.The first book about Yury Dmitrev, he is historian who was blamed for pedophilia, but it was totally a fake case. The Russian writer and journalist Sergii Lebedev wrote a book telling in details what really happened.  The second book was devoted to Oleg Sentsov. It was published just when Oleg held a hungry protest. The third book was written by me. It is «Internet behind the wire fence», in this book, I describe the new realities about the censorship in internet, about new laws, fabricated cases, about how our authorities fight against those who express their own opinions. The forth book by Alisa Ganieva. She tells about being a Dagestan writer in Russia.

Popova: And a book in Ukrainian, as I can see?

Aleksandrova-Zorina: And this is my novel. Several years ago, the publishing house “Fabula” translated this novel “The Broken Dolls”. This translation is very important for me, because my grandma is Ukrainian. My books have been translated to many languages, but the Ukrainian translation is very special to me.

Popova: If we will compare freedom of speech in Sweden, in Ukraine and in Russia, how can you compare it?

Hagström: I think this question is best to put actually to Liza, because she can compare all three countries. I have worked in Russia, in Saint-Petersburg, but it was in 2007 (when I left), and I know that quite a lot has happened in Russia since then.

Aleksandrova-Zorina: Well, many things have changed since 2007. I could not say there is no freedom of speech in Russia at all. It is present in the internet somehow. Some freedom is still exists, and it is trying to restrict all the attempts to press it. Authorities began to fight it by all means. In Russia, there are 90 million active internet users. This figure grew due to older people, and it is really important as these are people who were stuck mostly to TV. It does not show the real picture of the world and is acting rather in propaganda style, I mean state run TV channels. In internet, they would freely read about the crimes committed by authorities or oligarchs. That news you would never watch on state television. For example, some official run someone over with a car and he was not punished. Or millions or billions were stolen from the budget. And those who robs the country leave and live abroad if they face some troubles in Russia. Sometimes such persons are pursued but it is like a demonstrative performance to show that the authorities are trying to fight corruption. In such cases, it is really shown on TV and people get some illusions of a real fighting of corruption – someone is prisoned or punished. But when people use internet and read the news in web they see how the Russian authorities overact. How they lost their shame. People start to realize that the country lives in total poverty but Putin and his surrounding live in luxury. Internet is not just a source of information for people. It is also the instrument for mobilization of protest movements.

Popova: By the way, regarding protests, I know you were arrested, and I saw your single-person protests. Could you tell about it? You even spent a night in prison, right?

Aleksandrova-Zorina: I take part in all massive protests and rallies held by the opposition. I usually was freed as I am a journalist and a writer. I just maybe was taken into Avtozak – this special prisoner transport. The first time I was arrested and brought to police, it was the referendum day in Crimea in 2014, we organized the protest against the war, even in that time we felt the war could break out after the referendum and annexation of Crimea. Eventually, it happened later in Donbass. So, we came for the anti-war protest, I was dressed in a yellow coat and blue jumper that is the national colors not only of Sweden but also of Ukraine. One policeman from OMON came up to me and said like you do not have to be here. I said – why, I am here to do my job covering what is going on. But you are dressed up in a yellow coat – he replied. I said – would you arrest me just for wearing yellow cloth!? And then I showed him my blue jumper. He said like OK, now I have to take you to police for sure. It seems like a peak of absurd to get arrested for the color of cloth. It was a bright example of the current situation in Russia.

Popova: Would you tell about single-person protests you were involved in?

Aleksandrova-Zorina: They are about Ukraine. This unlimited protest began after Oleg Setsov claimed his hungry protest. In that time I was in Sweden and could just follow the news in Facebook. I felt that protest would change the situation in some way. People went to the streets demanding freeing Olen Sentsov, claiming the exchange of Ukrainian and Russian prisoners, it was Sentsov`s claim after he started hungry protest. He launched the protest not for himself but for others. This was the main message of protest – to provide exchange all for all. So, I returned from Sweden , the protest was still going, the exchange had not been held by that time , I came back to Sweden again and the protest were continuing.  People who take part are very optimistic about what they do, they are full of inspiration. They believe it would lead to a happy end, so they are ready to stand until the justice will prevail.

Popova: Those people stand in protest every day, right?

Aleksandrova-Zorina: Yes, they do stand every day. From Monday till Saturday they are located near the presidential administration, on weekend they move to Arbat street and Manezh square, they need to stay in locations with many people around to see the protest. They exhibit posters like «Freedom for Ukrainian sailors», «We are against war», «To provide exchange of prisoners all for all», also the posters claiming Putin to bring back Russian arrested soldiers. But Kremlin denies that worrying fact, Putin ignores it. Regarding the peoples reaction to our protest, it is always different. If people see poster «Freedom for Ukrainian sailors» they often turn aggressive, some of them scream like let all they die in prison, they attacked us, they are guilty end so on. But there are also many people who show their support. I would tell my case, I was protesting against repression of Crimean Tatars and I would say right this issue causes the most aggressive reaction. Sometimes it is an absurd. Many people say the Tatars are traitors, they are Hitler collaborators. We are trying to explain like, Hey, listen, we have 2019 now! Why are we still discussing the World War II!? From one point our slogans are provocative as we compare the deportation in 40s and the current situation in Crimea. But Russians hate them and don’t sympathize for Tatars. But we note positive reaction regarding exchange of prisoners. It is a good sign, I used to think people in Russia remain indifferent to that problem and feel hate toward Ukraine, and they become more and more heartless.  But when I am holding my poster I get a lot of thanks, many people say they support us. It is very important to me to feel not all is lost in my country.

Popova: It is already your second day in Ukraine and you posted today on Facebook photos from some protest meetings in a city center. And we counted at least 6 different meetings and pickets around the city. How can you compare this rights to held meetings in Ukraine and in Russia?

Aleksandrova-Zorina: It is hard to compare as the situation is much different. Pickets or protests in Ukraine and Moscow could not be compared at all. In Russia single-person protest is an only way to express your view. Other kind of protests has to be specified with authorities. It does look funny to meet officials to arrange the protest against them. What I saw in Kyiv is not possible in Russia, that is for sure. In our country, police could detain even a single protester, it is not according to the law but who cares in Russia what is according to the law and what is not. So, turning back to your question about Internet I would say internet is our last broad and effective instrument for influencing the authorities. It is a tool for communication, changing the information and mobilization of activists who come to protest. We have an open group in Facebook, people register for different actions. Many of them are constant protesters, some are rare. It is all via Internet. That is why Russian authorities try to control it. They think it would block our activities in some ways. They do not let us use messengers to talk over pickets, like it was in Egypt.  It was a lesson for Russian authorities. So, they will try to limit the use if Internet.

Hagström: We put quite a lot of emphasis for free media in our reform support to Ukraine. It’s a vey important part of the work of the Embassy to support reforms. Free media, trusted media is a very important part both for development and for resilience of Ukraine. I think we see that in our own case, we have a very strong public service broadcaster in Sweden – both radio and TV with a very high level of public trust. And that means that it is much harder, if someone wants to affect the debate in Sweden, if someone wants to insert fake news or disinformation, it’s much harder if you have media that are very widely trusted and that are working professionally. So here in Ukraine we have our biggest program in the media area, it’s support for the public service broadcaster “Suspilne”. Today this is a broadcaster, which is just in a process of being formed, but we see this as a very strategic kind of support, because based on our own experience how such media works, media that is not politically connected, media that is not connected to any particular media owner, such media can gain high trust and can become a very important part of the resilience of the country. So, of course, I would say that I have a lot of respect for Ukrainian journalists, I follow media very-very closely….

Aleksandrova-Zorina: I want to say that journalists today – foreign journalists and independent journalists working in Ukraine, face such a new challenge of our time – propaganda, Russian propaganda. When Swedish journalists want to talk objectively about Ukraine, to give a real picture, they naturally cannot bypass the problems of Ukrainian society, we cannot deny they exist. With all our sympathy for what is happening in Ukraine – corruption, etc. But as soon as a foreign journalist writes something and says about corruption in Ukraine, it gets out of context with Russian propaganda and says: “The Swedish journalist said that…”. I follow the work of Swedish journalists here in Ukraine, and it seems to me that they, trying to overcome it, it cannot be ignored either, but nobody wants to work on Putin’s side and Russian propaganda either. So, as it seems to me, Swedish journalists have found a very good way out – they write a lot about stories of ordinary people. They talk about problems of the country through human stories, human biographies, destinies. They take ordinary people and speak their words, give the word to people. And on the one hand, this immediately gives an objective picture of Ukrainian society and all its problems, and on the other hand, Russian propagandists cannot use such reports for their own purposes. In my opinion, this is very cool.

Popova: What do you expect from elections to the European Parliament? In some countries, ultra-right or ultra-left parties receive new support. What do you expect to happen in Europe in overall?

Hagström: I think it’s important to note that for the first time in these European Parliament elections there will be no major party that stands for policy of leaving the EU. In the previous elections, at least one, sometimes two parties were very strongly euro-sceptic. But in these elections all parties have switched to those who are more critical, they now want to change the EU from the inside, but no one anymore pushes for Sweden leaving. And I think, this is a very direct reaction to Brexit. It’s no longer very popular to talk about the EU, because we have all now realized how difficult such approach is.

Popova: As Sweden is not a member of NATO, at the same time you have this support of new parties like the “Alternative for Sweden”, and migrants from Russia support some movements. With multi-targeting actually it is quite easy to target different audience with different messages – fake messages in most situations, as we saw from Brexit experience. What does your government do about it? Finland has The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. What about Sweden?

Hagström: If we talk about disinformation and efforts to affect debate from the outside, we have had quite a lot of focus and still have a lot of focus on this in Sweden. It was a lot of work done before the parliamentary elections. Number of Swedish authorities were deeply involved in this, and in the end, I think they could present results that such efforts did occur, but it was not so massive and maybe part of the reason is that we have such preparation for it. Then I think what we already touched upon – the role of independent media, independent professional highly-trusted media.

Popova: What percentage of your parliament after the last elections have euro-sceptic?

Hagström: I think to be euro-skeptical and to be pro-Russian – those are very, very different things. At least in Sweden. Maybe there are places where these are things that go together, but I would say there are those who are more skeptical towards to the EU in Sweden that would rather like to see the bigger EU, to have all European countries together. They have kid of reacted that some have been excluded, some are not a part of it. So they would rather have something different. So people can be skeptical for different reasons.

Popova: What should we do in order finish the war in Donbass?

Hagström: What we can do as an external actor is that we can continue as we have been very supportive to Ukraine, to Ukrainian sovereignty, to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, to continue to stand very firmly for continued EU sanctions and also clear EU reactions when there are further steps taken, like it was recently with this decision on giving Russian passports to citizens of Ukraine in Donbass. That is one part of it. I think the second part, and this is where Sweden can contribute I think even more is that we can continue to be very-very supportive to Ukrainian reforms. As we have been since the mid-1990s, we continue to be, this year, we’ll have further increase our support, comparing to last year. Last year it was about 30 million euros, this year we have added another 4 million euros, focusing particular on democratic governance and to support Ukrainian authorities, and environmental issues. We will continue to do this, because we think that of course it’s in Ukraine’s interest, but it’s also very much in Sweden’s interest that Ukraine becomes more and more prosperous, more and more democratic, more and more resilient. And this I think is what we can do from Sweden’s side.

Aleksandrova-Zorina: This is a difficult question, especially to a Russian. I know what I can do. All that I can, I can take to the streets with a picket. I can communicate with my fellow citizens and tell them something that propaganda will not tell. I can fight propaganda this way, I can write articles, I can come here, I can be a kind of bridge between our peoples. But for all the questions on how to change something in Russia, it is clear that the war in Donbass is the problem of Russia. How to influence Russia, how to force Russia to end the conflict? To all the questions about Russia, I have one answer, doesn’t matter if it is corruption, or problems in the medical field, education, culture, etc., I have one answer to everything – authorities of Russia must be changed. And as long as we have these people in government, and as long as all the media are in their hands and in the hands of propagandists, we can do nothing.

Popova: Thank you Liza for your opinion. Thank you Mr. Ambassador that you came to our program. Thanks you everyone who watched us. See you next week.

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