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EU Strategy Towards Ukraine: Time to engage in e-diplomacy

July 20, 2012 - Igor Lyubashenko - Bez kategorii



One of the main weaknesses of the European Union's projects in the field of relations with its eastern neighbourhood is the lack of a specific offer that would help the ordinary citizen of a neighbouring state understand and feel the benefits of European integration. This is especially evident in the case of Ukraine, the biggest and the most significant country in the EU's Eastern Partnership initiative.

While the Yulia Tymoshenko case has become the most important problem in the country's relations with its key western partners, the majority of Ukrainians seem not to share the concerns of the international community to the same extent. The dissonance between external and internal expectations towards the Ukrainian authorities may have a negative effect on the EU's image and thus threaten its foreign policy goals.

The EU should seek the possibility to enhance its direct dialogue with Ukrainian society – and the new window of opportunity to do this is opening right now. Over the past few years, Ukraine has witnessed a dynamic growth of internet usage. According to GfK Ukraine, there were around 12 million regular users (31 per cent of the population over the age of 16) at the beginning of 2012. Although the internet audience remains dominated by younger users and is concentrated in big cities, the research shows that the positive dynamic of growth can be observed in all age groups (except over 60). It is worth noting that communication via social networking sites has exceeded communication via traditional means of internet communication such as e-mail for the first time. Ukraine is rapidly going online and that in turn opens a significant amount of new channels of communications with the country's society.

Until recently, the development of Ukrainian cyberspace remained virtually ignored by the government. This has changed over the last few months. The beginning of 2012 was marked by a shutdown of one of the most popular web-sites in Ukraine, a file-sharing service (ex.ua). In response, a hacker attack on a number of governmental websites took place. It was the first time that Ukrainian authorities faced such problem on such a significant scale. As a result, the Ministry of Interior proposed the possibility to regulate access to information available on the internet.

In addition, the first attempt to create special conditions for the development of a Ukrainian IT industry has been made. In May 2012, laws on a special tax regime for IT-companies and a special “tax experiment” for software developing companies were adapted by the parliament. Although the attempt to support the development of innovative industries should be regarded as a positive step, some critical voices were heard in the media. Critics claim that new regulations will create a new field for corruption and control over the industry. Ukraine still has no well-defined comprehensive internet policy either on the “supply" or on the "demand" side. However, the first steps towards creating a legal framework regulating internet-related industries suggest that the authorities do not exclude a restrictive method.

The United States has been recently pioneering the field of e-diplomacy, which can be defined as an attempt to adapt state administration to the dynamically changing reality of the 21st century. The US e-diplomacy can be seen as a practical incarnation of a cyberpower in international relations. The significance of the internet as a factor supporting democracy and an innovative business climate has been mentioned in the European Commission's last review of the European Neighbourhood Policy. It is high time for the EU to go further and develop a comprehensive e-diplomatic strategy. Ukraine could be a good starting point in the whole post-Soviet area.

The strategy should consist of two elements. First, programs supporting the development of a legal framework regulating the IT-sector in Ukraine should be considered. It is important that the solutions taken by Ukraine are compatible with EU standards, specifically in the context of establishing a free-trade area. Secondly, the EU's public diplomacy should be enhanced with dynamic online activities. Achieving success in this latter field will not be easy. As any other nation, Ukrainians use the web primarily for entertainment and communication. In order to engage them in a politically-focused debate over European values and benefits of European integration, a creative approach should be developed. Inspiration, for example, can be taken from the use of technology in marketing and advertising (it is nothing new for a marketing industry to sell ideas).

The method of trial-and-error seems to be inevitable in creating a working strategy. But at the same time, the US experience with e-diplomacy has proven that using new communication technologies to achieve foreign policy goals provides a favourable cost-benefit balance. Finally, as Joseph Nye has argued in his brilliant The Future of Power, “in the information age, communication strategies become more important, and outcomes are shaped not merely by whose army wins but by whose story wins”.

Igor Lyubashenko is an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. He has PhD in Political Science from the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin. His professional experience includes implementation of international projects in Ukraine and Moldova, academic teaching as well as working in the field of marketing communication.

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