First in Series – Western Media vs Reality (#1)
PBS News in partnership with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, with special correspondent, Nick Schifrin recently did something rather rare. They, as a western channel, went to Donbass, Donetsk (former Ukraine), and actually did a very good report from there.
I say very good, not excellent – strange emphasis on the two teenage girls in training, a very untypical example when most teenagers in Donetsk do as teenagers do anywhere. And how about a bit of speaking to the people working there, rather than just filming them? An interview with Zakharchenko, Pushilin too, just a few soundbites even, would have added to the piece.
But still, light years from the standard western media pantomime depiction of ‘separatists’, ‘Russian forces’ and so on. But then, what happens? Just a few days later, experienced American correspondent Schifrin goes to the southern city of Odessa, where I lived, have written much about, meets, and is clearly pretty taken with port chief, 26-year-old Yulia Marushevska –
That’s understandable, no question Marushevska is beautiful, and charming, and Shifrin is hardly the first male correspondent to go a bit gooey in her presence. So who is she? Marushevska was an aspiring actress, activist at the time of Euromaidan, when in February 2014, she apparently had the idea herself to make a professionally-produced video (with a Hollywood team on board, Ben Moses no less, producer of Good Morning Vietnam involved).
The I am a Ukrainian video went huge, Marushevska spent most of the next year on a global PR tour of talks shows, and on. With that starting to run out of steam in June 2015, the southern-Ukrainian native accepted an offer from a man no stranger to PR himself, newly appointed Odessa governor, former president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili – seriously need of a bit of distraction to silence dissenting voices – accusations of mass corruption in his own country, accusations that he was a career failure, jumping on the Ukraine bandwagon for personal gain, PR – and took up the position in Saakashvili’s team, of head of a newly created ‘Investment agency’ of Odessa government, with Saakashvili making reference to her having spent an (otherwise undocumented) ‘year of training at Harvard and Stanford.’
Doing nothing of note in this position, apart from dutifully turning up at Saakashvili’s various press conferences and public appearances (as left), Marushevska was nonetheless, in October of 2015, given the gig of head of Odessa customs, Odessa port itself one of the biggest, and most infamously corrupt, ports in Europe. Here, a rather inebriated looking president Poroshenko, unveils a rather embarrassed looking Marushevska, calling her ‘beautiful’ as he does so –
That relationship seems to have suffered somewhat since, with Marushevska recently reduced to making televised appeals asking for Poroshenko’s assistance, complaining about problems in implementing reforms.
Reform is something certainly mentioned in the PBS article on Marushevska, which begins ‘Yulia Marushevska has never been a customs officer before. Nor has she been a politician. But today, at 26, she is a member of Odessa’s regional government with perhaps its most difficult job: cleaning a notoriously corrupt customs house.’
The article, which could hardly have been kinder if Marushevska’s own mother had written it, goes on –
“Open Customs Area” will replace an old, dark building with offices in the basement. The building’s architecture is its message: customs officials who used to work in back offices will now have desks out in the open; workers susceptible to corruption will be replaced by computers; procedures will be simplified to prevent graft. The United States is helping fund the project.
It’s customs as a service, not as a barrier, for business,” she says. “It is a symbolic place and a symbolic project for whole Ukraine.”
The article goes in in this vein, giving Yulia an open platform, without any dissent from her winsome voice. For any insinuation that things might not actually be going all that well, the chief Ukrainian customs officer is cited to blame, going so far as to send someone to ‘spy and to control‘ on her. And in the event of her ultimate failure, just to couch things, we have ‘so long as the old elites are still in power, it’s not clear’.
Reuters, while generally favourable, were rather more objective about her back in their May of 2016 article, calling her on the, frankly ridiculous, unsourced, statement, that previously people ‘paid $5 million to get her job (getting that back through graft)’. They also brought up criticisms of Marushevska that she’s simply out of her depth, and more, trying to straddle the (surely incompatible) stools of doing a serious job requiring enormous amounts of administrative work, with the role of being a glamorous activist, pin-up symbol of Maidan…
But, none of that in the PBS article. None of the fact that Marushevska has reportedly been issued with 3 warnings, for incompetence. That in the first quarter of 2016, revenues from Odessa customs decreased by 30 percent, while in Ukraine as a whole, revenues were reported as up 21 percent, that the head of Ukraine’s Fiscal Service, Roman Nasirov, regards Marushevska’s reforms as having actually made things worse.
More, for all her talk of reform, Odessa’s port under Marushevska still adheres to an antiquated system of customs only being open from 9am to 9pm, rather than the, by now standard, round the clock. More, businessmen have complained it’s simply not possible to get a meeting with Marushevska. Irate clients complain of tariffs increasing, but service actually deteriorating, with frequent delays preventing goods from getting through.
One recent incident involved the deputy director of company ‘Your Logistics’, representing 300 clients of Odessa’s ports, making the 500km trip for a pre-arranged meeting with Marushevska. He was kept waiting for 6 hours, and when Marushevska eventually failed to show entirely, made the trip back to Kiev, empty-handed, furious.
Instances like this have given rise to talk that, with no photographers around, Marushevska simply isn’t interested in putting in the actual, off camera, hard work the job demands. Social media – both Russian and Ukrainian – buzzes with talk that the girl of whom so many glamorous photos abound, either isn’t capable, or simply isn’t interested in what is a decidedly non-glamorous position, sitting in long meetings thrashing out negotiations requiring volumes of paperwork. She’s in the gig only because she looks good, and is ever ready to talk up her under-fire boss Saakashvili.
And, despite the new, open-plan customs processing centre which Marushevska takes all journalists too for interview, reports are that corruption, and smuggling are actually increasing on her watch – the port of Chornomosk, next to Odessa, also under Marushevska’s control, is cited as a hotbed of cigarette contraband, bound for Turkey.
The PBS piece on Marushevska rounds off with her – “It’s war of past and future,” she says in the Open Customs Area. “A war against corruption, war against this old way of thinking, war against Soviet heritage, and war for a modern Ukraine.”
It’s a great soundbite, but speculation is mounting that all Marushevska is actually good for is a rousing soundbite, and a pretty face. However, it’s because of the latter, that in western media, you hardly ever hear of the former. For PBS, it’s a shame they managed to fight, largely overcome, the wall of Ukrainian, western propaganda in Donbass, only for their reportage, lured by the siren of Marushevska, to crash against the rocks in Odessa.