In Crimea, Public Relations Can Be As Dangerous As Politics

In Ukraine, a dangerous "information war" is being waged by volunteers who are trying to win support in Crimea, where there is a near-total information blackout of pro-Ukrainian opinions.

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Crimea votes this coming Sunday on whether to claim independence from Ukraine. Polls indicate the measure is sure to pass. But pro-Russian politicians are leaving nothing to chance. They've imposed a near total blackout on information from the government in Kiev.

And as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, volunteers are taking great risks to get that information into Crimea.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Last Saturday night, Katerina Butko and Alexandra Ryazantseva - two Ukrainian activists in their 20's - drove east out of Kiev in a white and purple Citroen headed for Crimea. The 400-mile journey took them 18 hours, since they stopped several times along the way to pass out pro-Ukrainian pamphlets from a box in their trunk. It wasn't until yesterday afternoon that they arrived at the border to Crimea, which is now guarded by armed men wearing ski masks and uniforms with no insignia.

What happened next to the women, no one can say for sure. But several good friends of the women told me they've not been able to reach them.

IVETTA DELIKATNA: At the border they were arrested and they were taken to nowhere. Nobody knows where they are.

WARNER: Ivetta Delikatna is the one who designed those pamphlets in the trunk of that car. And she sent her colleagues into Crimea because Ukrainian TV channels are blocked, as well as some websites. As Crimea heads for a vote on Sunday, whether to secede from Ukraine and be annexed to Russia, Russian television channels have broadcast lurid descriptions of chaos and violence wracking the city of Kiev, which is actually quite calm and peaceful.

DELIKATNA: It's an informational war. And Russia has very strong resources to carry this war.

WARNER: Delikatna says she got involved because too often the Ukrainian response to these glossily produced Russian TV packages sounds like this...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Dozens of these impassioned homemade videos can be found online. But they're by people in Kiev, aimed at their friends or relatives in Russian-speaking east of the country.

I tracked down the maker of this particular video. His name is Yarik Ageyenko. He told me he filmed it out of frustration with the worried phone calls he'd get from people he knows in Crimea. They'd ask him with a straight face: How do you survive when they're shooting Russian-speakers in the streets? Or when American paratroopers are marching through Kiev?

YARIK AGEYENKO: And when you're trying to explain that that's not true, they don't believe us.

WARNER: Even though you're their friend. Or relative.

AGEYENKO: Friend or relative.

WARNER: So let me ask you a question. If people don't believe their own relatives, how do you expect them to believe a YouTube video?

AGEYENKO: That's a good question.

WARNER: And Delikatna says the true answer is they don't.

DELIKATNA: For the Crimea and the east, emotional messages didn't work, like let's unite, don't be slaves.

WARNER: The very slogans that drew people to the streets in Kiev make people genuinely alarmed in Crimea. So Delikatna who, in her day job works for a PR and marketing firm, took a different tack with those pamphlets that the two young women tried to smuggle in; instead of anti-Russian sloganeering, she asked readers to contemplate the consequences of Crimea joining Russia.

DELIKATNA: First of all if they join Russia, their kids, for example, should go to Russian army, which is much more dangerous than being in Ukraine.

WARNER: And if Crimea votes for independence, what will happen to Crimean's money, in Ukrainian banks, or their title deeds, registered with courts in Kiev?

DELIKATNA: So how logistically it will be organized? Nobody knows that, nobody explains that. That's why we can play with it right now.

WARNER: That word play gives a clue to what Delikatna is trying to do here. Not so much propaganda as what we'd call spin. Her challenge is getting that polished appeal to the people of Crimea before Sunday's vote.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Kiev.

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