KEY FEATURES OF BILATERAL RELATIONS WITH UKRAINE, MUTUAL PERCEPTION AND CULTURAL SPHERE OF THE ARGENTINE REPUBLIC
The dynamics of bilateral relations with Ukraine during the presidencies of the Kirchners, Mauricio Macri and Alberto Fernández. Perception of the Russian-Ukrainian war in the country’s political discourse
The Republic of Argentina was the first Latin American country to recognize Ukraine as an independent state on December 5, 1991, but relations between the two countries go back a long way: Argentina was the only Latin American country to recognize the Ukrainian People’s Republic in February 1921. Since then, the two sides have been engaged in an active political dialogue. In November 2020, the legal framework was expanded with the signing of the Visa Waiver Agreement by the Government of Ukraine and the Government of the Argentine Republic, which gave a powerful impetus to enhancing mutual ties in the economic, cultural and tourism sectors (as of December 2022, there are more than 50 existing agreements of interstate, intergovernmental, interagency, interregional and interinstitutional nature).
Under the presidencies of Néstor Kirchner (2003–2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007–2015), Argentina’s relations with China and Russia grew closer. The comprehensive strategic partnership with Russia was supposed to replace the influence of the United States. For Russia, which was looking for allies in Latin America, it was advantageous. President Mauricio Macri (2015–2019) restored and improved Argentina’s relations with the United States, and a new phase of deepening bilateral relations with Ukraine began since President Macri’s inauguration in 2015. However, the Macri administration has continued to develop a strategic partnership with Russia, in particular by signing energy and trade cooperation agreements in 2015.
In October 2021, the current President of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, held a final face-to-face meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi on the sidelines of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. During the meeting, both countries reaffirmed their readiness to continue strengthening bilateral cooperation. Still, Alberto Fernández adheres to a multi-vector policy: he perceives Russia as a potential strategic partner, but at the same time continues to foster Argentina’s cooperation with the United States. In early February 2022, before the full-scale invasion, Alberto Fernández visited Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where he declared that he wanted to “turn Argentina into Russia’s entry point to Latin America”. Among other things, the head of state agreed on the participation of Russian companies in the modernization of railways in Argentina, as well as Russian investments in the electricity, gas, oil, chemical industry and banking sectors of Argentina.
In general, Argentina’s position on the Russian-Ukrainian war has been relatively favorable to Ukraine. Following the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014, Argentina, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, initially supported the resolution condemning the referendum in Crimea. But then, in March 2014, Argentina abstained from voting on a UN General Assembly resolution supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The then head of the country, Cristina Kirchner, who had friendly relations with Russia, changed her position, and Argentina abstained from voting again, hoping, in particular, for Russian investments to come to the country. At the same time, the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has repeatedly stated that the United Kingdom and the United States have “double standards” that condemned the Crimean referendum but supported the Falklands referendum, despite the fact that the Falklands issue is very sensitive for Argentines.
Although a new stage in the formation of foreign policy guidelines began in Argentina in 2020, including a reorientation toward cooperation with the United States, the above-mentioned position of Argentine policy has not changed. This also applies to its stance during the 2016 and 2018 voting on human rights violations in Crimea, the militarization of Crimea, parts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a position statement condemning Russia’s armed aggression and calling on Russia to stop military operations in Ukraine and de-escalate the conflict.
The two presidents exchanged a series of messages of support on Twitter. Argentina voted in favor of the UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine on March 2, 2022, as well as the resolution to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council on April 7, 2022.
However, on October 6, 2022, Argentina (along with Brazil and Mexico) did not vote in favor of a declaration of support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia at a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Lima. Such an utterly opposite position of Argentina is evidence that the war in Ukraine is not a priority issue for the countries of the region, while cooperation with Russia offers potential economic benefits.
Argentina was the second country outside the Russian Federation to purchase and authorize the use of the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine. As of September 2021, 11 million people in the country (about a quarter of the total population) were vaccinated with it, and this is what led to a surge in imports of Russian goods amounting to $651 million in 2021 (392% more than in 2020). Hence, in fact, trade relations between Argentina and Russia are not a decisive factor in the development of relations with the latter, as Russia is not one of Argentina’s main trading partners, although it is an important market for Argentine products and the fifth largest supplier of fertilizers, accounting for 7% of all fertilizer imports in Argentina.
The Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs has become increasingly cautious in expressing concern over the events in Ukraine, while the Republic of Argentina continues to deliver humanitarian aid to Ukraine. During the 10 months of the war, eleven shipments of humanitarian aid to Ukraine were sent from Buenos Aires to Warsaw by the Government of the Argentine Republic. Argentine White Helmets accompanied by consular officers were also sent to the border between Poland and Ukraine to provide the necessary humanitarian aid. At the same time, Argentina refrains from taking steps to render military assistance, offering itself as a mediator in negotiations with Russia, should they take place in the future.
In addition, in September 2022, Argentina sent an official application for BRICS membership to the Chinese authorities, which will allow it to move closer to Russia on a partnership basis. In general, Argentina has traditionally gravitated toward the BRICS as an association trying to create an alternative financial and economic structure that would exist in parallel to the one dominated by the United States. The obstacle was Brazil’s position, which was not favorable to the accession of Argentina, given the possibility of encroachment on regional leadership.
Meanwhile, in Congress, the opposition is demanding that Fernández, despite his commitment to Russia and the trade agreements he has signed with Putin, announce a pause in relations with Moscow. Opposition lawmaker Patricia Bullrich, leader of the Republican Proposal (PRO) party, made the following statement: “Argentina cannot be neutral, as it has been in other cases in history”. She added that “Argentina must stand together with all democratic countries” and that relations with the Russian Federation “should be put outside the brackets because the Russian Federation violates all norms of international law”.
Former Vice Chancellor and former Ambassador to the UN Fernando Petrella also said that Argentina should return to its tradition of cooperation in resolving disputes: “Let’s try to do something useful, not just focus on declarative aspects”.
The Ukrainian community in Argentina, the seventh largest in the world (about 450,000 people), rallies in front of the embassy and demonstrates its rejection of the war. With the assistance of the diaspora, a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, a significant number of ordinary Argentines, despite the distance and cultural alienation, came out with an understanding of the complex military conflict in Eastern Europe. A report by the consulting company D’Alessio IROL showed what citizens think about the war in Ukraine, its causes, and the role Argentina should play.
The overwhelming majority of respondents (64%) accused Russia of unilateral aggression on the territory of Ukraine, although a smaller share (52%) believes that Argentina should provide strong support to Ukraine. 42% of respondents stated that Argentina should remain neutral in the armed conflict.
There are also differences between the voters of the ruling party and the opposition. 90% of the surveyed supporters of the Juntos por el Cambio party believe that the war is “Russia’s unilateral aggression”, and 75% said that the country should support Ukraine. By comparison, there was no prevailing position among supporters of the ruling Frente de Todos party on how to characterize the events. 35% said that Russia’s attack was a “just war”, 27% confirmed that Putin had launched a “unilateral aggression”, and 38% “do not know” how to define the situation. At the same time, 70% of Alberto Fernández’s voters believe that the Argentine government should remain “neutral”.
Thus, Argentina’s political elites condemn the fact of Russian aggression against Ukraine, the Argentine delegation supports resolutions on Ukraine in the UN General Assembly, and the government provides humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Yet, Argentina, like Türkiye, for instance, criticizes the approach of imposing sanctions as ineffective in promoting peace and ending the war, considering the sanctions policy primarily as an opportunity to fill the vacuum and strengthen its own positions in Russian markets. In other words, in order to maintain its multi-vector policy, perceive Russia as a strategic ally, and gain economic benefits, Argentina continues to balance between different partners and tries to remain neutral in international conflicts. In these respects, the current president is backed by his voters.
Values, sensitive topics and tensions in bilateral relations with Ukraine
Argentina is recognized as one of the main cultural actors on the Ibero-American continent, and cultural diplomacy should take into account the multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity of Argentine culture, a mixture of European customs and Latin American indigenous traditions.
As in other Western countries, cultural management is a long-standing practice in Argentina, but in recent decades the cultural sector has undergone profound transformations: strong growth of the culture and creative industries, which has opened up new horizons for national and international trade; the emergence of a number of administrative structures that have allowed for the expansion of cultural activities; technological development related to telecommunications; and the growing participation of public sectors in creating alternative forms of social development.
Cultural policy in Argentina went through a period of support for cultural and popular art in the late 1940s under the government of Juan Domingo Perón, whose personality is still debated in Argentine society. However, in the following decades, cultural policy was largely underpinned by market ideology.
The economic and social crisis in the country in 2001 led to new forms of organization and solidarity in the cultural sector. As a result, under the government of Néstor Kirchner, cultural policy became part of a progressive political project of social integration. The policy began to advocate an anthropological vision of culture linked to everyday social practices and identity, alongside a perspective that is more focused on the visual arts and job creation. This anthropological perception of culture was reinforced and institutionalized under the presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, when Argentina adopted the Brazilian model of Cultura Viva Comunitaria and the Puntos de Cultura public art program. The Kirchner governments waged a “cultural battle” that changed aspects of various sectors of Argentine culture. The “cultural battle” was a metaphor used in Kirchnerism to redefine the field of cultural policy with a new concept of the relationship between culture and politics.
With the coming to power of Cambiemos in December 2015, the orientation of cultural policy was changed. The Cambiemos government sought to demonstrate a break with Kirchnerism. In the field of culture, this was manifested in several ways: closing programs of the previous administration, creating new initiatives, reconfiguring the state organizational structure (transforming secretariats into programs, etc.) and, in general, changing the direction of cultural policy. Although the return to a neoliberal government from 2015 to 2019 resulted in significant cuts to the culture budget, most major programs and services were preserved, given their importance to the sector.
In view of the above, caution should be exercised when discussing issues related to assessments of events in Argentine history or the present. Argentines themselves are not afraid to openly express their political beliefs, but discussions within the country show that society is politically polarized. As mentioned earlier, Juan Domingo Perón is a controversial figure. On the one hand, as a leftist politician, he paid considerable attention to socio-economic reforms. On the other hand, Argentina found itself in a deep economic crisis during Perón’s time, which led to increased social tension and political instability, so Perón resorted to persecuting his opponents and damaged his relationship with the Catholic Church, which excommunicated him. Finally, this was followed by a period of military junta in the 1970s: the suppression of Peronist opposition, the “dirty war”. The introduction of market reforms did not prevent another economic crisis, and later, as a distraction from domestic problems, the government declared war on the Falklands against the United Kingdom, which ended in Argentina’s defeat and the fall of the regime.
The Falkland Islands issue could be a point of tension between Ukraine and the Republic of Argentina, given Ukraine’s alliance with the United Kingdom. President Fernández often refers to the restoration of Argentine sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). This worsens Argentina’s relations with the UK and makes political elites unresponsive to the issue of occupation of Ukraine’s territories by Russia. The archipelago is still the subject of territorial disputes between Argentina, off the coast of which the islands are located, and the United Kingdom. Drawing parallels between the annexed Crimea (and the rest of the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia) and the Malvinas is very risky. Moreover, according to international law, the Falkland Islands belong to the United Kingdom. Therefore, if such analogies are made directly, one may face strong condemnation from the UK, which is a key ally of Ukraine and has been providing military assistance since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.
Other sensitive matters
The United States should not be called “America”. It is extremely offensive to Argentines (and to the entire region) when this part of the world is associated only with the United States (while ignoring the people of Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, Uruguay, etc.). It is also highly misleading to consider the entire Spanish-speaking and Latin American region as homogeneous, since it includes a variety of Central and South American countries and cultures (many descendants of the Incas, Aztecs, and other civilizations), which differ from each other in numerous aspects. That is why it is necessary to avoid comparing Argentines with residents of other parts of the continent, perceiving them as “one people” with “common history, culture, language”.
Today, Argentina still does not have a national strategy for cultural development, nor does it have a plan for international cooperation, so cultural policy is managed directly by the main players in the field. Active negotiations are underway on this issue, as the development and implementation of the Federal Law/Strategy on Culture will help create a roadmap to guide the state’s cultural policy, as well as mechanisms and devices that would maintain a permanent relationship between the state and civil society to formulate and implement public cultural policy, strengthen networks of cultural agents, spaces for discussion and funding. Among its fundamental aspects, this law/strategy will postulate the idea of the plurality of cultures, and on the other hand, the state will act as an articulating institution.
President Fernández’s “Activar Cultura” initiative, introduced in 2021, has been the engine for reactivating, expanding, and strengthening community projects, festivals, live performances, national competitions, scholarships, libraries, and the audiovisual industry. The economic support from the government under this initiative deserves special attention: for the first time since 2015, funding for various sectors of national culture has been steadily increasing. In this way, the government is trying to overcome the long-standing problem of insufficient budget support for the cultural sector.
Another feature of Argentina’s cultural sphere is centralization—the concentration of resources in cities such as Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Salta, Mendoza, and the lack of a strong institutional framework. Thus, in the city of Buenos Aires, the budget of the Ministry of Culture for 2022 is $14,554 million, an increase of 49% compared to 2021.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the sector’s instability and weak institutionalization, but it has also led members of the Argentine Cultural Management Network to propose a gathering of #CulturalManagement professionals to create a formal meeting space between colleagues, the Argentine Cultural Management Congress, while the state has also established channels of dialogue with these actors.
Under the current administration, Argentina has drawn attention to its “weaknesses” in the cultural sphere and focused its efforts on solving problematic issues. As a result, in 2021, cultural activity grew by 12.7% compared to 2020, according to the results of the Cuenta Satélite de Cultura (CSC), and increased its share in the total economy from 1.7% to 1.8%.
Another aspect that positions Argentina in the world is the importance of the Spanish language. In recent years, Argentina has managed to establish itself as a place to learn Spanish through joint educational programs as a new way to dynamize knowledge about the country, generate new audiences, and model the country’s image to younger generations.
Stereotypes in the perception of Ukraine and negative narratives that exist in public discourse and can be countered through cultural diplomacy
The most widespread and dangerous narratives spread in the Argentine press are the division of Ukraine into East and West (Argentine journalist, international analyst Ignacio Hutin in his books on Ukraine “A Renewed Cold War. Ukraine” (“Una renovada guerra fría. Ucrania”) and “Donbas and Ukraine. Chronicle from the Front” (“Donbass y Ucrania. Crónica desde el frente”) raises the issue of cultural and political differences between the east and west of Ukraine, which, according to the author, are one of the main reasons for the war); Ukraine and Russia have a common origin; modern Ukraine is a product of Bolshevism(historian from the University of Buenos Aires J. Saborido in his article on the history of Ukraine writes that Kyivan Rus is the historical basis for Putin to believe that “we are one people”, but notes that “Ukrainians do not share this opinion”. He also sends a message that Ukrainian culture and language are a version of everything Russian that has been “spoiled” by Western influences, and that the Republic of Ukraine in its current form is “the brainchild of the Bolsheviks”; the civil war in Donbas (characterizing the events of 8 years ago, the term “civil war” is used—despite the fact that the author himself points out that there was the presence of illegal armed groups in the region, which were supported by the Russian Federation and the pro-Russian population of the “rebellious” regions.) The illusion is deliberately created that there were indeed strong separatist protest sentiments in eastern Ukraine (instead of clearly recognizing that such breakaway movements would not have succeeded without Russian intervention).
In addition, in the Argentine media, one can find such clichés as “coup d’état (golpe de estado)” (in the context of the escape of President Yanukovych in 2014 and the victory of the Ukrainian government). Yanukovych’s escape in 2014 and the victory of the Revolution of Dignity), “the revival of nationalist and neo-Nazi movements in western Ukraine” (with nationalism being used with a negative connotation as a synonym for Nazism, in particular, in the context of the activities of the Right Sector), “xenophobia, racism and discrimination” (in relation to the Russian/Russian-speaking population). But despite this, Argentines still view the idea that genocide of this category of people was committed in Donbas as absurd.
High-profile cultural events and key cultural players
The entire network of state cultural institutions in Argentina is subordinated to the Ministry of Culture (Ministerio de Cultura de la Nacion), which was established on May 7, 2014, as the first agency exclusively dedicated to addressing cultural issues. In 2018, amid the financial crisis, the number of ministries in the government was reduced from 22 to 10 as part of the restructuring, and the Ministry of Culture was replaced by the Secretariat for Culture, which was subordinated to the unified Ministry of Education, Culture, Science and Technology. The agency reappeared in 2019 with the coming to power of President Fernández and still exists today.
Cultural institutions in Argentina occupy a special place in the ecosystem of cultural institutions: The Argentine Cultural Management Network (RAGC), whose activities are aimed at strengthening the professionalization of cultural management; the Kirchner Cultural Center (Centro Cultural Kirchner); Fundacion Proyecta Cultura, an independent international platform used as a communication tool; the Center for Cultural Cooperation (Centro Cultural de la Cooperación); the Federal Council for Culture (Consejo Federal de Cultura); the Federal Investment Council (Consejo Federal de Inversiones), and others.
It is typical for Argentina that “programs” are used as a format for financing the cultural sector, as they have long been more prone to underfunding by administrations. However, since 2020, as part of the Cultura Solidaria policy, the Argentine Ministry of Culture has been providing state investment support for major programs: Punto de Cultura, Cultura Solidaria, Fondo Desarrollar, Renacer Audiovisual, Impulsar Cultura II, Festivales Argentinos, Argentina Florece, MANTA, Activar Patrimonio, Pueblos históricos, Ferias del Libro, and Fortalecimiento de Bibliotecas Culturales. In addition, all policies and programs implemented by the Ministry of Culture are sectoral in nature, and most of them are aimed at specific sub-sectors.
On October 27, 2022, the Argentine National Senate approved a bill that extends the allocation of special funds to support cultural industries and institutions, as well as the operation of public libraries, until December 31, 2072. That is, funding for the cultural sector in Argentina was guaranteed for the next 50 years. In 2017, the government of former President Macri lobbied for the adoption of Law 27.432, which (as part of the tax reform) approved the establishment of time limits of at least 5 years for allocations for culture and mass communications. If the limit had not been extended, it would have expired on December 31, 2022, leaving the National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA), the National Institute of Music (INAMU), the National Institute of Theater (INT), and other cultural foundations and institutions without funding, as well as the network of public libraries across the country, which operated through the National Commission of Public Libraries (CONABIP).
Funding opportunities for cultural projects in the country
The National Foundation for the Arts (FNA, Fondo Nacional de las Artes), whose principles formed the basis of the UNESCO International Fund for the Promotion of Culture. The FNA provides scholarships for artists and professionals to study in Buenos Aires and abroad, and funds a large number of cultural projects every year. Other formats of financial support for artists include competitions, loans (microcredits, personal loans, mortgages, etc.), and subsidies (for non-profit cultural organizations that do not aim to make a profit from their activities). Sources of funding for the fund include taxes levied for the use of intellectual property that has passed into the public domain.
INCAA (Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Audiovisuales) is a government agency of the Ministry of Culture responsible for promoting and regulating cinematographic activities in Argentina and abroad. It supports the film industry by providing subsidies to film companies and producers, as well as to emerging directors (for more information, please follow this link). The Institute also organizes competitions for artists, such as Historias Breves (short film competition), Desarrollo de Guiones (feature film script competition), and others. Every November, INCAA organizes the Mar del Plata International Film Festival, the largest and most prestigious in Latin America.
The Metropolitan Foundation for Culture, Arts and Sciences (Fondo Metropolitano de la Cultura, las Artes y las Ciencias) and Mecenazgo are programs of the Impulso Cultural platform of the Ministry of Culture of the City of Buenos Aires that fully or partially fund cultural projects/events.
For a more detailed list of funding opportunities for projects in a particular field, please follow the link: https://www.culturaenproyectos.org/portfolio-items/fuentes-de-financiamiento/.
Argentina’s foreign policy is fairly pragmatic. President Fernández’s government adheres to a multi-vector policy, considering Russia as one of its possible partners, just like his predecessors, whose foreign policy vector was characterized by anti-Westernism, seeing Russia as a potential investor.
For Argentina, Ukraine has never been of strategic interest, and this has played a negative role in the perception of Ukraine by ordinary Argentines, with many stereotypes and narratives imposed by the Russian/Soviet regimes (such as denying Ukraine’s unity, insisting on a common past and brotherhood with Russia). Such rhetoric was supported, in particular, by academic circles and influential public figures in Argentina.
At the same time, it is rather indicative that even the long-term activity of Ukrainian diaspora civic, cultural, and educational organizations in Argentina (such as the Prosvita Association) has not been able to effectively prevent the spread of false ideas about Ukraine. The activities of such organizations, which were intended to play the role of ambassadors of Ukraine throughout Argentina, in fact covered mostly the diaspora and a narrow stratum of Argentines interested in Ukraine. Accordingly, the low interest in Ukraine has left its mark on the level of public and political support for Ukraine in Argentina.
The cultural sector in Argentina is not highly institutionalized. On the one hand, there are many institutions designed to protect the national cultural product and provide financial support to promising artists in a particular field. On the other hand, until recently, no one considered that the development of culture in the country should be handled by a separate executive body. For a long time, this function was assigned to the presidential secretariat with limited powers. It was also uncertain whether there was enough political will to guarantee state support for culture in Argentina for the coming decades to ensure the sustainability of the sector. The issue of having a strategic vision in this area remains urgent, which would make it more resilient to changes in government policy, regardless of the ruling regime.
As for the assessment of the activities of the Embassy of Ukraine in Argentina, such an important factor as cooperation with the main players of the Ukrainian diaspora in the field of educational and cultural activities remains unaddressed. Public communication also has room for improvement, given the extremely low frequency of reports on the embassy’s activities (compared to the Embassy of Ukraine in Spain, whose activity is considerably higher).
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The information and views set out in this study are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect
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