Framing Sanctions: The Role Of Governmental Narrative-Building

by Balázs Gyimesi, Communications and Events Officer, RUSI Europe

30 March 2023

Strategic communications are key to making sanctions work. Policymakers should pay more attention to the role of narratives in securing populations’ support for sanctions against Russia.

Economic sanctions have become a pillar of the West’s response to Russia’s illegal war of aggression in Ukraine. While sanctions are more easily said than done, communicating their benefit and impact is not an easy task, either. In fact, it is a pivotal aspect of sanctions implementation – especially in democracies, where re-election largely depends on the popularity of governmental policies. If sanctions are perceived as more harmful to one’s own economy than that of the target country, or generally ineffective in reaching their goal, their popularity can suffer. How do governmental political communications shape the perception of sanctions? Let’s look at some general insights and examine two countries more closely: Hungary and Poland.

To design strategic communications on sanctions, political communicators can draw lessons from academic research and examine the results of recent opinion surveys. According to a 2017 study, the main factors influencing support for sanctions are humanitarian concerns and the sanctions’ perceived effectiveness. In the study, framing did not seem to influence perceived effectiveness; however, the cases of Hungary and Poland offer an opportunity to study government communications strategies aiming to influence popular attitudes towards sanctions, including what effect long-term communications strategies can have on such perceptions.

report by the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) underlined that for sanctions to be effective, ‘there must be domestic resilience-building; strategic communication about the costs and the appropriate scope of sanctions’. Similarly to wartime narratives – which, when successful, ‘can galvanise a war effort, building legitimacy for military action while swaying popular opinion’ – the narrative on sanctions could have a similar effect on populations’ attitudes towards them.

What do opinion surveys tell us about EU citizens’ support for sanctions? The Eurobarometer has been monitoring the support for sanctions imposed on Russia, with surveys allowing for comparison. While the results from May 2022 showed that 80% of EU citizens either fully approved or tended to approve of the economic sanctions, this number decreased to 71% by December 2022. How have political communications on sanctions evolved in this period?

The ‘Misguided Sanctions of Brussels’: Hungarian Government Narratives

Take the example of Hungary. The Eurobarometer showed a 59% approval rate for sanctions in May 2022 – below the EU average – which decreased more steeply than the EU average to 47% by December 2022. The Hungarian government has shown a reluctance to adopt certain sanctions packages: for instance, it demanded the removal of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow from the sanctions list on the basis of freedom of religion. Hungary did not veto any of the sanctions packages, but its domestic communications strategy is worth a closer look.

The framing of sanctions in Hungarian government communications has been negative, particularly since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced a ‘national consultation’ on sanctions at the end of September 2022. Orbán justified the launch of the campaign by saying that ‘in Brussels, they promised that the sanctions would end the war (…). Instead, today, every EU citizen is paying a surcharge for the energy they use, which is a result of the sanctions’. The national consultation, which the government framed as a survey on the ‘misguided sanctions of Brussels’, included seven questions on different sectoral sanctions, each framed negatively. Further strengthening the negative narrative, the ‘national consultation’ was accompanied by a billboard campaign depicting sanctions as bombs and saying that the ‘Brussels sanctions are ruining us’.

The English-language outlet of the Hungarian government, About Hungary, claimed that the survey will allow the country to be the ‘[first in the EU] to give citizens the chance to voice their opinion on the EU’s sanctions imposed against Russia’. The ‘national consultation’ concept was introduced in Hungary in 2010; it is a mail-in survey funded by the Hungarian government through the prime minister’s office, delivered to every citizen eligible to vote and also available to be completed online. These consultations, unlike referenda, have no legal implications or requirements concerning minimum turnout or special majority to legitimise their outcome. Nonetheless, the results of such consultations are often used by the Hungarian government in public communications to underline popular support for or opposition to certain (EU) policies.

The results of the Hungarian ‘national consultation’ on sanctions, which costed (without the media campaign) HUF 2.7 billion (€7.1 million), were presented on 14 January 2023. 1.4 million citizens out of 8.2 million who are eligible to vote – or 17% – completed the survey, 97% of whom – or 16.5% of the electorate – responded with ‘no’ to the questions on imposing sanctions. The low turnout does not allow any wide-reaching conclusions on Hungarians’ attitudes towards sanctions to be drawn. The steeper than average drop in approval for sanctions between May and December 2022 cannot be explained by this campaign alone either, as four other EU countries – Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece and Malta – saw even steeper declines in popular approval for sanctions.

The Hungarian government framed the results as ‘Hungarians want fewer costly sanctions and their opinions heard’, and also launched a billboard and TV ad campaign claiming that ‘97% [said] no to sanctions’, without mentioning the turnout. According to media reports, the European Commission ‘noted the very low participation of the consulted citizens’. While the consultation did not have an immediate impact, as Hungary approved the 10th package of sanctions adopted after the end of the ‘national consultation’, it would be worth examining whether the campaign had a lasting effect on Hungarians’ attitudes towards sanctions.

#StopRussiaNow: Poland’s Europe-Wide Campaign

The Polish government launched a diametrically opposed public communications campaign in April 2022, with the hashtag #StopRussiaNow. The campaign targeted foreign audiences across European capitals to ‘break through the wall of European indifference’. At the launch of the campaign, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki highlighted that the goal was to ‘convince partners in Western Europe to act faster and stronger for a free Ukraine’, and to ‘stop Russia’s actions by imposing swift and strong sanctions’. The billboard campaign was also extended to Budapest in early May 2022, in addition to Berlin, Paris, Rome and other cities.

The #StopRussiaNow campaign is still operating online, with a website that allows users to share the billboard images via social media and donate to the National Bank of Ukraine. According to media reports, the #StopRussiaNow digital campaign ‘reached 194 million users and generated 7.5 million actions/clicks’. The cost of the campaign reportedly amounted to PLN 23.1 million (€4.9 million), paid for by the Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego, a Polish national development bank. As with the Hungarian ‘national consultation’, it is difficult to measure the immediate impact of the #StopRussiaNow campaign, especially given its larger geographical coverage.

Understanding Narratives: Governments Need a Story to Tell

Narratives play an important role in making sanctions work – especially in democracies, where popular support is essential for public policies to continue across election cycles.

While Hungary saw a steeper than average drop in approval for sanctions during the same period as the government’s negative campaign, four EU member states saw an even steeper fall. Although the correlation is not clear, negative narratives may have a detrimental impact on support for sanctions. The negative narrative’s contribution to changing attitudes therefore merits further research. Poland, meanwhile, conducted a Europe-wide communications campaign, the effects of which it is difficult to measure due to the broad geographical coverage. Both campaigns showed that wide-reaching strategic communication is costly; therefore, a better understanding of its impact is key to assessing the value for money for public funds spent on such campaigns.

For sanctions to be effective, they need to be not only duly implemented, but also communicated appropriately. This includes setting clear goals for sanctions and highlighting related achievements and impact. Governments should not wait until support for sanctions drops to develop and communicate strategic narratives – the time to act is now.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI Europe or any other institution.

Copyright: Government of Hungary on Facebook

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Balázs Gyimesi, Communications and Events Officer, RUSI Europe

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