Mustafa Najem – journalist and Ukrainian MP – is back in the headlines once again. Two years ago, his Facebook page published details of the Maidan rebellion. This time his topic isn't relations between Ukraine and the European Union, as last time – nor is he writing about the policies of Ukraine's present government. Using the hashtag #BanCocaCola, the 41-year-old politician has called for a boycott of everything produced by Coca-Cola Corporation. “I am refusing to purchase anything produced by Coca-Cola – and I call on all intelligent people to do the same,” Najem wrote on his Facebook page.
His campaign had some success – within hours his #BanCocaCola hashtag became one of the most popular on the Ukrainian Twitter network, while several thousand posts appeared on Facebook. The Coca-Cola face-off turned into political row between Russia and Ukraine. The whole thing swivels around Crimea. The authorities in Kiev insist that the peninsula remains Ukrainian territory – while the Kremlin equally insists that it is part of Russia.
Now Coca-Cola has found out the hard way about the conflict between the two countries. Everything began with a New Year's greeting on Coke's page on the VKontakte Russian social networking site – where it published a festive map of Russia that was shorn of Crimea, the Kaliningrad Enclave, and the Kuril Islands. Their omission prompted a furious outcry throughout Russia. Coca-Cola stepped in to mitigate the disaster, and published a message on VKontakte reading: “We're truly sorry for the mistake, and we've made corrections to the map.” And now the map shows Kaliningrad, the Kuril Islands – and Crimea.
Boycott demands are a Ukrainian tradition
All this, in turn, annoyed many people in Ukraine – and so Najem's boycott demands quickly caught on there. In fact, calls for all kinds of boycotts have a long history in Ukraine. During the Maidan riots, many people boycotted items made by companies whose owners had close party ties to Ukraine's then-President, Viktor Yanukovich. After Crimea's referendum, some Ukrainians boycotted Russian products. This also produced some unexpected results – the American confectionery manufacturer Mars now sends all its Ukrainian deliveries via the European Union. Previously they were mostly shipped via Russia.
Coca-Cola withdraws from social media war over Crimea. https://t.co/uJIV3xw5PX— New York Times World (@nytimesworld) January 6, 2016
What should Coca-Cola do now? A map of Russia with Crimea angers Ukrainians – but a map of Russia without Crimea angers Russians. If decisions were made on the basis of market value, then the answer would be simple – Coca-Cola's Russian market is worth three times more than its Ukrainian sales. However, it's not so easy for Coke to leave the Ukrainian market – just outside Kiev is one of the soft-drinks company's largest plants in Europe. In addition to this Coca-Cola, as an American corporation, can't be indifferent to international borders. In 2014 the USA rolled out sanctions on Crimea, demanding the cancellation of nearly every kind of trade connection with the peninsula. And American sanctions bite far more toughly than EU sanctions.
There's similarly nothing surprising in the fact that the management at Coke has rushed to paper over the cracks in person. Coca-Cola's Head of PR, Clyde Tuggle, wrote a letter to the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, in which the corporation admits its error in publishing maps of Russia that show Crimea. “All I can do is apologise. We should never have done it,” Tuggle wrote. Mustafa Najem promptly voiced his approval of this answer by Coca-Coca, and suggested that consumers should resume their consumption of Coca-Cola products.
Even so, the short-lived yet effective boycott of Coca-Cola left some traces behind. Large multi-national corporations cannot afford to get snared in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. If they concentrate on the Russian market, they will incur losses on the Ukrainian market. Pepsi, Coca-Cola's earnest rivals, took immediate action to delete their Russia + Crimea map from their website entirely. But this didn't go unheeded in Ukraine either.
German corporations might blunder into the mire
However, many German businesses are still doing active levels of business in Crimea – and they are keeping a wary eye on how the #BanCocaCola campaign is going. One such corporation is Volkswagen, which has found loopholes through EU sanctions to keep its business in Crimea going. Although trading operations with the peninsular have been banned since December 2014, sanctions do not apply to truck sales there. VW's official dealer in Crimea is Krym-Autoholdings, with its head office in Simferopol. Another automotive corporation with offices in the same city is AZ-Simferepol – which does business in Audi vehicles.
“Our primary aim in being here, is to provide a service to our existing customers,” the management of the German Volkswagen Group stated, after the EU sanctions were rolled out. But of course, the corporation doesn't want to forgo the profits it makes on the peninsular either. In exactly the same way, Mercedes-Benz is also operating in Crimea – even though there is no information about this on its Russian-language website. Crimea, too, is missing from the Mercedes-Benz map of Russia.
Metro Group are also sticking with Crimea
The Metro Group is also pursuing an identical operation in Crimea. The group runs Metro Cash & Carry outlets in both Simferopol and Sevastopol. Despite having no information about these stores on either their Russian-language or Ukrainian-language websites, both stores are still working as normal. Meanwhile the Adidas corporation is trading entirely openly in several Crimean cities, as their Russian-language website shows clearly.
Mustafa Najem and his fellow protestors are planning to compile and check the information given about the activities of foreign companies in Crimea. “The Ukrainian Parliament will hand the information to the Security Services and the Police – who will take action in the prescribed way,” the MP said. “World maps need to be printed correctly. We're making that our business.” Alongside this, the discussions which began in connection with the Coca-Cola incident have already entered the populist arena. Some politicians — such as the far-right extremist nationalist of the Svoboda party, Oleh Tyagnibok – have called for Coca-Cola to be banned from operating in Ukraine entirely.
German corporations, including Volkswagen, shouldn't take this kind of threat seriously. Even so, a heightened degree of public negativity could turn into a problem – not only on the Ukrainian market, but for their international image too.