Imagine Jeremy Paxman being forced by an authoritarian crackdown on the media to flee London for Dublin, and begin a new career as a prime-time presenter in Ireland. A decade ago, it would have been equally preposterous for Russians to conceive of Moscow’s TV news stars – who, thanks to the youth of their country’s democracy, tended to be more influential and admired than their western counterparts – having to abandon jobs in the Imperial City and seek work in one of the former Soviet republics.

The big problem with the Russian media seemed to be too much pluralism and too few standards, not too little freedom. And the country’s democracy, while chaotic and unruly, appeared to be one of the great accomplishments of the Yeltsin era. Moreover, even the most liberal, least chauvinist Muscovite would never have dreamed of exchanging the cosmopolitan opportunities of the capital for the backwater cities of the ex-Soviet Union.

That’s why I was a little surprised, a couple of months ago, as I settled into my seat for the hour-long flight from Moscow to Kiev, to see Yevgeny Kisiliev, the television anchor who was the face of the Yeltsin revolution, sitting across the aisle. And I was astonished when I learnt the purpose of his trip: Kisiliev, who had been Russia’s most influential TV journalist, was commuting to his new job as an anchor in Ukraine.

“Travelling to Ukraine is like going back in a time machine to the 1990s – they have real politics there,” Kisiliev told me enthusiastically. With his trademark thatch of thick, extravagantly boyish butterscotch hair and full moustache, Kisiliev still looked every bit the TV celebrity. And with his Hugo Boss glasses and chunky steel wristwatch, he met the dress code of a cabin filled with Gucci-clad women who looked like they were auditioning for a James Bond movie and their wannabe-oligarch boyfriends.

Kisiliev explained that on his weekly Moscow radio show – he has been forced off regular television – he could only interview political analysts, since the politicians themselves refuse to appear. Independent journalism has been so marginalised in Russia, he said, that “even the press secretaries don’t like to talk to us any more”. In Kiev, by contrast, politicians not only come on his show, they answer their own mobile phones. “Working in Ukraine allows me to be a true political journalist,” Kisiliev said. “In Russia, there is no open political debate any more. The authorities are hermetically sealed, we can just hypothesise about the discussion going on inside. I call it the black box. Here [in Ukraine] you have access to tonnes of information, to almost any politician.”

. . .

The story of the calculated and ruthless erosion of media freedom in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a familiar one – beginning with the exile and expropriation of the media tycoons and descending to the almost routine killings of journalists, including most famously Anna Politkovskaya. Ukraine, meanwhile, is known for an unexpectedly robust national insistence on democracy, which propelled the success of the Orange Revolution. And so while Russia has moved away from democracy, its neighbour – which many Russians claim as a cultural and historic twin – has moved towards it. That divergence is one big cause of the fraught relations between the world’s two largest Slavic nations – and it could be a key to whether Russia’s current soft authoritarianism is a relatively brief setback on the difficult road to democracy or the country’s new status quo.

Meanwhile, no one embodies the story of the divergent political paths of the two biggest former Soviet states more vividly than the journalists who reported on – and participated in – the rise of Russian democracy. And who now, as that democracy has collapsed, have found themselves forced to defect south, to Ukraine’s resurgent culture of pluralism.

Kisiliev’s weekly news show has only been on air since the beginning of the year, but when our flight landed in Kiev, I saw he had already made an impact: one of the border guards was a fan, and he whisked Kisiliev, his two producers and me, clinging to their coat-tails, to the front of the passport queue.

Uniformed officials in the former Soviet Union aren’t known to be either charmers or news junkies, so Kisiliev’s warm welcome began to answer one of my immediate questions about his new gig: how were Ukrainians responding to the appearance of Russia’s most famous TV newsman on their screens? Tension with Russia, after all, is the dominant fact of Ukrainian political life and, during a week in Ukraine this spring, I saw signs that at a popular level, too, Ukrainians were beginning to define themselves by their opposition to their former suzerain. My favourite example was the T-shirt I spotted on the flight from Kiev back to New York. Making a reference to the one-hour time difference between Ukraine and western Russia, it read: “Wake Up Ukraine! The Muscovite has already been up for an hour”.

Kisiliev says he and the owners of his new network had had the same reservations. “There were some doubts, fears that my arrival here would not be well-received. I do an analytical show, with commentary and opinion, and for a foreign journalist to do this, people worried it would look bad.”

Those worries were misplaced. For one thing, Kisiliev said, the Ukrainian political scene is “so open, it is not that hard to learn it”. Nor has language been much of a barrier. Most of the country is fluidly bilingual, especially in its public life. Kisiliev’s show, like debate in the Ukrainian parliament, is conducted in Ukrainian and Russian. He speaks Russian and his guests speak whichever language they prefer. When they opt for Ukrainian, he understands “90 to 95 per cent”; “I practise Ukrainian every day,” he said.

Nor are people suspicious that Kisiliev is in Kiev to advance Moscow’s political agenda. If his being forced off the airwaves by the Putin regime didn’t put paid to that possibility, hostile relations between his new station’s owners and the Russian government would: TVi, the start-up channel he appears on, is a private venture owned 50 per cent by Vladimir Gusinsky, the flamboyant Russian media oligarch who was forced into exile in 2001, and 50 per cent by Konstantin Kagalovsky, a fellow exile and former business partner of jailed oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

. . .

“Everyone here knows perfectly well that the current owners of the channel can in no way be seen as representatives of the Russian government,” Kisiliev explained. Kagalovsky agreed: “I haven’t been to Russia for five years. Gusinsky has criminal charges against him in Russia. No one will worry that this channel is advocating the Kremlin line.”

Later, when the mobile phone of one of the channel’s exiled Russian executives rang, I got a sense of how strong the team’s animosity towards Russia’s current rulers is. I noticed an image flash on to the phone’s screen, set to appear every time it rings – a photo of the Russian prime minister with the words “Fuck Putin!” superimposed on top.

I didn’t have a chance to examine Kisiliev’s mobile phone, but the story of his career over the past decade is also the story of Putin’s step-by-step suffocation of independent broadcasting in Russia. Kisiliev launched his flagship news analysis show, Itogi (Conclusions) on January 5 1992, 10 days after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The programme, broadcast on NTV, reigned as Russia’s premier political TV show until early 2001, when Putin, a year into his presidency, began to tighten control over the airwaves.

Putin’s first target was NTV, an independent media company founded by Gusinsky. The Kremlin’s de facto expropriation of the group was accomplished via Gazprom, the state-controlled energy giant, and co-operative courts. On the weekend of April 14, after weeks of public struggle, the company’s new owners installed their own security guards at the station and Kisiliev and his colleagues were locked out. They initially found refuge at TV-6, a smaller channel owned by Russia’s remaining media tycoon, Boris Berezovsky. But by the beginning of 2002, TV-6 had also been closed down as the Kremlin turned its guns on Putin’s king-maker.

Desperate to remain on air, Kisiliev and his team of NTV refugees continued to work at a reconstituted TV-6 (called TV-S), this time backed by a group of more compliant businessmen. Kisiliev now believes that the resurrected TV-6 was “a political project by the authorities to say, ‘See, there are no problems, the NTV journalists are still working’,” and, with hindsight, he regrets helping to build that Potemkin village. By June 2003, the new TV-6’s backers had stopped financing the station and “it quietly died”.

Next Kisiliev became editor of the Moscow News newspaper, which had been purchased by oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But Khodorkovsky was arrested on October 25 2003, having chosen to stay in Russia and fight accusations of fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion, rather than flee as Gusinsky and Berezovsky had done. (Still in jail, Khodorkovsky this summer faces fresh charges that could prolong his term.)

. . .

With two former employers in exile, and one imprisoned, Kisiliev spent a couple of years as a freelance print journalist. Eventually, he was invited to anchor a show on Ekho Moskvy, the Gusinsky-supported independent radio station that, along with a few small-circulation newspapers, the Kremlin tolerates. Marginalised in Moscow, Kisiliev found himself following the two owners of his new TV station to Ukraine. “They thought the media market would develop here and they could do journalism, which they can’t in Russia,” Kisiliev said. They also thought Ukraine’s intensely politicised culture, and the close connections between business and politics, offered an opportunity to make money.

Its owners hope TVi will be broadcast throughout Ukraine by the autumn, but at the moment it is available free to air only in half-a-dozen eastern and southern cities. For now, Kisiliev is able to build a national presence by making guest appearances on the television show of another Yeltsin-era Russian media star who has re-established himself in Kiev: Savik Shuster.

Shuster, whose family in Soviet times emigrated from Lithuania to Israel and then Canada, became a fixture on the Moscow media scene in the 1990s, working at Radio Liberty, which moved from the dissident fringes to the mainstream as the country flipped from authoritarianism to democracy.

When Gusinsky lost control of NTV, Shuster was offered a job by the channel’s new, Kremlin-backed owners and, ironically, it was he who replaced Kisiliev as the channel’s dominant political journalist. But after Putin was re-elected to a second presidential term, Shuster, like Kisiliev, found himself forced off the air. “They told me it was because the audience was too old,” Shuster recalled over espressos at Pantagruel, one of Kiev’s most popular Italian restaurants. He is dressed more like an archetypal intellectual than a TV personality, in black sweater, jeans and rimless, rectangular glasses. “I said that was a blatant lie – the truth was the Kremlin could no longer afford an open, live show.”

He lingered in Moscow for a year. Then came the Orange Revolution. When Ukraine’s democrats won that struggle, Shuster was amused to learn that his friend, Boris Nemtsov, a former provincial governor and deputy prime minister who had joined Russia’s rag-tag political opposition, had become an adviser to Viktor Yushchenko, the new Ukrainian president. “I decided to go and make some fun of him,” Shuster said. “I planned to say to him, ‘Boris, you finally found a place in politics, but it is in the wrong country!’ But when I came into his office, I saw he was in a very good mood and I said, ‘Boris, maybe I, too, should go to Ukraine’.”

A few months later, he was living in the Ukrainian capital, studying Ukrainian and working again as a broadcaster. Like Kisiliev, he was reminded by the mood in Ukraine of Russia during the Yeltsin era: “The atmosphere was very good. It resembled Moscow in the 1990s – a lot of energy, many smiles.” Shuster’s political talk shows became an instant hit. But in time, Shuster, who had become one of the country’s most influential broadcasters, started to feel “political pressure” from his new bosses. As in Russia in the chaotic 1990s, business and politics are closely intertwined in Ukraine: many of the country’s oligarchs own media companies, which they are not shy about using to advance their political and commercial interests. To ensure his independence, Shuster formed his own television production company and now sells his show with a “political non-interference clause” to a channel controlled by Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest man.

. . .

Shuster shares Kisiliev’s bemusement that the uneven progress of democratic change in the former Soviet Union has landed him in Kiev. “It really is funny,” he told me. “Sometimes I don’t believe it myself.”

The Russian media stars and media barons who have found themselves washed ashore in Ukraine have a perspective on the political evolution of the two Slavic states, and on their relationship, which is different not only from what you hear in Moscow, but also from conventional wisdom in Washington or Europe.

The Kremlin sees Ukraine’s diverse and messy political culture as an exploitable weakness – and many Ukrainians and their western supporters despairingly agree. But, in separate conversations, the Russian journalistic refugees all argued that Ukraine’s regional divisions were the essential underpinning of its democracy, and the chief reason the country had diverged from Russia’s neo-authoritarian path.

“I don’t idealise the Ukrainian political class,” Kisiliev told me. “There are as many cynical, corrupt politicians here who would spit on democratic values as in Russia. But Ukraine’s good fortune is that, because of history, culture and geography, Ukraine is divided into a few big regions, each of which has its own culture and politics. These are also the zones of influence of various financial groups. None of those groups has the financial or electoral power to monopolise power – which happened in Russia, where Gazprom and the St Petersburg Chekists [the cabal of former KGB officers associated with Putin] usurped all political power.”

Central to this view of diversity as a fuel for democracy is the exiles’ confidence that all of Ukraine’s elites – including the Russian-speaking eastern ones – are committed to Ukrainian statehood. “The idea of a pro-Russian line in Ukrainian politics is a myth – they are all pro-Ukrainian now,” Kagalovsky said. Yet in the Kremlin, that “myth” is at the heart of policy towards Ukraine. Moscow takes as its starting point the idea that the two countries occupy a connected, if not common, cultural and social space. From there it is a short step to the Putin regime’s conviction that the two countries’ political paths should likewise run in parallel.

Kiev’s Russian media exiles don’t deny the cultural commonalities – without them, their easy migration to Ukraine would not have been possible. But they believe that politically and socially, the two countries are growing apart. According to Igor Malashenko, who ran Gusinsky’s media empire at its height and is now a “senior counsellor” at TVi: “There’s been a continental divide in recent years and Ukraine and Russia have split – far more than they understand in Moscow.” Shuster concurs. In the Soviet era, he said, “in Kiev it was a dream to get to Moscow.” But, petro-wealth notwithstanding, he believes that the appeal of the Russian metropolis is dimming: “Putin’s politics is killing a lot of creativity and Moscow is becoming less attractive for Ukrainians.”

. . .

And what do ordinary Russians think about Ukraine? Malashenko, one of the masterminds of Boris Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, who now divides his time between homes in New York and Spain, says most Russians don’t give Ukraine much thought one way or the other: “This [nostalgia for Ukraine] is mostly invented by official propagandists.” But he and the other Russians agreed Ukraine has become a focus of the Kremlin’s malevolent gaze. Shuster said: “They are always looking for an enemy number one, which is very ordinary for an authoritarian regime. Today that enemy is Ukraine.”

If you are Putin, that enmity makes sense. “If Ukraine succeeds as a democracy, then it shows that authoritarianism is not the only model,” says Shuster. And the Kremlin’s worries have a paranoid, geopolitical taint: according to Malashenko, it genuinely believes the Orange Revolution was a US-backed plot, not an indigenous uprising. “Their fear is that this CIA operation will be repeated in Russia. That is why Putin doesn’t see the Russian opposition as a real opposition, but rather as a fifth column.”

If Ukraine is the model the Kremlin most fears, isn’t the reappearance of Russia’s silenced TV news stars on television channels to the south – and on websites accessible to any Russian – magnifying their concerns? The Lithuanian-born Shuster, who has no business or personal connections left in Russia, thinks so. Putin, he says, is afraid of him and of Kisiliev, and “he should be”. Kisiliev, who still shuttles between Kiev and Moscow, is more cautious: “This programme isn’t an effort to jab a needle into the bottom of any Russian leader, despite my sceptical attitude towards many of them.”

Watching Kisiliev and Shuster at work in their well-appointed television studios, sparring with politicians, I do feel like I’m back in the chaotic and corrupt but also open and pluralistic Russia of the 1990s. And that tableau vivant makes it easier to imagine that today’s repressive Russian political order is just a detour on what once felt like an inevitable march towards European-style democracy: after all, these are Russian television stars working freely in Russian in a city an hour’s flight from Moscow.

This vision of Ukraine as representing an alternative, democratic path for Russia is the flipside of the Kremlin’s insistence on the cultural and historic bonds between the two states. But just as they deny the existence of a pro-Russian faction in Ukraine, these professional exiles are dubious about what for them would be the more welcome notion: that Ukrainian democracy foreshadows a change of course in Russia. “If there is a political transformation in Russia, it will not be towards democracy,” Shuster said. “They have lost the foundation for a democratic transformation. They have decided to build power by looking for supporters among the intolerant. I think a fascist dictatorship is more likely than Nemtsov or Kasparov or Kasyanov [the democratic opposition leaders] coming to power.”

. . .

When I raised the possibility of a revival of Russian democracy over lunch with Kisiliev and Malashenko the next day, their reaction was even more categorical. Malashenko is normally a courtly man, and he seemed to have settled into his nearly decade-long, affluent exile as if to the manor born: he has published books of his photography, walks several miles a day and tells me he takes great pleasure in planning family holidays in Europe. But when I listed the similarities between the Ukrainian middle-class protestors who won democracy in the Orange Revolution and their Russian cousins, and compared the fragilities of former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma’s soft authoritarianism with those of the Putin-Medvedev regime, Malashenko erupted.

In 2000 and 2001, he said angrily, Vladimir Gusinsky felt Russian democracy could not be undermined, and persuaded Malashenko he could win the mounting confrontation with Putin; after all, Gusinsky had triumphed in a similar stand-off with the hardline faction in Yeltsin’s court in the mid-1990s. “I knew Gusinsky was wrong and I told him so,” Malashenko said now, “but I let him overrule me.” Malashenko wishes that he and Gusinsky had, like the more pliant oligarchs, found a way to do a deal with Putin and continue working in Russia, the country Malashenko loves best.

In Kiev, he shouted at me: “It is because I listened to people like you that we are living the life we are now living!”

A television venture in democratic Ukraine, and homes in Manhattan and southern Spain, are no substitute, it seems, for the power, the money and the Machiavellian excitement of treading the corridors of the Kremlin.

Chrystia Freeland is the FT’s US managing editor.

Source: Financial Times


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