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Russian journalists find haven in Ukraine

KIEV - Daily News with wires | 7/20/2009 12:00:00 AM |

As independent influential journalists of the Yeltsin era find little chance to make their voice heard in Russia, these prominent journalists, quite surprisingly, flee their home country and find jobs in the country’s eastern neighbor, Ukraine. One prominent journalist boasts working in Ukraine, saying he has the chance to work as a true political journalist in this ex-Soviet country

Prominent Russian journalists from the time of former President Boris Yeltsin, such as Evgeny Kiselev and Savik Shuster, are having to abandon their jobs in Russia amid an alleged suppression of independent journalists. Many of whom are leaving to work in Russia’s eastern neighbor, Ukraine.

Russia’s former president, now prime minister, Vlamidir Putin, has come under intense fire from critics for a ruthless erosion of media freedoms as the country confronted the exile and expropriation of various media tycoons and almost routine killings of journalists, including most famously the killing of Kremlin-critic Anna Politkovskaya.

“Traveling to Ukraine is like going back in a time machine to the 1990s - they have real politics there,” Kiselev, who was one of Russia’s most influential TV journalists, told the Financial Times’ U.S. managing editor Chrystia Freeland.

Kiselev, who has been forced off regular television, said he only had the chance to interview political analysts on his weekly Moscow radio show as politicians themselves refused to appear on his shows. Kiselev complained about the weakened position of independent journalism in Russia as he underscored the extensive marginalization that independent media faced in the country.

“Even the press secretaries don’t like to talk to us any more,” Kiselev said. However, he noted that this was not the case in Ukraine, in which politicians not only come to his show, but they also answer their own mobile phones. “Working in Ukraine allows me to be a true political journalist,” Kiselev said. “In Russia, there is no open political debate any more. The authorities are hermetically sealed, we can just hypothesize about the discussion going on inside. I call it the black box. Here [in Ukraine] you have access to tons of information, to almost any politician,” Kiselev told the Financial Times.

Savik Shuster is another Yeltsin-era Russian star who has re-established himself like Kiselev in Kiev. When Ukraine’s Western-backed political parties won the struggle after the so-called “Orange Revolution,” Shuster was surprised 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.’”

[HH] Growing apart:

A few months later, he was living in the Ukrainian capital, studying Ukrainian and working again as a broadcaster. Like Kiselev, 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 is of the same opinion with Kiselev in regards to the uneven progress of democratic change that the ex-Soviet country Ukraine has gone through. “It really is funny,” he said during his interview with Freeland. “Sometimes I don’t believe it myself,” Financial Times quoted Shuster as saying.

Kiev’s Russian media exiles share the view that the two countries, which have various cultural commonalities, are growing apart in political and social terms. According to Igor Malashenko, a senior counselor 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 agrees, saying in the Soviet era “in Kiev it was a dream to get to Moscow.” Nonetheless, he believes that the appeal of the Russian metropolis is dimming: “[Vladimir] Putin’s politics is killing a lot of creativity and Moscow is becoming less attractive for Ukrainians.”

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