Former director of television broadcasting company NTV Yevgeniy Kiseliov talks about Maidan, the presidential elections in Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s TV propaganda
by Dmitriy Volchek
The Russian state TV channels present the Ukrainian revolution as a criminal coup and the Maidan protesters as Nazis. They claim the new government is illegal and talk endlessly about the suffering of the Russian-speaking population, as if it’s languishing under a fifth column of ‘Banderites.’
One can figure out how this propaganda works from the recently published guidelines for journalists. These so-called ‘gag orders’ instruct the mass media to talk about the ‘rule of crime’ in Ukraine, ‘growing squabbles over power’ and the ‘criminality disguised as Maidan.’ And then the journalists are encouraged to promote vacations in Crimea.
Prominent Russian journalist and political analyst Yevgeniy Kiseliov, former director of the television broadcasting company NTV, former chief editor of Moskovskiye Novosti, and who currently works in Kyiv, compares the methods of the Russian television propagandists with the work of Josef Goebbels’s agents.
Was it prudent to make the decision to cut off Russian TV broadcasts in Ukraine, or to list one of the most odious journalists, Dmitriy Kiseliov, among the officials to whom international sanctions apply? Yevgeniy Kiseliov replied to these questions in the radio broadcast Itogi Nedeli (Weekly Review) on Radio Svoboda.
Yevgeniy Alekseyevich, let’s assume there is some very inquisitive person who lives in Russia and knows about what has happened in Kyiv exclusively from the broadcasts of the Russian TV channels. And that person asks you to explain the essence of the Ukrainian revolution. What would you tell him?
I’m afraid one would find it extremely difficult to speak with someone who had watched only Russian television, because this person, if he believes what he is told, needs to be approached as a mental patient. And that’s because everything that was shown by the Russian state TV channels—that was all propagandistic insanity. Unfortunately, judging by the ratings of support for Putin’s policy, this propaganda, alas, had its intended effect. Nevertheless, I would try to convince my interlocutor to forget everything ever said by the man whom I most commonly call ‘no relation,’ and by other Russian propagandists. I would tell him how the Ukrainian people’s patience snapped, and that the country had a revolution which overthrew the corrupt regime. Yanukovych was the sitting president, surrounded by his ‘family’ in the old-fashioned Russian meaning, a Politburo composed of people connected by friendship and business ties to the president’s eldest son—an extremely lucky guy, especially in the final year of his father’s rule—businessman Oleksandr Yanukovych. And it was this ‘crony capitalism’ and the incredible corruption that caused an explosion of popular anger that led to the overthrow of the regime. The majority of those who participated in this revolution, most of the hundreds of thousands of peaceful citizens who came out to protest on the central streets and squares of Kyiv, were ordinary, perfectly normal, and sometimes unbelievably far removed from any political activities—Kyivites who are just like you and me, the middle class.
We started our conversation with the Russian propagandists, primarily those on television, who have created some fantastic image that has nothing to do with reality. Do you approve of the idea of cutting off Russian TV channels broadcasting in Ukraine?
My attitude toward this is complicated. The Russian channels broadcast not only news, although it can hardly be called news now, and not only informational programs, which have turned into propaganda; sometimes they show really good non-political programs, TV series, and documentaries. My friends and colleagues appear on the screen and they have done nothing to the Ukrainian people. That’s why my attitude toward this is complicated. On the other hand, it is of course impossible to imagine that during the Second World War the newspaper Voelkischer Beobachter would be released in Great Britain or the United States, translated into English. Turning to the issue of Russia Today. I wonder what the authorities would do in those English-speaking countries which get Russia Today, because Russia Today, pardon me, is to a great extent a modern version of Voelkischer Beobachter.
Presently, there is a debate about whether international sanctions should apply to journalists, particularly to ‘no relation’ Dmitriy Kiseliov.
The principles of respect for freedom of expression and freedom of opinion and freedom of the press accepted throughout the civilized world do not apply to men like Dmitriy Kiseliov. Goebbels wouldn’t be protected by these laws. The history of journalism knows cases where journalists became not just propagandists, but messengers of the most reactionary, the most hateful, the most unacceptable ideas in a civilized society. Freedom of speech and expression are out of the question there. Although I understand that some people, say in the United States, who interpret the First Amendment to the US Constitution rather broadly, would disagree with me, but I’m ready to discuss it with them.
Another interesting aspect of this history is that the forecasts of media experts, who anticipated television and especially major TV channels to be lost and replaced by internet, never came true. People who gave up television 10 or 15 years ago, or watch it only rarely if ever, have found that for the majority of people the federal TV channels are the main source of information, and, more importantly, that they do not reject the TV propaganda. Did you find it surprising, too?
Yes I did, to a certain extent. I believe we exaggerate the influence of modern online mass media on public awareness. We did not realize that most internet users, even though they may occasionally check out some informational sites, still mostly use internet for entertainment, shopping, and some light everyday communication on social networks. From my point of view, in the past few years, Russia has developed a surprisingly passive and indifferent silent majority which could not care less about the future of the country and under certain circumstances would just shrug their shoulders and say: we knew nothing of it, no one ever told us anything, we had no idea that we had such a regime in power. That is, if they were ever to be held accountable, like the German people were, to the world for the things that could happen with Russia.
A lot of people now fear that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine. Military forces are gathered at the border, there is information that an invasion is being prepared. What is your feeling, is it going to happen?
Sadly, this may happen. I really do not want to be the bad prophet, but I absolutely do not rule it out. Intelligence reports clearly suggest a future invasion. Personally, I am deeply concerned about the deployment of field hospitals, about the introduction of special vehicles with high-powered loudspeakers, field radio stations to be used to transmit messages to the surrounded or retreating enemy, or, conversely, to an enemy which has strengthened its defensive and is unwilling to throw itself on the mercy of the victor.
I find alarming the persistent promises of the Russian officials saying we are not going to cross the border, we are not preparing any military invasion. It’s all very reminiscent of what was said on the eve of the annexation of Crimea, that we are not going to take any military action in Crimea, we are not going to annex Crimea, we are not going to incorporate the Crimean peninsula into the Russian Federation. As we know, all these grand promises did not correspond with reality.
Despite this threat, Ukraine is preparing for the presidential elections. According to data from surveys, there is a leader. Why are millions ready to vote for Petro Poroshenko, and can we say that the election results, if of course no Russian invasion takes place, are a foregone conclusion, and that Poroshenko will become President?
I would be careful with such categorical forecasts, because the most unexpected turns of political events occur in Ukraine. I remember, for example, that in 1994 Leonid Kravchuk initiated early presidential elections in an attempt to gain an extra vote of confidence from the electorate and ultimately lost, which no one anticipated. Everybody believed the then-president to be sufficiently popular and strong and capable of winning the elections, but he lost in the second round to his main competitor Leonid Kuchma. Similarly, in 2004, at some point opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was the undisputed leader and was showing such a wide margin in all ratings that no one believed Yanukovych would be able to catch up so well that he was declared the winner at first. How things will work out now? There have been a lot of surprises. Vitaliy Klitschko decided not to participate in the presidential elections and encouraged his supporters to vote for Poroshenko. This should enhance Poroshenko’s standing accordingly. The most recent published survey gives him 25% of votes in the first round, while Vitaliy Klitschko got 9% in that survey. I don’t really know whether we could simply put those figures together, because not all of Klitschko’s supporters would vote for Petro Poroshenko, but I believe the majority would. What Yulia Tymoshenko, who is apparently becoming Poroshenko’s main competitor, would have to say about that still remains to be seen. Because those who were following closely and who have seen, for example, how she was received by Maidan on the day she was released from prison, believe she is going to have a hard time. The people in the square that gathered on that day to celebrate the victory over the overthrown regime did not meet Yulia Volodymyrivna with thousands of voices yelling in unison “Yulia, Yulia, Yulia!” People applauded and said how glad they were that Yulia Volodymyrivna was finally out of prison, where she was of course held as a political prisoner, but many people added that she should not return to politics. A lot of people in Ukraine do not support Yulia Tymoshenko in her aspirations to return to power and become president. I believe that if she does not win the elections, we will see the next level of political struggle—to win as many votes in the parliamentary elections as possible. Because under the current constitution (I have to remind you that Ukraine reinstated its constitution as amended in 2004), the prime minister has enough power and in many respects is independent from the president. Currently, the Prime Minister is Arseniy Yatsenyuk, but what is going to happen after the parliamentary elections, who is going to win, which party is going to win the most votes, which coalition is going to emerge? The Constitution of 2004 establishes the concept of the ruling coalition, which has the power to form the government. In other words, it is a parliamentary-presidential republic, where the prime minister is an independent and very powerful figure. Of course, I guess it would be good for the country’s future if Poroshenko wins the presidential elections. It would also be good if his party wins, or some alliance of those parties that will support the president in order not to repeat the situation we saw in Ukraine for many years, when Yushchenko was the president and Tymoshenko the prime pinister and all political life of the country was focused on their implacable enmity, the slow and occasionally escalating conflict between the president and the prime minister.
The Congress of the Party of Regions, which was the governing party until recently, was held on Saturday. Will it be able to recover from the blow and take revenge, or is this impossible?
I do not believe any of the present leaders of the Party of Regions or candidates that could be supported by the Party of Regions could actually hope to win the presidential elections. However, I would not write them off completely, in the sense that it often matters who comes in third and who comes in fourth. Because those who come third or fourth in the presidential race often siphon votes from the leaders. The next important consideration with those who come third, fourth, or fifth is whom they are going to support in the second round and whom their electorate will vote for.
Regarding the Party of Regions itself, it is now being decided what it’s going to be like. Apparently, there are two possible ways it can go. The first one is to attempt to go through a process of reform, rebranding, and renewal to transform the party into something more modern and attractive to the citizens from southeast of the country, who also want innovation and who reject the practices that caused the previous regime to collapse. Yet there are forces that cling stubbornly to the past. I’m sorry to say that I have a feeling that the Party of Regions may turn into a party of die-hard reversionists who will not renounce their principles and who will eventually cause certain marginalization. It would become a party of fringe politicians clinging desperately to the legacy of Yanukovych’s regime. If such a scenario occurs, the Party of Regions will split into two. The party will most likely lose some of its activists, particularly the current parliament members, the prominent politicians who will probably make a new party, a party of democratic reforms. It will be like when the CPSU [the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—Ed.] had two wings, do you remember? There was Ligachov’s steadfast wing and the Democratic Platform that united those who supported Gorbachov, Shevardnadze, and Yakovliev, and who finally had to leave the CPSU.
We are now speaking of conservative and reversionist politicians, but there are also direct supporters of Moscow who appear constantly on the Russian TV channels, appoint the so called ‘national governors,’ and sponsor fights in the squares of southern and eastern regions of Ukraine. How strong are they and how many of them are there?
I would not exaggerate their strength and numbers. Of course, 5% of Ukrainian citizens living in the east and southeast do support them. These are namely the representatives of poorer social groups who were unable to integrate into the new life in 20 years of post-Soviet independent Ukraine; who failed to adapt to the new reality, to fit into the market, so to speak; however ugly it is, it’s there, people who get nostalgic for the Soviet Union, people who often aggressively deny those elements of the new life that the state of independence has brought, including a wider use of the Ukrainian language, and who of course dream of returning to the Kremlin’s jurisdiction. I estimate it’s 5 to 7% of the population of Ukraine and these people are mainly localized in Luhansk, Donetsk, and, partly, in Kharkiv Oblast.
There were reports last autumn that you decided to become a Ukrainian citizen. Later on it turned out that you were misunderstood. Now, after the revolution, would you reconsider that?
I never stopped thinking about applying to the Ukrainian state for Ukrainian citizenship. I have lived here for many years now and feel like this country has become my second homeland, so I would like to become a part of this country. I do not want to be a part of the country that commits aggression against Ukraine. I am embarrassed to be a citizen of the Russian Federation. In that particular interview that you are referring to, I just expressed my opinion, that’s all. Some of my colleagues used to point out my Russian citizenship to me in a tricky, and not always in a civil, way, I think. And I always responded that while working in the Ukrainian mass media and doing political analysis of the situation in Ukraine, making speeches in various media (I went to the United States and England recently to deliver speeches to research organizations there, like the Carnegie Foundation and the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London), I expressed my view of what was going on in the country and always acted as a Ukrainian journalist or a Ukrainian political commentator. When someone said publicly for the umpteenth time, “You, as a Russian journalist . . .” I replied, “You know, colleagues, I really think I’ll apply for Ukrainian citizenship in the near future.” To be honest, the only thing that stopped me was that I did not want to receive Ukrainian citizenship from the hands of Viktor Yanukovych; I knew the true value of that man. I felt like waiting until the presidential elections in which, I hoped, someone else would become the president. Even before all the events of Maidan I believed that in the next presidential elections an opposition member would succeed. That’s when I was intending to apply with the request to the new president. I hope I will have the opportunity much sooner than I had expected.
Translated by Svitlana Skob, edited by Robin Rohrback