Another ex-media manager appointed as Ukraine’s Culture Minister: saving culture or president’s image?

The COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine have influenced the overall area of culture, not only in Ukraine. However, in Ukraine it has particularly affected the budding sprouts in state cultural policy that, at last, had started to multiply after the Euromaidan Revolution. Photo: Olena Makarenko 

Ukraine

Article by: Olena Makarenko
On 4 June 2020, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to appoint Oleksandr Tkachenko as Minister of Culture and Information Policy. The position of Culture Minister has been vacant since the beginning of March when the Parliament dismissed the government of Oleksiy Honcharuk. At the end of March, the Culture Ministry and the Information Ministry were merged into one, effectively eliminating cultural policy from the list of priorities for Ukraine.

Another trend in government appears to be placing pro-President Zelenskyy influencers in the information sphere. Tkachenko as well as his predecessor Volodymyr Borodianskyi both came to politics from the TV media business. Prior to the 2019 parliamentary elections, Tkachenko was the general director of the 1+1 channel owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. This is the channel that aired programs featuring Zelenskyy before he became president.

Tkachenko’s appointment took place after a chain of unpleasant events related to Ukrainian culture. The news of his potential appointment had been circulating from the beginning of June, after the president’s Servant of the People party indicated support of his candidacy at faction’s meetings

At the 4 June session of Parliament, 263 MPs voted for Tkachenko — 229 votes came from Servant of the People; 26 from the two groups — Trust and For the Future; and the eight remaining votes from independent MPs. Pro-Russian Opposition Platform for Life, Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity, Yuliya Tymoshenko’s Fatherland, and Voice did not cast a single vote.

Before being appointed, Tkachenko said, “Further, we also should work together and not divide the country between patriots and traitors.” This genial statement echoes the talking points of the president’s new year speech, which are gradually being absorbed into Ukraine’s cultural and information spheres. The key message of that president’s speech was “What’s the difference?”

Read also: What the Ukrainian nation should be – Zelenskyy’s New Year speech provoked discussion on identity and nationhood

According to Zelenskyy’s point of view, the names of streets are immaterial, as are the types of monuments erected on them.

Despite the outrage these messages are causing within some segments of society, the trend toward cultural indifference is turning into Ukraine’s new reality.

Tkachenko. The background

Oleksandr Tkachenko, newly appointed Minister of Culture and Information Policy. Photo: Olya Komarova/RadioSvoboda (RFE/RL)

Prior to his ministerial appointment, Tkachenko headed the parliamentary Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy. However, he was best-known for his association with Kolomoyskyi’s Media Group 1+1. Tkachenko became general director of the 1+1 group, the most influential channel of which is 1+1, in 2008. The oligarch’s influence on the channel’s management has never been in doubt, despite their many refutes.

During the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, the oligarch and the former president had bad relations. The management and employees of the 1+1 channel frequently complained of pressure from Poroshenko supporters. Rumors were rife that Poroshenko was going to take over the channel.

Instead, the channel was raising its own president. 1+1 was broadcasting programs run by Zelenskyy’s Kvartal 95 studio. During the 2019 pre-election presidential campaign, this relationship spurred heated discussions on whether the TV series Servant of the People in which Zelenskyy played the role of the Ukrainian president, as well as other shows in which he was involved, could be considered to be political campaigning. Formally, they were just shows. But informally, they contributed a lot to Zelenskyy winning the presidency.

Read also: Power of TV still rules Ukrainian politics, presidential election shows

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A few months later, during the July 2019 parliamentary elections, Tkachenko campaigned under the ninth number of the president’s Servant of the People party. After being elected, he resigned as head of the 1+1 Media Group.

Since summer 2019, and until very recently, Tkachenko was considered to be one of the main opponents to Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko in the October 2020 local elections. On 31 May 2020, Tkachenko even announced his intention to run in the Servant of the People’s mayoral primaries. However, as sources from the Ukrainian BBC service revealed, the Office of the President did not support his candidacy.

At the Parliament’s session on Tkachenko’s appointment as Minister of Culture and Information Policy, the question of his conflict of interests was raised. In particular, MP Oleksiy Honcharenko, European Solidarity, pointed out that Tkachenko’s family is suing the Ministry of Culture for their shares in the Odesa Film Studio. Tkachenko indicated that his shares are to be sold soon.

Occupying information field by the president’s people

Tkachenko has become yet another pro-president decision-maker in the information field.

For example, the majority of the members of Ukraine’s National Council on TV and Radio Broadcasting, the state’s broadcast regulator, are former employees of either the 1+1 TV channel or Kvartal-95 Studio.

Serhiy Kostynskyi, an ex-member of the National Council finds the situation threatening for independent TV and radio broadcasting in Ukraine, especially for those broadcasters whose programs are criticized by the president or by the current government.

Read also: Ukrainian TV channel cries political pressure after backlash to airing “foreign” RFE/RL and BBC programs

Kostynkyi’s expectations of Tkachenko’s appointment are quite negative. In particular, the expert foresees the following:

  • Using the state’s channel for the occupied territories of Donbas, in the interests of the current government to broadcast political propaganda.
  • Battling with the independent National Public Broadcasting Company to use the channel for these same propaganda purposes.

“This state-funded public media holding can theoretically become an alternative to any private media holding, and provide critical information in support of the government among the Ukrainian-speaking voting audience,” says Kostynskyi.

He adds that the only challenge is to take control over the supervisory board of the broadcaster, with the help of the National Council.

  • Again, with the help of the National Council, undertake a fight for the influence on the private telecommunications operator Zeonbud that provides terrestrial (land-based) digital television throughout Ukraine.

“I think the authorities plan to take control of digital broadcasting in order to be able to turn off the broadcasting of TV channels that criticize the president,” comments Kostynskyi.

Saving culture or destroying it?

From the “Living Light Projection”, the art installation which illuminated the Kyiv night sky, and was meant as an appeal to the government not to destroy Ukrainian culture. Photo: espreso.tv

When commenting on his possible appointment, Tkachenko paid more attention to the cultural component than to the informational. In particular, he questioned the latter surviving on the government agenda at all, drawing attention to the problems that have accumulated in the absence of the minister.

The COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine have influenced the overall area of culture, not only in Ukraine. However, in Ukraine it has particularly affected the budding sprouts in state cultural policy that, at last, had started to multiply after the Euromaidan Revolution. The nation’s vulnerability that came about from a weakened cultural policy made Ukraine an even easier target for Russia’s hybrid aggression.

Among the important steps made after the revolution were introducing the pitching procedure for filmmakers and provide the state funding for the film industry. New institutions for setting the cultural agenda appeared, including the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, the Ukrainian Book Institute, the Ukrainian Institute (meant to present Ukrainian culture internationally), and the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.

The foundation provided support to both small and large projects in producing content, developing art, expanding tourism, and organizing events and educational programs. In 2019, the foundation supported 433 initiatives, in total spending UAH 640 million (about EURO 20.7 million).

On 13 April 2020, Parliament adopted a pared-down Budget 2020, responding to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Cultural funding was among those areas that suffered the most significant cuts.

As Euromaidan Press previously wrote, some cuts were reasonable given the necessary cancellation of group events because of COVID-19 social distancing rules. However, many other important projects have seen major reductions. In particular, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation faces a 43% reduction; the Ukrainian Book Institute faces a 33% reduction; state support for Ukrainian film production has been reduced by 38%; and the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance funding is down by 50%. Cuts to the remembrance institute are especially unfortunate, because they will detract from the Revolution of Dignity Museum.

“The history of reductions in the budget for cultural institutions — such a soft version of 1920-1930. Back then it started with the destruction of artists and ended with the destruction of millions,” says Volodymyr Yermolenko, Ukrainian philosopher, writer, and journalist.

During quarantine, some artists have still managed to hold online protests and other actions. One spectacular event was a “Living Light Projection.” This art installation illuminated the Kyiv night sky, and was meant as an appeal to the government not to destroy Ukrainian culture. Represented by more than 250,000 people across the country, the cultural industry includes artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers … in all, more than a hundred professions.

However, concerns for sustaining cultural endeavors started before the quarantine. One was the controversial appointment to one of the country’s key cultural institutions — the Ukrainian State Film Agency. The hiring competition for its head took place twice, with both of them riddled with scandal, and causing protests by many representatives of the field.

The end of February 2020 finally saw the appointment of Marynna Kuderchuk. However, Kuderchuk’s professional experience was not even slightly related to the film industry, other than heading the cinema and concert hall in Zaporizhzhya. While holding that position, she actively cooperated with Kvartal-95 studio, in which Zelenskyy remained active up to taking on the presidency. Industry professionals, as well as media, attributed Kuderchuk’s appointment to her loyalty to the president — favoritism.

Recently, the industry reaped the fruits of her appointment. At the end of May, the National Center of Oleksandr Dovzhenko — the largest film archive in Ukraine, cataloging more than 6,000 films — declared insolvency. That same day, Security Services and police conducted searches of the center’s financial records. Also, the same day Ivan Kozlenko — who had headed the Dovzhenko Center since 2014 — resigned. He cited the lack of financing for the Center and the film industry. Both are included in the same budget item, according to which the Ukrainian State Film Agency funds all the industry.

The Center was not receiving any funds for five months. In the interview with Hromadske, Kozlenko explained that the Center had other sources of funding. In 2019, 75% of revenues it earned itself due to rents and events. However, because of the quarantine, these sources became not available.

Kozlenko related the troubles the center faces to Kuderchuk’s appointment.

“I believe that this was a mistake of the new government, which lead not only to a lack of funding, but even worse, to a loss of trust. Now, for the first time during the relative autonomy of the State Film Agency, we have an incompetent manager who is unable to perform his functions.”

Recently, Kuderchuk had been invited to become acquainted with the industry community at the extended meeting of the Secretariat of the National Union of Cinematographers of Ukraine. When she was asked not to reduce funding for the Dovzhenko Center, she responded that she acts according to the law, and left the meeting soon thereafter with no further explanation.

The representatives attending called such behavior unacceptable and sent a letter of protest to the president and the prime minister stating that Kuderchuk had no right to head the agency.

Since Kuderchuk left the meeting without any discussion, the participants — key members of the film community — did not learn of any strategy for the development of the film industry, nor of any proposed tactics for solving acute problems.

The lack of a comprehensive cultural policy was one of Ukraine’s major mistakes after Independence in 1991. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the country concentrated on reorganizing the economy, while culture was left on the back burner. Lacking direction, the cultural field oriented towards Russia. And Russia used the situation for its own benefit, which culminated by invading Ukraine in 2014 and starting the war in the Donbas region.

Before the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine’s cultural field was divided into two spheres — official and underground. The former was superficial in nature and not able to form common values for society, while the latter simply had no resources for it. Only after the revolution was the importance of cultural policy truly recognized, and the arena started to draw attention and serious consideration.

Still, the work towards fixing mistakes has only just started. Sadly, cultural decline at this stage might lead to irrevocable consequences. Thus far, when examining all the angles of recent events, Tkachenko’s appointment seems more like another step in creating a comfort (information) zone for the President than throwing a lifeline to culture.

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Edited by: Sonia Maryn

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