The two worlds of Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine

Ukraine’s President Yanukovych has completed his takeover of his country’s TV channels, and is making inroads into the internet. As Ukraine faces a choice of whether to align itself with Europe or Eurasia, Sergii Leshchenko wonders if there is a way back. 

Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yushchenko, the father of five children, liked to describe his country as a ‘sleeping beauty’, awaiting her prince. After the Orange revolution of 2004 it looked as though the fairytale had come to its happy end, but eight years later it is obvious that Ukraine is still sunk in a deep, lethargic sleep.

For three years now the government led by Viktor Yanukovych has been dismantling democracy in Ukraine. In its latest report on world press freedom, the organisation Reporters without Borders places Ukraine in 126th position (out of 179), between Algeria and Honduras. In 2009, just before Yanukovych took power, it was in 89th place, but the new president decided not to tempt fate any further by playing the game of western values. 

Two perceptions of reality exist side by side in Ukraine. The first is that shown on television, the main source of information for 87% of the population, owned by the country’s oligarchs and so obliged to remain loyal to the regime. The second, for the small minority of Ukrainians who use it, is that of the internet, where opposition voices dominate.

TV - the government’s weapon of choice.

Television is the government’s chief channel of communication with its voters. Naturally enough, after his election as president in 2010, Yanukovych decided to bring it under control. All the main channels began to function as elements of a homogeneous information stream overseen by Russian spin doctor Igor Shuvalov, and those who refused to toe the line were marginalised. The TVai channel, for example, first lost its broadcasting frequencies, and then, just before last year’s parliamentary elections, even cable operators stopped carrying it. 

The big TV channels belong to four groups, all of them with no option but to be loyal to Yanukovych. Media group No 1, consisting of the popular Inter channel along with half a dozen minor channels, has since January of this year belonged to oligarch Dmytro Firtash and Serhiy Lyovochkin, head of the presidential administration. Group No 2 is in the hands of Rinat Akhmetov, the president’s right hand man, the richest person in Ukraine and chief sponsor of the ruling Party of Regions. Two other media groups belong to ex president Kuchma’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk and the Dnipropetrovsk oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky.

Most amazingly, the mainstays of television’s loyalty to Yanukovych are two TV stars from Russia, the legendary Yevgeny Kiselyov from NTV and Savik Shuster from Radio Svoboda. Fleeing from Putin’s authoritarian regime into the arms of Yanukovych, both happily agreed to play by his somewhat less onerous rules

For none of them is television their main business. They have accepted these roles as the price of government support in areas like energy privatisation and favours for their metallurgical companies. The Ukrainian public is moreover not even aware of who cooks up their daily information menu – 82% have no idea who is behind their media. Most amazingly, the mainstays of television’s loyalty to Yanukovych are two TV stars from Russia, the legendary Yevgeny Kiselyov from NTV and Savik Shuster from Radio Svoboda. Fleeing from Putin’s authoritarian regime into the arms of Yanukovych, both happily agreed to play by his somewhat less onerous rules.

No-one is immune

The latest example of an oligarch bowing to pressure from the regime is the UNIAN website, owned by Ihor Kolomoysky. He brought his respected 20 year old brand into disrepute by posting, on government orders, a preposterous story about jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko’s lawyer Sergei Vlasenko. According to this article, Vlasenko was a pathetic character who believed that he was being followed by government agents disguised as cartoon bears. The website’s journalists protested, and were imperiously told by Kolomoysky to shut up, or the site would be closed down.

The fate of Ukraine’s most popular TV channel, Inter, is symptomatic of the trend. It recently changed hands after its previous owner, businessman and former acting deputy Prime Minister Valery Khoroshkovsky, dared to challenge President Yanukovych. After resigning his post last December as a protest against Yanukovych’s choice of Prime Minister, Khoroshkovsky decided to show his independence by dropping all censorship on his TV channel and dismissing a pro-government presenter. But his satisfaction was short-lived. The tax authorities were immediately ordered to investigate his affairs, so he left Ukraine and is now resident in London, where his son is a student at City University. From the UK he agreed to sell his TV shares to Serhiy Lyovochkin, head of the presidential administration, and the change of ownership was immediately followed by the disappearance of a political talk show hosted by journalist Anna Bezulik and the disbanding of the public advisory council set up by Khoroshkovsky to monitor balance in the channel’s news coverage.

Khoroshkovsky decided to show his independence by dropping censorship on his TV channel and dismissing a pro-government presenter. But his satisfaction was short-lived. The tax authorities were immediately ordered to investigate his affairs, so he left Ukraine and moved to London.

A recent development has been the idea of the president’s ‘Family’ getting into direct media ownership. Yanukovych is trying to acquire his own information weapon system, to avoid the need for oligarchic support in the 2015 presidential elections. His media group consists mainly of a few small TV channels, radio stations and websites, but his ‘big gun’ is to be ‘Kapital’, a new business newspaper which will be published in conjunction with the Financial Times.

Interrupting the flow of news

The main result of Yanukovych’s media takeover has been to stop corruption allegations leaking from the internet to television. Since  Yanukovych’s election as president in 2010, not a single major channel has mentioned the scandal of his out-of-town residence Mezhyhirya. This tale of corruption on a fantastic scale would be a sensation anywhere in Europe, but in Ukraine it is simply a non-story. The government owned estate, formerly used by Ukraine’s communist bigwigs, is now 140 hectares of presidential private property (an area almost the size of Monaco) with a palatial residence where a single chandelier cost $100, 000.  

The interesting thing, however is that although television has made no mention of the president’s scandalous palace, it seems that the public is well aware of its story. A poll commissioned by the popular internet newspaper ‘Ukrainska Pravda’ showed that 42% of Ukrainians know about the machinations around the president’s residence despite the silence of the TV channels.

Journalists wait for Viktor Yanukovych to emerge from parliament, having themselves been prevented from observing. Photo: (cc) Demotix/ukrafoto ukrainian news

For the moment, the most popular Ukrainian websites have nothing to do with politics. The most visited site is Google, followed by the Russian social networking site ’vKontakte’. The third most popular site belongs to the Russian postal service; the fifth is another Russian social network, ‘Odnoklassniki’ (literally, ‘Classmates’).  Facebook is in tenth place, beaten by the file sharing site Ex.ua, which distributes pirated content. However the recent elections showed that the internet is becoming ever more dangerous for  Yanukovych and his political forces. In Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, not a single seat was won by a Yanukovych candidate. Despite the stream of TV propaganda, Kyivan voters were getting their information from alternative, online sources. Indeed attempts at falsification at Kyiv polling stations were foiled thanks to Facebook and Twitter, which were used to mobilise people to combat fraud.

The internet is even beneficial for Yanukovych, as a safety valve for people’s anger. Ukrainians are not smashing windows and storming the notorious presidential residence. They are too busy honing their artistic skills, drawing cartoons and pressing the ‘like’ button

For Yanukovych, internet users are lost voters. If his name appears anywhere on the web, it is only as a source of mockery for his frequent verbal slips, such as when he described Anton Chekhov as a Ukrainian poet. He has also been known to confuse Montenegro with Kosovo, and Stockholm with Helsinki. An amusing incident when a floral wreath fell on the president during a memorial ceremony during a high wind didn’t make the TV screens, but got 2.7 million hits on the internet and became the subject of innumerable cartoons and satirical remixes.

The internet is still a free zone where people can express their opinions and passions. In fact it is even beneficial for Yanukovych, as a safety valve for people’s anger. Ukrainians are not smashing windows and storming the notorious presidential residence. They are too busy honing their artistic skills in drawing cartoons and pressing the ‘like’ button beside blogs and articles that criticise the regime.

The growing influence of the Web 

Sooner or later the internet will become a powerful weapon against corruption in Ukraine. The ‘Nashi Dengi’ (‘our money’) site, which reports on the abuse of public funds, has become the main source of financial news for the media in general. It is obvious that in the future the internet will have a direct influence on election results. 

If Yanukovych’s name appears anywhere on the web, it is only as a source of mockery for his frequent verbal slips, such as when he described Anton Chekhov as a Ukrainian poet. He has also been known to confuse Montenegro with Kosovo, and Stockholm with Helsinki.

Social networking sites may also become an alternative channel of communication between the opposition and the voters, although for the moment none of its leaders has much of a presence on Facebook or Twitter – the person with the most followers (31,000) is Vitaly Klychko, which is hardly surprising given his dual status as sports star and politician. But 31,000 isn’t even enough to guarantee a victory in a single constituency, let alone become mayor of Kyiv or president of Ukraine (on the government side, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s Facebook page has 24,000 followers, and on Friday evenings he opens it for readers’ questions, though only of a non-critical variety, which leads to a widespread suspicion that the answers come from a ghost-writer).Other opposition leaders have an even lower online profile: Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Yulia Tymoshenko’s successor as head of the ‘Fatherland’ party, has only 9,600 followers, while nationalist leader Oleh Tyahnybok has a mere 6,500. These figures are pathetically low, but increasing online interest in political matters is reflected in other ways. For instance, a photo of Arseniy Yatsenyuk doing his bit to combat corruption by flying economy class –unheard of behaviour for a political leader – gathered more than 3,000 Facebook ‘likes’, a record for a photo of a Ukrainian politician.

Journalists wearing masks at a press conference with Yanukovych. Photo: RIA Novosti/Grigory Vasilenko

The regime, meanwhile, has its own use for the internet - to harass anti-Yanukovych journalists, hacking into their email accounts as well as recording their phone calls and publishing them online on pro-government sites. At the same time journalists are in general loath to stand up for their rights. The exception to this is the small number of people who have united under the slogan ’Stop the censorship!’. They recently attended  a presidential press conference wearing Yanukovych masks, the idea being to point out that Ukraine’s leader is out of touch with reality and talking to himself when he denies that censorship exists in Ukraine. 

Which road to take?  Of course the reality is that Ukraine’s whole future hangs in the balance, caught as it is between Europe – it is one step away from signing an Association Agreement with the EU – and the Russian dominated Eurasian Customs Union After a summit in Brussels last month, the EU has compiled a list of a dozen specific issues on which the Ukraine must take action by May in accordance with previous agreements. These include reforms in the justice system, in criminal law and the criminal procedure code, and in the fight against corruption, as well as the implementation of the recommendations of the Cox-Kwasniewski mission. It is clear, however, that for the sake of Ukraine’s future the EU Association Agreement must be signed, however undemocratic its institutions. It is not so important whose face is on the presidential mask. What is important is the fate of a fledgling 46 million strong nation that has spent the last twenty years at the east-west crossroads, and is still waiting for someone else to decide which road it should take.

About the author

Sergii Leshchenko is an investigative and political journalist. He is deputy-editor-in-chief of Ukrainska pravda, Ukraine's leading independent online media. He was a 2012 Fellow of the John Smith Memorial Trust and a Reagan-Fascell Fellow from 2013-2014. All views are expressed in a personal capacity.