TV Refugees From Moscow

KIEV, Ukraine — In the final weeks of Ukraine’s presidential campaign, all the candidates have wanted to appear on Savik Shuster’s political talk show. Denied an invitation, one even threatened to carry out a swashbuckling raid on Mr. Shuster’s television studio in Kiev to force a very impromptu live debate with a rival.

Sharp questions Savik Shuster seeks answers.

It has been a bit like the old days — back in Moscow.

Mr. Shuster is a refugee from Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia. As the television news has been whitewashed there, some big-mouthed journalists like Mr. Shuster have decamped for neighboring Ukraine, where the political and media climate is far more lively and diverse and just plain interesting. (Can you imagine the steely Mr. Putin chasing after a journalist, demanding to be interviewed?)

The split between the two countries has become increasingly evident since the Orange Revolution of 2004 put Ukraine on a path toward a more European-style government, in contrast to the autocratic regimes in much of the rest of the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Shuster left Moscow after his program, “Freedom of Speech,” was canceled. His supposed sins: he asked tart questions that cast doubt on the authorities and sought guests who had displeased them. He did, in other words, what journalists tend to do.

“Television there now is like in Soviet times,” he said. “I see more and more conformism. You are not allowed to invite people who have different positions and can debate those positions. So today in Russia, you can’t do a real talk show.”

Another newcomer in Kiev, Yevgeny Kiselyov, who was a pioneering television journalist in Moscow in the 1990s, said self-censorship was pervasive in Russia. “There are all kinds of don’ts,” he said. “All kinds of black lists that are never on paper. But every producer, every editor knows them by heart.”

With competing hit political talk shows, these two immigrants have unexpectedly become media kingmakers in the Ukrainian presidential election, which is heading to a Feb. 7 runoff. It is to be decided between Viktor F. Yanukovich, the loser in the Orange Revolution, and Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, one of its heroes.

They were the top finishers in the election last Sunday, and the fact that no one knows who will win is a telling sign that Ukraine is not like most post-Soviet countries.

Both candidates have regularly been on the programs of Mr. Shuster (who resembles a college professor) and Mr. Kiselyov (more the typical anchorman).

Interviewing Mr. Yanukovich this month, Mr. Shuster went after a big vulnerability: a perception that he might be a Putin pawn. “They say that you will agree to turn over the government to the Kremlin — is that the case?” he asked.

Ms. Tymoshenko was the candidate who almost barged into Mr. Shuster’s studio. She had clamored for a debate with Mr. Yanukovich in December, but he refused, so she let it be known she might ambush him. In the end, she didn’t.

Mr. Shuster has been in Kiev since 2005, and Mr. Kiselyov since 2008. They thrive in part because Ukraine and Russia are Slavic siblings with interwoven cultures. While Ukrainian is the national language, Russian, which is relatively similar, is widely spoken, and many people speak both.

Given the post-Soviet landscape, it is easy to glamorize the media in Ukraine, just as it is with recollections of Russian television, pre-Putin. The truth — in today’s Kiev as in Moscow back then — is messier.

Ukraine’s stations are largely controlled by oligarchs who often use them to settle scores and blatantly support candidates. The same thing occurred in Russia.

European election monitors in Ukraine have called most television news coverage slanted. Some journalists are believed to give politicians favorable coverage in exchange for bribes.

Still, the government does not exert wide-ranging control over television news content, as in Moscow.

Roman Golovenko, a lawyer who monitors the media, says that television news has generally improved since the Orange Revolution, though it has a long way to go.

Mr. Shuster and Mr. Kiselyov said that because of their stature, they had avoided pressure from their channels’ owners.

An obvious question is, why have Ukraine and Russia diverged? Ukraine seems more pluralistic, in part because of a geographic divide that makes it harder to dominate the country. Ukrainian speakers in the west look toward Europe, and Russian speakers in the east and south are more loyal to Moscow.

Both men said they were not sure that the Ukrainian experiment in democracy would turn out well. The public is tired of political bickering and upheaval, and corruption is as entrenched here as in Russia. The Orange Revolution has lost its luster. Maybe the next president will tighten the government’s grip over the media.

“It’s not my joke, but I like it,” Mr. Kiselyov said. “The difference between Russian politics and Ukrainian politics is the difference between a cemetery and a madhouse.”

Even so, Mr. Kiselyov said Ukrainians had become accustomed to their freedoms and were not likely to turn back. “Most politicians, even in the West, don’t like the media,” he said. “When Western leaders were criticizing Putin for his handling of the media, deep in the hearts, they were thinking, ‘I wish I could do the same.’ But Ukrainian political culture has changed dramatically since the Orange Revolution. In Ukraine now, they are playing by different rules.”

Source: The New York Times