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From the Pioneer Press to Kiev: Journalist Brian Bonner explains Ukraine

Brian Bonner, chief editor of the Kyiv (Kiev) Post, discusses current Ukrainian politics and journalism issues in a wide-ranging Q&A. First of two articles.

Brian Bonner
Kyiv Post/Oleksiy Boyko
Brian Bonner

For nearly 24 years, Brian Bonner was a reporter, editor and union hell-raiser for the Pioneer Press, covering cops, courts and City Hall, working general assignment, enterprise and investigative beats as well as being weekend news editor.

The 50-year-old is still editing, just not on this continent. Since June 2008, he’s been chief editor of the Kyiv (Kiev) Post, an English-language daily that raises its own bits of hell in a country Americans know (if at all) for dioxin-poisoned former President Viktor Yushchenko

Yushchenko’s Orange Revolution expired well before he finished fifth in January’s presidential election. Now, Bonner finds himself performing journalism in a country turning east toward its former Russian overlords — as press freedom turns south.

Over the course of several days this month, Bonner and I chewed through the problems journalists face everywhere (including a poor ad climate and how to make money online) and the Ukrainian government’s media-control strategy. But he also served as political translator, offering insights into why Yuschenko failed, the Obama administration’s fecklessness, and why Americans should care.

Wikimedia Commons

In the first part of a two-part interview, we talked mostly about the Post and politics. In Part 2, we’ll discuss press freedom, the media business, and the life of a foreign journalist in a 1,000-year-old capital city.

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David Brauer: First, tell me about the paper itself. Circulation? Frequency? Staff size?

Brian Bonner: We are a 20,000-circulation newsweekly, glossy tabloid format, 32 pages. We also maintain a website with regular updates of staff-written content, plus wire-service news (Reuters, Associated Press and local wire services — Interfax, Ukrainian News, UNIAN) — at www.kyivpost.com.

We are ramping up the editorial staff — now at 29 — because we are going to launch an online version in Ukrainian and Russian languages to reach a broader audience.

We have a Kyiv Post fan club on Facebook now with nearly 2,500 members. Our website traffic averages 4,000-5,000 users daily and 20,000-25,000 hits.

DB:  Does your owner(s) have Ukraine political interests? Is there a political slant to editorials, coverage?

BB: Our motto is “Independence. Community. Trust.” We take it seriously — not only is it the only way that true journalism is done, it is good business.

Unfortunately, in Ukrainian journalism, as we noted in a story in today’s issue, and in many other stories, journalists still are under pressure to toe the government line. Most media outlets in the nation are owned by a handful of billionaire oligarchs who call the shots with government and in the economy, most often to the detriment of most Ukrainians. So there is still a lack of critical, independent and investigative journalism.

There are bright exceptions: Zerkalo Nedeli (Mirror of the Week), Korrespondent.net, and Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth) are among the most trusted and popular sources of news in the nation for Ukrainian/Russian readers. These outlets break most of the stories in this nation; we have succeeded in putting these events into a context that Westerners can understand.

That said, the Kyiv Post has historically taken editorial stances in support of democracy and free-market economics. We promote Ukraine’s identity as an independent nation. And we make editorial endorsements at election time.

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DB: Your job as chief editor — what does that entail?

BB: I am in charge of the overall news operation, the budget and often make the first and final edits on stories. I lay out the paper and write the headlines with the help of the rest of the staff. I represent the newspaper at community and business forums, among civic groups, etc.

DB: How does a guy with a nice, anglicized surname get to run a Ukrainian paper, even if it is in English?

BB: Most members of our staff are Ukrainians — 21 multilingual Ukrainians, eight foreigners, most of whom are fluent in Russian or Ukrainian. Many of the foreigners also have side jobs with other publications, such as the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. So it’s a nice mix of people with international experience and deep local knowledge.

After studying Russian for many years with very modest results to show for it, I know how difficult it is to communicate outside of my native language, let alone write. I was chief editor of the Kyiv Post once before, in 1999, while on leave from the Pioneer Press. I thought then that, by 2010, a Ukrainian would have taken the newspaper over. But it hasn’t happened. It’s very important to our audience to have a newspaper that reads like it is put out by native-English language editors and journalists. So that is our goal and the only way to reach it is to have enough people like me on the staff.

Our target audience includes foreigners living outside Ukraine, foreigners in Ukraine, Ukrainians living abroad and educated, multilingual, professional Ukrainians here looking for news with more of a Western perspective.  

I came to Ukraine for the first time in 1996, thanks to a good-old University of Minnesota connection. Victoria Sloan, a colleague of mine at the Minnesota Daily and one of my best all-time friends, invited me over to convey the American journalistic experience to Ukrainian students and professionals. Victoria is a career foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department, at the time in Kyiv. She is now stationed in Astana, Kazakhstan.

While in Ukraine the first time in 1996, I taught journalism workshops in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa. It was a great experience. I fell in love with Ukraine and have been returning every year since then, either on vacation or working. I lived here continuously from 1999 to 2002, and again since 2008.

DB:  I think many Americans paid closest attention to Ukrainian politics when Yushchenko was poisoned; he was seen as the golden (or Orange) boy but he appears to have crapped out pretty big-time, losing to his bitter rival Viktor Yanukovych. Can you tell us why Yushchenko faded so badly in the eyes of the Ukrainian public?

BB: Yushchenko failed to deliver on his Orange Revolution promises of putting “bandits in jail” or forming democratic institutions.

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Viktor Yushchenko
REUTERS
Viktor Yushchenko

The Orange Revolution failed, regrettably, while the people were still on the streets. Yushchenko, in essence, sold them out by agreeing to constitutional changes that diluted presidential authority and muddled executive authority between president and prime minister — helping to foster the government stalemate and gridlock that happened during much of his five-year term.

In the end, he wasn’t a democratic reformer. He was part of the same old corrupt class of politicians that came of age under his former mentor and predecessor, the authoritarian ex-President Leonid Kuchma. It turned out to be more of an intra-elite struggle.

It sure looks like Yushchenko agreed not to go after any of the many, many alleged crimes committed under Kuchma’s rule. Ukraine is awash in unsolved politically motivated murders, high-level graft and corruption case and so forth. And no high-level official or businessperson has ever been tried, convicted or imprisoned for crimes or corruption. The only one convicted was ex-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who served Kuchma from 1996-1997, and he was convicted of laundering ill-gotten millions of dollars in a U.S. court and is serving in a U.S. prison.

Yushchenko didn’t replace the corrupt prosecutors who stonewalled many criminal cases. He couldn’t even get his own poisoning solved. He installed a corrupt hack as his chief of staff — Viktor Baloha. He dumped [prime minister] Yulia Tymoshenko early in his term and accepted his Orange Revolution nemesis, Viktor Yanukovych, as prime minister before Tymoshenko regained the job again.

Corruption and cynicism deepened under Yushchenko because people actually did have hope when he started. To this day, none of the organizers of the rigged 2004 presidential election that triggered the Orange Revolution has been tried, convicted or sent to prison — allowing Yanukovych to keep denying it ever happened.

The economy improved under Yushchenko, but it was more part of the global economic bubble that burst in 2008.

No structural reforms took place. The courts are as corrupt as ever — basically selling decisions to the highest bidder or serving political masters. Bureaucracy is as stifling as ever. A handful of billionaires have a chokehold over the economy and don’t want to let in competing investments that could threaten their near-monopoly holds over many sectors.

Yushchenko did make progress in strengthening Ukrainian national identity, the Ukrainian language, and shifting the nation’s focus to joining the European Union and NATO in an attempt to get out from under Moscow’s crushing embrace. But he approached it so divisively and ineffectively that now Ukraine is even further from joining the European Union and NATO looks like it will never happen.

Two of Yushchenko’s great accomplishments tend to get drowned out by his failures:

First, democratic elections. International and local observers (and many Ukrainians) consider the parliamentary elections of 2006, 2007 and the presidential elections of Dec. 26, 2004 (the re-run after the Orange Revolution, when he won) and in 2010 (when he lost) to have met democratic standards and to have reflected the will of the voters. Ukraine’s elections before this generally did not, especially during the Kuchma era.

I worry whether Ukraine will ever have democratic elections again — Yanukovych postponed local elections, scheduled for May, to 2011; the next parliamentary election is 2012; and presidential 2015. Ukrainians won’t have many opportunities to change their government.

Second, Yushchenko also did lift restrictions on the press and journalists to a great degree. This did not work out as well as everyone had hoped since a corrupt pay-for-coverage system emerged, but that was more the fault of certain media owners and journalists.

DB: Again, working from a rudimentary knowledge of things: Yanukovych is seen as favoring the Russian-speaking part of the country, tilting toward Moscow, and being more of an autocrat. He’s been in office for three months — has that scouting report been borne out?

BB:
Definitely. The egg-tossing, smoke-bomb throwing, fist-fighting April 27 session of parliament that the world witnessed was triggered by two items on that agenda:

First, a bilateral agreement reached between Yanukovych and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to extend the stay of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea until at least 2042, in exchange for favorable prices on Russian gas imports for Ukraine this decade;

Second, the adoption (five months into the year) of the 2010 budget.

Both of these votes took place without debate or details disclosed even to lawmakers. The vote was a sham, since only 211 of the 450 deputies registered for the session, while Speaker Volodymyr Lytyvn claimed a majority of lawmakers — some 236 deputies, I think — voted in favor.

KyivPostStaff1000.jpg

Staff of the Kyiv Post | Click to enlarge

The Ukrainian parliament is now looking more like the Russian State Duma all the time — rubber-stamping the president’s initiatives since he took to power on Feb. 25.

On May 17, Medvedev arrives for what will be the 10th meeting in three months between either the Russian/Ukrainian presidents or their prime ministers. Many deals are in the works, signed, and explained after the fact. Talks are under way to merge the aviation, gas, and energy sectors.

Yanukovych says he will act in the Ukrainian national interest, but many doubt he is getting the best end of the deal. He basically admitted that he allowed the Russian Black Sea Fleet extension out of financial necessity on gas price concessions, which may help cut the budget deficit, in turn paving the way to a re-start of International Monetary Fund loans. He said: “The spoon is dear when lunchtime is near.”

Many regard the presence of the naval fleet as an unacceptable, unconstitutional compromise of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The other side of the coin is that since much of Ukraine and Russia shared common rule, language and cultures for hundreds of years, what is happening now is only a return to the natural order of things. And many are happy about the turn of events under Yanukovych.

Ukraine doesn’t really have representative democracy. People elect their congress or parliament by voting for parties — the parties in turn, select who will take the seats. There is no way to vote for or against a specific candidate anymore. That changed happened in 2006.

DB: How do you think what’s going on there, politically, has or will affect Americans directly?

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BB: It’s never good for America when democracy retreats anywhere, as it seems to be doing now again under Yanukovych. Europe and America got tired of waiting for Ukraine to truly become democratic; Ukrainians got tired of not being accepted by the West, warts and all. Basically, Russia wanted to keep Ukraine in its orbit more than Europe and America wanted Ukraine in theirs.

U.S. President Barack Obama has clearly downgraded Ukraine as a priority, in favor of better cooperation with Russia. Ukrainians feel this. Little is said about human rights from Obama or the European Union.

The current U.S. ambassador, John Tefft, is not very visible or vocal so far. It looks like they brought in someone who personifies Ukraine’s downgraded status in U.S. foreign policy. It is understandable because of all the greater problems that America is facing now elsewhere.

However, America can still influence Ukraine in soft, constructive ways. The ideal of America is still important.

Programs such as Work & Travel, Future Leaders Exchange Program, Muskie Fellowships, etc., have given great opportunities to a young generation of Ukrainians, changing their world outlook for the better.

For instance, the Kyiv Post is employing at least six staff members who were part of FLEX, in which students live and study in American high schools for a year in a host family. They really have a much broader outlook and better English-language skills, in general, than those who never went abroad.