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Ukraine Teaches Big Brother a Tough Lesson

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Outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma titled his book "Ukraine Is Not Russia." Apparently he knew what he was talking about. But in Russia the powers-that-be were evidently of a different opinion -- that Ukraine is like Russia, only less developed. The corollary was that tactics successfully tested out in Russia would perform just as well in Ukraine. Russians also threw themselves into the election game at first, but gradually, guided by a capable hand, we learned to elect the people that we'd been prompted to elect by political operatives and the television stations -- the big guns during election campaigns.

Called into action in the Ukrainian presidential election, Russian television jumped in with the same gusto it had shown in saving the country from the communist menace led by Gennady Zyuganov back in 1996. The situation back home had stabilized, and there was no call for the skills that the broadcasters had honed to perfection in election battles past. They were desperate to return to the fray.

In program after program, Russian journalists set out to "waste" one of the presidential candidates, while praising his opponent to the skies. They obviously assumed that their "little brothers," the Ukrainian viewing audience, would follow their lead like rats entranced by the Pied Piper's pipe.

But little brother wasn't nearly as simple and trusting as the Russian political operatives portrayed him. This had been clear for a very long time, however. Think of all the jokes, clearly made up by Ukrainians, about khokhly and moskali, or Ukrainians and Russians. In these jokes, the Ukrainian is almost always a reasonable person with a good head on his shoulders, while the Russian is always a ridiculous good-for-nothing who talks in a barbarous tongue.

Just imagine what Ukrainian viewers thought of what the moskali were feeding them during the election campaign on the main Russian television stations. Their reaction was in line with the old principle of listening to what the moskal has to say and doing the exact opposite.

Russian journalists took particular pleasure in reporting on opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko's health problems. Yushchenko hadn't been poisoned, as he insisted. He had simply gorged himself on sushi, borshch with fritters, dumplings with cottage cheese, and watermelon, and washed it all down with beer and vodka -- enough, they said, to land anyone in the hospital.

But Ukrainians aren't obsessed with leading a healthy lifestyle like the Europeans. They like to eat, and for them healthy food is tasty, filling and plentiful. From the Ukrainian point of view, attacking Yushchenko for excessive food consumption is absurd, if not offensive. And what idiot would believe that indigestion could leave such terrible marks on Yushchenko's handsome face?

This evidence of ill health was also brought to bear against the opposition candidate. On the rare occasions when Yushchenko appeared on television he was shown in extreme close-up, emphasizing the puffiness and pock marks on his face. You've got to hand it to them -- Russian political operatives know how to capitalize on an opponent's health problems.

Russia's most authoritative current affairs program, Vladimir Pozner's "Vremena," was also wheeled out during the Ukrainian campaign. But only experts from the camp of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych were invited. Pozner did ask a few questions about Yushchenko, but he got no answers. The program left a very bad taste in the mouth: Pozner's no different from the rest.

In the final days of the campaign, the Kremlin played its trump card -- President Vladimir Putin himself. Back home this mighty weapon works every time. When asked why Russian news programs spend so much time reporting about the president, former Press Minister Mikhail Lesin once replied: "Our president is always good news." Putting Putin on the screen raises ratings as well as the spirits of the viewing audience.

One of the top-rated shows in Russia is "Pryamaya Linia" (Direct Line), on which Putin talks with the nation using every conceivable means of communication. Occasionally, like Santa Claus, he makes a caller's wish come true. When a young boy asked for a real fir tree to be placed on the main square in his hometown of Ufa, Putin made it happen. On another occasion he ordered that a gas line be extended to a far-flung farm.

In Russia, "Pryamaya Linia" is broadcast on the two state television stations. Ukraine went one better, broadcasting the show on three stations. It was a highly peculiar event, of course. The president of a foreign country was speaking with the people of a foreign country in the last days of an election campaign, and everyone knew very well which candidate that foreign president was backing.

But imagine the reaction of the average Ukrainian voter. He comes home from work, turns on the television and sees the president of a foreign country. Let's say the viewer is tired of all the campaign hype and just wants to relax -- to watch a movie or listen to some music. He turns the channel, only to see that foreign president again. He keeps clicking, but every station is carrying the same program.

Good thing they didn't show this installment of "Pryamaya Linia" on Russian television. At least they left the poor Ukrainians some kind of choice about what to watch.

Russian television coverage of Putin's visit to Ukraine just before the first round of the election was particularly illuminating. The visit was entirely unrelated to the election -- perish the thought! His visit was timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Ukraine from German occupation in World War II. Russian journalists never bothered to mention that Ukraine was actually liberated much later. On Nov. 6, Soviet forces liberated Kiev, the mother of Russian cities. In those days it was standard practice to liberate cities on major state holidays. It may have cost tens of thousands of soldiers' lives, but it was all worth it to report to the supreme commander in chief: "Comrade Stalin! In commemoration of the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution the city of Kiev has been liberated!"

Back then, victories were timed to coincide with state holidays; now holidays coincide with elections. The people who dreamed all this up must have been absolutely certain that the election would not go to a runoff, so they threw everything they had into making sure that their man won in the first round.

But those crafty Ukrainians watched everything, thought things over and made their own choice. And the Russian political types left with their tails between their legs. The hard sell for the "correct" candidate stopped along with the attacks and accusations against the "unacceptable" candidate. They finally understood that Ukraine isn't Russia. It's another country entirely, and the tricks that work so well in Russia just don't cut it.

Now the United States is something else entirely. If the heads of television networks and their journalists tried to pull these kind of tricks, they'd be fired on the spot and maybe even blackballed for the rest of their lives.

What Putin called the "dirt that didn't stick to Bush" following the U.S. presidential election was in fact just normal criticism of an incumbent president in a democratic country, where voters are allowed to make an independent and informed choice. What Russians got up to in Ukraine, by contrast, really was dirty. But all their efforts couldn't stop Ukrainians from making an independent and informed choice. The author Viktor Pelevin calls television a remote control device for manipulating viewers. That's about right, but not always and not everywhere, as we've seen.

You'll have to be a little more subtle, boys, and you'll have to work a little harder, as the humorist Mikhail Zhvanetsky put it. This sort of performance makes the whole country look bad. We've entered the 21st century, but we're still like a bull in a china shop.

Irina Petrovskaya writes a column for Izvestia, where this comment first appeared.

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