Stars of Pryamii TV channel focus on international news
They seem to be everywhere — a conference of Russian dissidents in Lithuania, Ukraine House Davos in Switzerland, the Munich Security Conference in Germany, Ukrainian Week in London and almost every key event in Ukraine.
With their healthy travel budget and connections, they’ve interviewed such luminaries as: ex-U.S. secretaries of state John Kerry and Condoleezza Rice, the presidents of Columbia and Poland, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, ex-U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates, retired U. S. General Wesley Clark, ex-Estonian President Toomas Hendrick Ilves, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum, British historian Niall Ferguson, ex-French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Icelandic author Sjon, Israeli author Meir Shalov, ex-NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and others.
Their weekly international affairs talk show “The Week” is broadcast on Pryamii TV channel Saturdays at 10 p.m. They have done about 70 episodes with an estimated 1.5 million viewers each show. TV news is still king of the hill in Ukraine, with 60 percent of the population getting their information this way.
Such is the world of Peter Zalmayev, who grew up in Donetsk and then emigrated to America, and Taras Berezovets, who is from Crimea. Berezovets is the more constant presence on the airwaves. He can also be found on Pryamii TV channel five times a week, hosting “The Situation” political talk show.
They share a lot of bonds, including support for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Pryamii is owned by ex-lawmaker Vladimir Makeyenko.
In addition to their support for Poroshenko, they both hail from areas of Ukraine now under Russian occupation. This shared circumstance, they told the Kyiv Post, helped bolster their support for the president seeking re-election on March 31. They admire his strong anti-Russian stance.
“We can say it’s largely friendly to the president,” Zalmayev said of Pryamii’s policy.
Said Berezovets: “In many senses, the channel covers news in Ukraine from the pro-governmental positions. I support Poroshenko because of his personal stance against Russia and what he has done as the president.”
But they try to steer clear of domestic politics on “The Week,” taking enjoyment by educating Ukrainian viewers on international issues through interviews and reports on issues in other countries.
Both of them favor Ukraine’s integration into the European Union and NATO membership. If they differ, it’s slightly on the ideological spectrum, with Berezovets more conservative than the liberal Zalmayev.
They met in the summer of 2015 at the Arsenal Book Fair, where Berezovets was presenting his book on Crimea, and hit it off quickly. Their on-air chemistry is obvious.
They believe their international affairs show is “exactly what the Ukrainian TV market” needs, Zalmayev said. “It’s a mission of enlightenment.”
Despite their pro-presidential stance, they say they have “a healthy degree of autonomy” on “The Week,” partly because “we stay away from internal politics,” Zalmayev said. But, they also note, Berezovets routinely hosts government critics on his “The Situation” program.
“We have editorial independence. We have not had any interference in what to say and what not to say,” Berezovets insisted.
Zalmayev said he “wouldn’t stay there for a minute” if he were told what to broadcast. “I would be out the door.”
The challenge, they said, is making international news interesting and relevant for Ukrainians focused on domestic issues.
In one episode, they covered the Brazilian presidential election by emphasizing the large Ukrainian diaspora in Brazil, estimated at 500,000 Ukrainians. They also go heavy on U. S. President Donald J. Trump’s Russian ties and look for other ways to make what is happening in the world more relevant and interesting for the Ukrainian audience.
They have taken up many causes. Both were outraged by the Oct. 2, 2018, murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the outspoken critic of Saudi prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is believed to have ordered the assassination in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. They devoted several weeks to Khashoggi’s murder and won’t let it go. “As long as I’m there at the helm with Taras, I’m going to be talking about this,” Zalmayev vowed.
Berezovets’ heavy work schedule has forced the political consultant to spend less time on his Berta Communications business. He has healthy popularity on social media, including more than 66,000 Twitter followers.
They are happy to be among the stable of Pryamii’s stars, including hosts Matvey Ganopolskaya, Karolina Ashion, Sergei Loiko and Yevgeniy Kiselyov.
While the money of a Ukrainian TV host is not big, compared to American standards, Zalmayev said that he gets “tremendous job satisfaction working with this guy (Berezovets). We work seamlessly together. We’ve never had a conflict, knock on wood.” Together, they have command of a tremendous number of languages, including English, Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish, French and Polish.
Berezovets, who hails from the Crimean city of Kerch — with 146,000 people nearly 1,000 kilometers southeast of Kyiv — believes that Ukraine will eventually regain control of its lost territory from Russia, but not anytime soon. “People there are Russified and brainwashed now,” he said, so much so that he is no longer on speaking terms with some of his estimated 50 relatives still living there.
Zalmayev underwent a similar experience, spending his first 19 years growing up in Donetsk, the city of 1 million people located 700 kilometers southeast of Kyiv and now occupied by Russia. He had to relocate his relatives, including his Jewish mother, from Donetsk in May 2014, shortly after Russia launched its war. He moved them to Israel. But he spent most of his adult life in America. He’s a licensed Baptist preacher who has lived in Tennessee and New York.
“We’re Ukrainian patriots from Russian-speaking and very unfortunate parts of our country, under occupation both,” Zalmayev said. “That’s a binding factor in our partnership.
Berezovets said that “in Crimea, they watch our program. Our mission is to show they are not forgotten. Russia is not forever. Things will change. Russia is a pariah state now.”
Zalmayev said he wants to “counter the defeatist attitudes” of those in the nation who want to give up Ukraine’s claim to the Donbas and Crimea. “We are of the strong opinion that Ukraine cannot say goodbye to Crimea and Donbas. The patriotic position is to continue to insist on their return, on Ukrainian terms.”
Taras Berezovets (L) and Peter Zalmayev, who co-host "The Week" international affairs talk show on Pryamii TV channel, speak with the Kyiv Post in the newspaper's office on Nov 6, 2018. (Pavlo Podufalov)