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Brian Bonner: One president answers questions, the other doesn’t

Author: Brian Bonner
Source: KyivPost

Editor’s Note: After this opinion was published online, President Petro Poroshenko’s press secretary Syatoslav Tsegolko noted that NATO Press Secretary Jens Stoltenberg set the restrictions in the first press conference and that the second event was not announced by Poroshenko as a press conference, but rather merely a press statement.

By contrast, U.S. President Barack Obama held one press conference on the closing day of the conference and answered too many questions to count. I will have to wait for the White House transcript to add up all the questions in what was easily an hour-long discourse.

This, to me, shows how disorganized and contemptuous of journalists that Ukraine’s supposedly democratic president really is and how useless his press secretary – Svyatoslav Tsegolko and the administration’s entire press service apparatus — really are. But they are not to blame. Poroshenko is.

Poroshenko and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held a joint press conference after the meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. A roomful of journalists was, collectively, allowed to ask two questions in all.

There were a lot of questions to be answered: What are the details of NATO’s comprehensive action program for Ukraine? Did Poroshenko succeed in getting his Western allies to increase pressure on Russia? How closer did Ukraine get to becoming an eventual member of NATO? And dozens of others.

I left disappointed, even though I had reserved my question in advance with the NATO press assistant who trolls the assembled journalists beforehand to take down their queries.

But that first press conference proved to be the high moment of Poroshenko’s accessibility.

Then, a short time later, Poroshenko scheduled a separate press conference for the dozen or so top journalists from Ukraine who ventured to the summit.

Poroshenko’s press conference was supposed to start at 6 p.m. in Briefing Room #2 on the second level of Poland’s National Stadium, the site of the summit.

Obama’s press conference was supposed to start at 6:20 p.m. in the main press theater – which is three levels below under a big tent on the football field of the stadium.

Journalists from Ukraine, including this American, debated about which press conference to attend.

Obviously, since I cover Ukraine, I went with the Poroshenko event.

I reasoned correctly that I would have no chance of asking Obama a question in a roomful of hundreds of journalists where the first 10 rows were reserved for his traveling press corps.

Yet, and this matters to me, I have never seen my president in the flesh before. And I wanted to say that I had done at least that.

Anyway, moments before Obama was set to take the stage, Poroshenko press assistant Yarema Dukh came running into Briefing Room #2 to breathlessly announce to the assembled journalists that Poroshenko will hold his press conference 15 minutes after Obama finishes his event.

We groaned and complained and then ran out of the briefing room, took the elevator three flights down and ran onto the football field – only to be told by the security guards that the Obama press conference was “sold out” and no more journalists could fit under the big tent.

So we made our way back to Briefing Room #2, where I waited for Poroshenko while watching on the nearest CCTV screen as my president eloquently fielded questions about the Dallas, Texas, shootings of police officers and the scourge of gun violence in America and many other topics.

Poroshenko evidently decided that Obama was talking too long and ambled into Briefing Room #2 as journalists awaited him.

He gave his remarks in Ukrainian for 10 minutes and then left the podium, hurriedly making his way out of the room, as the UNIAN correspondent gamely tried to get him to answer a question.

With all the irritation I could muster, I incredulously asked Tsegolko why no questions were allowed.

We have no time,” he said.

Furious, I followed the president and his circus-like entourage out of the room. The president disappeared with his security while his press agents lingered, waiting for their elevator door to open.

I asked Tsegolko what kind of press conference allows no questions from journalists?

He replied that the real press conference had already taken place with Stoltenberg.

Did you miss it?” he asked.

No,” I replied. “I was there. But there were only two questions allowed.”

Tsegolko disappeared into the elevator with Dukh, a cordial Deputy Prime Minister Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze and some others from the presidential delegation.

I asked my Ukrainian colleagues if this was normal – that a president would be so imperious and unaccountable that he would really disrespect the national press corps so much that he ducked all of their questions.

Some said it was normal and they were used to it.

Others said, of course, they were upset and had questions, but what can they do?

One said that Poroshenko didn’t look well physically. (And it’s true, in my opinion.)

One said that Poroshenko was simply afraid to answer questions.

One said it was impossible to get any response to even basic questions about what the “comprehensive action program” meant.

Whatever the case, my message to Poroshenko is this: A press conference is where you answer questions. Don’t waste my time and our time, please, if you are not going to do this.

The whole episode could be dismissed as simply a slip-up at the end of two very busy days, but there’s this: Ukraine is nowhere closer to ending Russia’s war, nowhere closer to NATO membership and NATO assistance to Ukraine is at a paltry 5 million euros.

Ukraine says it’s too little.

A NATO official I spoke with told me it’s too much – at least more than Ukraine can properly handle.

So, I would say, overall, the bilingual Ukrainian president missed his moment of glory just as he’s missing his moment in history. He has a lot of questions to answer that he won’t.

Read more:  Culture and Corruption in Ukraine

And a personal note: This will be the very last NATO Summit I ever attend for the rest of my life.

The VIPs were at one end of the stadium, the journalists were at the other end. Our paths rarely crossed.

I could have covered this live-streamed event from my bed or a beach in Kyiv and done just as well.


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