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Kyunki Kiev can't stand Putin

New Delhi, March 3: Ukraine has offered India a giant chunk of its entertainment television market after expelling Russian channels following Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The move is aimed at using soaps and films to cement a relationship New Delhi and Kiev want to pluck out of Moscow's shadow, much like Raj Kapoor's Awaara and Shri 420 bonded Soviet audiences with Bollywood six decades ago.

Iurii Artemenko, the chairman of Ukraine's National Council of TV and Radio Broadcasting, made the offer here this week during what officials from both countries said was their most detailed talks ever on forging a soft-power partnership.

Artemenko, a minister-ranking official in Ukraine, met information and broadcasting minister Venkaiah Naidu, culture secretary N.K. Sinha and the chiefs of Prasar Bharati and Doordarshan on Monday, senior officials said.

India had practically stopped high-level political and diplomatic exchanges with Ukraine during the tensions between Kiev and Moscow, traditionally an all-weather friend of New Delhi's, till last year.

Russia's growing dalliance with Pakistan, including joint military exercises and coordination on Afghanistan, however, forced a rethink in India's strategic establishment. It led to a revival of relations with Ukraine, a longstanding supplier to India's air force.

Then in September, Ukraine banned 78 Russian channels. It is now offering India a chance to take up the market space vacated by the ban.

For New Delhi, the offer represents an opportunity for commercial gain and a chance to spread its soft power, while also sending a reminder to Moscow that India, like Russia, can exercise multiple strategic options in an uncertain world.

"Now is a good time," Artemenko told The Telegraph. "The ban on Russian channels has opened up space for Indian channels. This is a great opportunity for India."

Artemenko has, at his meetings here, promised a film festival in Ukraine later in the year that he said would focus on India.

The Motion Picture Association of Ukraine is also working with the government in Kiev to try and lure Indian filmmakers to the country for shooting as well as technical collaboration.

A team of Ukrainian producers who accompanied Artemenko to India also visited Mumbai, where they met their counterparts from major Indian production houses, including Reliance and Zee.

Artemenko joined the team and Ukraine's ambassador to India, Igor Polikha, on a visit to the Ramoji film studio in Hyderabad.

"The response we've got is truly remarkable," Victoria Yarmoshchuk, executive director of the Motion Picture Association of Ukraine, said. "The interest has been immediate, and we're very optimistic."

Already, some of Ukraine's leading film companies have begun collaborating with Indian firms. A Ukrainian company, Film.UA, is working on the sound effects for the upcoming Indian film Baahubali 2, a sequel to a 2015 chartbuster.

"This is just the beginning," Iryna Kostyuk, a producer at Film.UA, said. "There's a lot more we can, and want, to do together - tell stories together, bringing in the best of both our experiences, cultures and skills."

Indian television soaps and films have traditionally done well in countries with cultural similarities. Ukraine shares some cultural traits with India, Artemenko said - citing the values of loyalty and family bonds.

Ukraine is also hoping for an injection of the optimism many Indian shows and movies project, Polikha, the ambassador, said. "We've had a few challenges in recent years, as you know," he said. "We need that positivity."

Strong political aims underpin the efforts Ukraine and India are making to deepen their partnership.

Ukraine has for the past three years been urging the international community to criticise Russia for annexing Crimea and support the sanctions the US and the European Union have imposed against Moscow.

India has refused to back the sanctions - New Delhi does not accept any sanctions not authorised by the UN - and had in the days after the annexation appeared to suggest Russia had legitimate interests in the peninsula.

"We hope that whatever internal issues there are within Ukraine are settled peacefully," then national security adviser Shivshankar Menon had said in March 2014.

"And the broader issues of reconciling various interests involved, and there are legitimate Russian and other interests involved... we hope those are discussed, negotiated and that there is a satisfactory resolution to them."

Ukraine had protested against Menon's description of Russian interests in Crimea, and ties between New Delhi and Kiev froze for two years, during which no minister-ranking official from either side visited the other.

The thaw began in the spring of 2016, at a time India was becoming concerned over Russia's military ties with Pakistan.

India and Ukraine resumed diplomatic talks on pharmaceuticals, defence and other sectors, and New Delhi facilitated a visit by industrialist Anil Ambani to Kiev. Ambani and Ukrainian defence giant Antonov agreed to jointly develop planes.

As Russia continued to lean towards Pakistan - through talks with the Taliban and other means - India too deepened its partnership with Ukraine.

Heavy industries minister Anant Geete visited Kiev in November, becoming the first Indian minister to travel to Ukraine in three years.

Ukraine's Vice-Prime Minister and trade minister Stepan Kubiv visited New Delhi and Visakhapatnam in January before Artemenko's trip here. Junior foreign minister M.J. Akbar is expected to visit Ukraine in April or May.


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