Ukraine’s “Davos of the East”: An Eyewitness Account
What is it like to hobnob with the some of the most powerful figures among the world’s political and financial elite? Recently, I had an opportunity as a member of the media to attend the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference in Kyiv, a kind of “Davos of the East” gathering which has been meeting ever since 2004. In an invitational e-mail, YES touted itself as “the main non-governmental platform for promoting Ukraine’s European future, supporting the country’s change-makers and promoting Ukraine internationally.” The invitation was signed by YES founder Viktor Pinchuk, a wealthy Ukrainian philanthropist and steel magnate, and YES Chairman of the Board and former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Scrolling down through the e-mail, organizers were keen to burnish the outfit’s list of previous speakers ranging from Tony Blair to Bill Clinton and even Donald Trump.
Reacting with mild surprise, I wondered why YES had gone out of its way to invite me personally to the conference. It’s not as if I had made a huge secret of my politics, which is far removed from the likes of many YES speakers who attended the meeting over the years. At the time that I received the invitation, I was living in St. Petersburg where I was enrolled in a Russian language institute. Quite generously and somewhat lavishly, YES not only offered to fly me to Kyiv and cover all travel and hotel expenses, but also to pay for my return ticket to New York.
After reading the e-mail, I reflected upon the invitation and wondered whether I should accept the offer or not. If I were to fly to Kyiv on Pinchuk’s dime, would this imply that I was somehow “compromised”? If I were to socialize or dine with other YES participants from the global elite, would this also raise ethical considerations? Going round and round in my head, I debated these questions for several days. In the end though, whatever my qualms I decided to accept simply because I could not resist the opportunity to gain access to a world which is normally far removed from my daily life. Despite my own criticisms of global elites and their political and economic agendas, curiosity won out as I told myself that I would try to maintain an open mind.
Triumphalist Narrative at Bessarabsky Market
To bring off such a huge international conference such as YES is no small logistical feat, and Pinchuk employed droves of organizers to promote the conference. In the lobby of my luxury hotel, an army of young women set up shuttle bus service to and from the conference site. Needless to say, Pinchuk spared no expense and the conference itself cost $1.4 million to convene. Participants, meanwhile, were treated to buffet breakfasts on the top floor of the hotel. On my first morning while eating in the dining room, I was surrounded by none other than former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich sitting at a table to my left and former Bush-era U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton on my right.
Not only is Pinchuk an influential player on the Ukrainian political scene but also the region’s leading art patron, funneling millions into grants and shows. On the first evening prior to the conference, I was given a tour of Pinchuk Art Center and from there directed across the street to the grand old historic and art nouveau Bessarabsky market. In recent years, this area of downtown Kyiv has been transformed into something of a youthful and gentrified enclave. To be sure the neighborhood serves as a kind of creative and cultural hub, though many may find luxury items sold in trendy shops to be financially out of reach. Going into overdrive, YES literally took over the entire market and participants were treated to a sumptuous banquet including all manner of local Ukrainian foods and drinks.
From a podium, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko and Aleksander Kwaśniewski welcomed guests, with the latter remarking that “our wish, our dream and our aspiration is to see a free and independent Ukraine in the family of free nations.” The former Polish president added that Bessarabsky was a fitting backdrop to YES, exclaiming that “during Soviet times, this small market embodied freedoms and a market economy. A small piece of capitalism in a huge ocean of communism…Today we take pleasure from looking at this unique market which embodies the energy of people who, despite someone’s efforts to build centralized economy in a centralized state, made sure that this place remains a true market.”
After attending the reception at Bessarabsky market, I sought out some alternative views. During my previous trips to Ukraine, I had spoken to Denis Pilash, a post-graduate student in international relations and political science at Kyiv National University. Pilash, who works as an editor at Commons Journal, is a veteran of Maidan protest and currently a member of Social Movements, a grassroots outfit which seeks to organize trade unionists and former student activists in an effort to promote democratic socialism.
When I told Pilash about the reception at Bessarabsky market, the activist raised an eyebrow, remarking “It’s ironic that Kwaśniewski would hark on such a triumphalist narrative.” The activist pointed out that the former Polish president had been a member of the Polish Communist Party and even helped to form the Democratic Left Alliance, a coalition of leftist parties, in 1991. “This situation,” Pilash exclaimed, “reveals a lot about the current political milieu in Central and Eastern Europe.” In recent years, Pilash went on to say, many former communist bureaucrats had ironically turned into ultra-capitalist advocates, thus becoming more pro-market than former liberal dissidents or even right wingers.
To be sure, Kwaśniewski’s “triumphalist narrative” went over well amongst the crowd, which gave the politician a warm round of applause. Yet I was curious: did the speech hold up to historical scrutiny? For answers, I caught up with artist and progressive political activist Nikita Kadan outside the confines of the YES conference. “I cannot agree with this notion that vendors in Bessarabsky market provided some kind of resistance to communism,” Kadan noted, adding pointedly “these are definitely senseless, irresponsible words.”
“There was no communism here,” the artist declares, “just a bureaucratic dictatorship which had nothing to do with communism other than name.” Perhaps, the artist explained, one could argue that Ukraine adhered to a kind of “strange state capitalism” during the Soviet period. However, select informal vendors weren’t really rebels as much as a privileged group which received special dispensation from the authorities to sell high quality goods. The merchandise was in turn made available to bureaucrats, corrupt officials, writers and artists.
“Today,” Kadan declares somewhat ironically, “everyone is so brave in sharply criticizing the old Soviet period and it’s regarded as a very heroic thing to do, especially during this conservative period in Ukraine in which the country is pursuing a policy of so-called ‘de-communization.’” In fact, the artist adds, “if you want to be taken seriously, then you must give a speech criticizing the old communist regime.” On the other hand, Kadan said, Kwaśniewski’s triumphalist rhetoric is “a little empty,” because ever since Ukraine achieved independence, Bessarabsky’s products have been costly for most elderly Soviet pensioners to afford. Moreover, before he becomes too self-congratulatory, Kwaśniewski might want to soberly assess the situation around the market itself. “There is a huge issue with social inequality in Kyiv right now,” Kadan told me, “and when you step out of Bessarabsky, there are plenty of beggars and sometimes police come and remove them.”
There’s a tendency to gloss over such inconvenient truths, however, since Ukraine is doing its utmost to project a modern, youthful and above all tasteful image to the west. Downtown Kyiv, which is undergoing gentrification, plays a role in such public relations efforts. As gentrification proceeds, Kadan added, art spaces such as Pinchuk Center play a central and key role (the activist freely conceded, however, that he himself had exhibited at the venue).
To understand the post-Maidan psychology, Kadan said, one must consider not only the younger generation’s political mindset but also its ideas on style and design. In contrast to the older generation, which is regarded as tasteless and under-educated, the Maidan generation has developed more elevated tastes. Young folk may resort to labeling, Kadan said, and say to themselves “you are part of our group and our culture, but you on the other hand are not.”
From Bessarabsky Market to Arsenal Museum
Despite Kwaśniewski’s jovial initial remarks, the YES conference quickly took on a more somber and austere tone. In contrast to earlier meetings of YES, this conference took place against the backdrop of growing political volatility in the west, for example Brexit, internal problems within the European Union and the election of Donald Trump. In line with such discombobulating new realities, organizers asked participants to address the fundamental and underlying question of the conference, namely “Is This a New World? And What Does It Mean for Ukraine?”
Following the reception at Bessarabsky market, participants were shuttled to the Mystetskyi Arsenal National Art and Culture Museum Complex outside downtown Kyiv to attend panel discussions. Passing through a security check, I ventured into the conference amidst throngs of other participants including politicians, journalists and N.G.O. members. YES clearly sought to portray Arsenal as a symbol of Ukraine’s modernization and turn towards western, European values. “Art and culture, free to explore, are at the heart of any progressive society,” notes the YES web site. “Whether through innovation in children’s education, special needs projects, celebrations of classical masterpieces, or the advancement of great literature, the Mystetskyi Arsenal is at the vanguard, leading Ukraine beyond its recent, difficult past and into Europe and the world. This is our moment. No longer hidden in the shadows, the life and art of this dynamic place are open to all.”
Whether the Arsenal museum lives up to such lofty rhetoric is open to question, however as the institution has a controversial history. In July, 2013 Arsenal put on a show titled “The Great and the Grand.” The exhibit was designed to celebrate the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus, which is the original medieval state considered to be the Orthodox foundation of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. However, Arsenal’s director Natalia Zabolotna literally took a can of black paint and doused one of the exhibit’s artworks which she deemed immoral. The work in question, a mural depicting a flaming nuclear reactor with priests and judges partially immersed in a vat of red liquid, soon became a cause célèbre as Kiev’s arts community rushed to the defense of creative self-expression. Prior to the opening, eight activists were arrested outside the museum protesting the creeping consolidation of church and state. In defending her controversial decision, Arsenal’s director claimed that the exhibit “should inspire pride in the state.” She added, “If you participate in [an] exhibition dedicated to the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus, you don’t have to do your best to offend the faithful, to lower the reputation of all clergy.”
Some Odd Conference Picks
If the organizers of YES sought to mollify jittery Ukrainian public opinion in light of recent political tumult in Western Europe, they picked some peculiar politicians to come to their conference. I was surprised, for example, to catch a panel titled “Is This a New World? Global Political Perspectives,” featuring none other than former British Prime Minister David Cameron. It was he who called for the Brexit referendum in the first place, a development which continues to reverberate throughout the European Union and has led to doubts in Ukraine about the west’s long-term political resolve.
The Guardian says Cameron exhibits “the folly and weakness of the modern Tory party.” Even though he was always in favor of the United Kingdom remaining in the E.U., Cameron never differentiated himself enough from the Eurosceptic wing of his own party and, fundamentally, the politician “had no alternative vision of Europe to offer.” In the wake of British voters’ approval of Brexit, Cameron resigned and remarked that future negotiations with the E.U. would require “strong determined and committed leadership” that he felt he could no longer offer.
Ultimately, the Guardian continues, Cameron was “faced with forces and dynamics in British life that he has proved powerless to control. Indignation about immigration, disrespect for politicians, a reluctance to be frightened by warnings, press distortions and Labor’s weakness in delivering its vote all did their bit to fuel a general mood of popular payback against the political and economic establishment, as well as the E.U.”
Brexit and Ukraine
In light of his own colossal failure to read the public mood, anticipate rising nationalism or forestall a tectonic blow to the E.U., Cameron would seem to be an outlandish pick for the YES conference. Hoping to put a positive spin on recent developments, Cameron claimed that despite Brexit there had been more contact between the British and Ukrainian governments since the referendum, including ministerial meetings. Then, somewhat discordantly, Cameron used the stage at YES to attack Jean Claude Juncker, president of the European Parliament. Earlier, Juncker had remarked that the U.K. and E.U. would regret Brexit, and called for closer ties in defense, budgetary and strategic matters throughout Europe.
One might have expected Cameron to perform a humble mea culpa in Kyiv in an effort to shore up Ukrainian public opinion, but the former Prime Minister instead attacked Juncker for being naïve and ignoring the rising dangers of populism — a phenomenon which the British politician also failed to anticipate. Seeking to take the high road against European elites, Cameron recommended that “You have to make sure people don’t get left behind.” The politician added that Brussels would be shamed if it arrogantly pushed for a closer union while refusing to address internal problems besetting the bloc. Hardly amused by the former Prime Minister, Kyiv Post remarked that Cameron, “whose claim to historical fame will be losing a referendum that he called on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union, did a great job of blathering on. On a panel with ex-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, he appeared to forget his role in his country’s departure [from the E.U.].”
Later, when I spoke about the YES conference with my contact Pilash, the veteran political activist echoed these sentiments. It’s “very funny,” Pilash explained, that Cameron should speak about the European Union “when you consider that he himself launched the Brexit referendum. These are people who failed in the West and are still failing because they are the culprits in pushing globalism and resulting capitalist crises, and unfortunately we too are implementing such policies which are leading to social problems in Ukraine.”
Pinchuk and the Clintons
So much for unlikely speakers at the YES conference, but what about Viktor Pinchuk himself? On the face of it, the magnate would seem to be an ideal figure to advance Ukraine’s pro-Western trajectory. According to his own bio, Pinchuk has “long promoted closer ties between Ukraine and the E.U.” Furthermore, Pinchuk is reportedly “one of Ukraine’s only oligarchs to have deep ties to Washington.” A man with deep pockets, Pinchuk has reportedly donated $8.6 million to the Clinton Foundation, and even loaned the family his private plane.
Reciprocating in kind, the Clintons have supported Pinchuk’s goal of strengthening Ukraine’s ties to Europe and the U.S. Since 2011, former Bill Clinton adviser and Democratic pollster Doug Schoen has been representing Pinchuk. Schoen, who helped orchestrate Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996, has pledged to “share [Pinchuk’s] views on democratization in Ukraine and European integration and to solicit the views of American policy makers on those subjects.” Reportedly, the pollster set up a number of meetings between Pinchuk and State Department officials when Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State in the Obama administration.
Not stopping there, Pinchuk has even developed ties to Hollywood and the likes of film director Steven Spielberg no less. The wealthy philanthropist, who is Jewish, has partnered with Spielberg to produce a documentary about the Holocaust in Ukraine. The film, which is titled Spell Your Name, deals with the Babi Yar massacre in which more than 33,000 Jews were killed in a Kyiv ravine. Pinchuk, whose family managed to escape Babi Yar, donated $1 million towards producing the movie. In addition, the industrialist has funded a project seeking to uncover the unmarked graves of hundreds of thousands of Jews who were shot by the Nazis and their collaborators. Furthermore, the industrial magnate is a prominent supporter of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which is set to open in 2021. By promoting such efforts, Pinchuk has certainly done his share to foster greater tolerance and to counteract right wing historical revisionism, which in turn may help to reassure Ukraine’s western supporters.
Furor over Crimea
On the other hand, at times Pinchuk has seemed to “hedge his bets” by suggesting that Ukraine cannot afford to simply embrace the west while ignoring Moscow. “Ukraine cannot be successful without Russia,” he told Forbes magazine, adding that nevertheless “European values” will solve a number of Ukraine’s problems. Such “equivocating,” Forbes surmised, stemmed from Pinchuk’s own industrial steel pipe fortune which has been linked to trade with Russia. Moreover, Pinchuk backed former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, whose decision to shelve a treaty with the European Union while embracing Russia sparked the Euromaidan revolution of 2013-14. Though Pinchuk initially remained silent as demonstrations gained steam in Maidan square, he later appeared at a protest camp in a show of support.
Needless to say, if Pinchuk hoped to qualm public doubts about his ultimate position vis-à-vis Russia, his column for the Wall Street Journal only stoked more controversy. In his article, titled “Ukraine Must Make Painful Compromises for Peace With Russia,” Pinchuk argued that Kyiv should reconcile with the Kremlin. Rather than insisting that Moscow return Crimea, which Putin forcibly annexed in early 2014, Pinchuk argued that Kyiv should drop the issue for twenty years in an effort to promote a peaceful settlement in war-ravaged Donetsk and Luhansk. Going yet further, the industrial magnate declared that Ukraine should scrap its aspirations to join the European Union and NATO. Not stopping there, Pinchuk wrote that Ukraine should be prepared to accept an “incremental rollback” of sanctions on Russia as the price to be paid for a “peaceful and secure Ukraine.”
In the midst of mounting casualties and a hot war with Russian-backed separatists, many Ukrainians were in no mood for Pinchuk’s conciliatory tone. “Pinchuk’s tone of appeasement toward Russia rattles Kyiv,” read an inflammatory headline in Ukrainian Weekly. Pinchuk’s article, the publication noted, “elicited criticism from the president’s office, among lawmakers and foreign think tanks.” In response to Pinchuk, Ukraine’s presidential administration wrote a sharp rejoinder which was also published in the Wall Street Journal. Deputy presidential administration head Kostiantyn Yeliseyev wrote that Ukraine would never compromise with Russia, adding that negotiation would only encourage further Kremlin aggression.
Hanna Hopko, a legislator in charge of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, meanwhile accused Pinchuk of sacrificing Ukrainian territorial integrity in order to further his own business interests. Going further, Hopko actually called for a boycott of the YES conference and the convening of an alternative conference which would purportedly work more sincerely toward Ukraine’s true national interests. Euromaidan Press, a nationalist and reform-minded news site, added “if Pinchuk no longer supports E.U. membership he should close the Yalta European Strategy (YES) which he launched in 2004 to lobby for this goal. Why, after all, should he waste money on an organization that was meant to lobby the goal of E.U. membership that he no longer believes in?” For good measure, Refat Chubarov also criticized Pinchuk on his Facebook page. Chubarov is head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, many of whom opposed Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory. Pinchuk, Chubarov wrote, “urges us — Ukraine and Ukrainians, including Crimea and Crimean Tatars — to surrender.”
Debating Crimea and Ukrainian “Oligarchs”
“The main conclusion one can make from his [Pinchuk’s] commentary in the Wall Street Journal,” writes Kyiv Post, “is that oligarchs cannot be trusted with Ukraine’s national interests… The most important goal for oligarchs is money and not Ukraine’s national interests…Pinchuk has repeatedly contradicted himself in his domestic and foreign policies.” The article goes on to call for a “long overdue policy of de-oligarchisation.” Pilash, the post-graduate student at Kyiv National University, echoed some of these sentiments. To be sure, he told me, there was a backlash to Pinchuk’s editorial but such reactions miss the larger point. “If you are against the oligarchic system in Ukraine,” he remarked, “you don’t need to call out particular oligarchs for presumed lack of nationalist zeal.”
For a further view on such controversies I caught up with Pavlo Kutuev, Chair of the Sociology Department at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute and an expert on Ukrainian politics. Pinchuk, he told me, may be speaking for a particular faction that is interested in normalizing relations with Russia and “getting back to reality” since some people may privately concede that “Crimea is gone for good.” Furthermore, Kutuev added, it’s not so easy for Ukrainian magnates to disentangle their economic interests. Take, for example, the case of President Petro Poroshenko himself, who displays a “dual politician and oligarch nature.”
“It’s impossible to pursue this mutually exclusive agenda,” Kutuev explained, “and I will give you an example at the mere anecdotal level.” Recently, the sociologist found himself at a local health club owned by Poroshenko. “They were installing new flooring,” he remarked, “and I just happened to take a closer look. I was surprised to find that the flooring was manufactured in Russia. So Poroshenko, who always says that we are at war with Russia and we should move away from Russia, nevertheless buys material from Russia for his businesses.”
Controversy over Yalta
Perhaps surprised by the public’s reaction to his column, Pinchuk himself opened the YES conference at Arsenal Museum and quickly touched on the Crimea matter. Ukraine should certainly try to regain lost territory, the magnate remarked. Up until Russian annexation, Pinchuk held the YES conference in the Crimean port of Yalta. At that time, participants met in the Livadia Palace, a building which had famously hosted none other than Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. It was there, in 1945, that the “big three” worked to end World War II but also lay the foundation of the Cold War. “That the palace sits in the middle of Ukrainian territory that Russia now seems intent on ‘protecting’ is full of irony,” notes Forbes.
Back at the Kyiv YES conference, Pinchuk told his audience, “At the end of the main Jewish holiday, Jews say: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ This tradition comes from the time when Jews did not have their own state and they did not know when they would return to Jerusalem but they never lost their belief. I have a suggestion. Let us establish our tradition to say at the end of the conference: ‘Next year in Yalta.’ And, meanwhile, let us try to find a pragmatic way of how to get there.” In a further nod perhaps to nationalist critics, Crimean Tatar leader Chubarov was invited to participate in a subsequent panel discussion titled “Regaining Ukraine’s East and Crimea: Ways Forward.”
Taken as a whole, Pinchuk may have assuaged doubts through his remarks, yet I still wanted to talk to him about his editorial. Previously, when I had attended the 75th commemoration of the Babi Yar massacre in Kyiv, I sought to meet with the industrialist to discuss his political views, yet my request was denied. Thinking that he would change his mind this time, I requested another interview at YES to talk about the magnate’s hopes and aspirations for his conference. In light of his own support for my own travel expenses and lodging, I reasoned that Pinchuk would want to clarify his expectations for YES, yet oddly I was once again rebuffed.
Neo-Conservatives: From the Cold War to Trump
Some have suggested that Pinchuk sought to use his editorial as a way of gaining leverage with the Trump administration and adjusting to “new business realities.” Foreign Policy magazine writes that Pinchuk has emerged “as a potential conduit to Trump for the Ukrainian government.” Publicly, the Poroshenko government criticized Pinchuk for his editorial in the Wall Street Journal, though Kyiv seems willing to take advantage of the industrial magnate’s high level contacts in order to get a leg up within the chaotic Trump administration.
Reportedly, just one month after the Wall Street Journal controversy, Poroshenko participated in a meeting with former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates which had been personally arranged by none other than Pinchuk himself. Gates is not a member of the Trump White House, though apparently there was some hope that the Bush-era neo-conservative might be able to “facilitate a relationship with the president’s entourage.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Gates himself was a fixture at the YES conference, where he provided a very charitable perspective on Trump’s foreign policy. Bizarrely enough, even though Gates was a Cold War hawk during his stint as Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the former Defense Secretary criticized the U.S. Congress for imposing sanctions on Russia.
“Frankly,” Gates remarked, “I think it was a very serious mistake for Congress to pass the legislation that they did on sanctions. It gives the administration very little wiggle room in terms of trying to reduce the level of tension with Russia. It was a mistake to codify these sanctions because it means the prospect of improving the relationship is now removed to the very distant future.” Gates then defended Trump for wanting to improve the relationship with Russia, a slightly incongruous thing to say in light of ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign for allegedly colluding with Russia.
Pinchuk and Trump
Is Pinchuk trying to hedge his bets and cultivate high level contacts through the likes of Gates, in an effort to gain leverage with the Trump administration? During the YES conference, organizers were careful to extend an invitation to Trump’s envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker. However, the relationship between Pinchuk and Trump goes back some time. Though Pinchuk has donated heavily to the Clintons, he has also provided substantial funds to Trump’s private charity. To be precise, Pinchuk donated $150,000 to Trump’s foundation in 2015, which amounted to 20 percent of the foundation’s total donations at the time. Doug Schoen, who had previously served as the go-between between Pinchuk and the Clintons, and who has more recently served as a contributor on Fox News, explained that Pinchuk’s gift to Trump was “in support of an appearance [Trump] did by video link at a conference Mr. Pinchuk’s foundation organizes every year in September in Kiev, Ukraine.”
Schoen is referring to a short video which Trump provided for a previous annual 2015 YES conference in which the presidential candidate said Ukraine wasn’t receiving enough attention on the global stage (some have questioned whether the speaking deal was financially ethical, since Trump took the speaking fee funds, which could technically be considered work and therefore taxable, and transferred the money to his own non-profit foundation).
Further reporting suggests that Pinchuk is indeed trying to cultivate high level contacts within the Trump administration. Take, for example, the case of Monica Crowley, who was once Trump’s choice pick for a top White House national security role. After she was tarnished in a plagiarism scandal, she withdrew from the job and now works as a lobbyist for Pinchuk. Crowley met Schoen previously on Fox News, where the two are both contributors to the network. She is currently employed by Doug Schoen’s consulting firm.
Last year, Trump appointed Crowley to serve as senior director of strategic communications for the National Security Council under the notorious Michael Flynn, who later resigned. Crowley, however, withdrew less than a week before Trump took over after CNN disclosed that she had plagiarized “large sections” of a book she had previously written. In her new role as Pinchuk lobbyist, Crowley will “be providing outreach services on behalf of Mr. Pinchuk” including “inviting government officials and other policy makers to attend conferences and meetings…to engage in learning and dialogue regarding issues of concern to Mr. Pinchuk.”
Trump’s Video Link
During his rambling 21-minute video beamed at the 2015 YES conference, Trump responded to questions from Schoen. “Victor and I have known for a long time and he is a tremendous guy, a tremendous guy so it is a great honor to be with everybody,” Trump remarked. The presidential candidate then praised Pinchuk, adding that “Viktor, by the way, is a very, very special man, a special entrepreneur. When he was up seeing me I said, ‘I think I can learn more from you than you can learn from me.’”
Interestingly enough, Trump was rather supportive of Ukraine during his video link presentation. The candidate implied that Kyiv fell prey to Russian aggression because Obama had not demonstrated sufficient strength. “Putin does not respect our president whatsoever,” Trump declared. “The fact is that Ukraine is an amazing place. You know, I’ve known so many people, so many years in the Ukraine. These are people that want what’s good. They want what’s right. And they’re not being treated right by the United States. And also by the way, and I hate to say this, they’re not being treated right by Europe itself.”
The Daily Beast remarks that Trump’s comments represent some of his “most sympathetic remarks about Ukraine throughout the entirety of his campaign.” But just six months later, in March, 2016 Trump brought on Paul Manafort to be his campaign chairman, a figure who had earlier advised pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. In short order, Trump went from declaring that Ukrainians weren’t “getting the support they need,” to remarking that he might recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and lift U.S. sanctions against Moscow.
Despite these historic ties between Trump and Pinchuk, I was struck at just how many old guard figures showed up at the conference from the neo-conservative era, ranging from Condoleezza Rice to Tony Blair to John Bolton. At one point, as I was eating dinner, I even found myself sitting across from former New York Times reporter Judith Miller who was reporting on the YES conference for Fox News. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Miller was influential in helping to build up George W. Bush’s bogus claims of WMD.
The renewed appearance of the neo-cons in Ukraine dovetails with recent developments in the U.S., where former Bush era figures have been somewhat rehabilitated, ranging from Bush speechwriter David Frum, who is now an editor at the Atlantic magazine, to Weekly Standard editor Max Boot, who is now “Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies” at the Council on Foreign Relations, to Richard Painter, a former attorney in the George W. Bush administration who has been involved in lawsuits against the Trump White House, to Bill Kristol, an editor at the Weekly Standard.
All of these figures were either tainted by their support for the Iraq war or their ties to Bush, and they later lost influence with the arrival of Trump. However, they have now resurfaced as frequent contributors on the supposedly liberal MSNBC network, where they are seen as voices of reason and critics deriding the White House. Nevertheless, despite their reemergence on the media stage, neo-conservatives haven’t yet come back into power or full legitimacy, which makes the Pinchuk conference so noteworthy. The ironies of the situation are not lost on post-graduate student Pilash, who remarked to me that “Ukraine is the last place you can still find” discredited political figures of the past speaking from a lofty platform.
In the years since she served as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Secretary of State under Bush, Condoleezza Rice has gone back to working as a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford University. Trying to put a positive spin on political developments under Trump, Rice told the audience at YES that the U.S. and Europe were fully behind the sanctions regime imposed on Russia. On the other hand, she continued, Ukraine could not afford to take its support from the international community for granted and should move forward by strengthening its economy and fighting corruption.
Connection to Tony Blair
Throughout the years, Pinchuk has also done his utmost to cultivate the support of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who supported Bush’s war in Iraq amidst great controversy. Since leaving office in 2007, the politician has focused on the Tony Blair Institute which claims to “make globalization work for all,” as well as his role as the Quartet’s (European Union, United States, Russia and the United Nations) Middle East peace envoy from 2007 to 2016. During Blair’s stint as envoy, the politician was criticized as ineffectual and the great powers moved to sideline him. What is more, Blair’s cushy financial ties with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, which netted him millions of dollars in consultancy fees, raised doubts and some suggested that the former Prime Minister used his role in the Quartet to advance his own business interests.
“For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – Blair’s appointment was an insult,” notes the Independent. “The man who never said he was sorry for his political disaster simply turned up in Jerusalem four years later and, with a team which spent millions in accommodation and air fares, managed to accomplish absolutely nothing in the near-decade that followed. Blair appeared indifferent to the massive suffering of the Palestinians – he was clearly impotent in preventing it – and spent much of his time away from the tragedy of the Middle East, advising the great and the good and a clutch of Muslim dictators, and telling the world – to Israel’s satisfaction – of the dangers represented by Iran.”
Reportedly, Blair has been trying to get into the good graces of the Trump administration and met with officials including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to try and score a job as Washington’s envoy to the Middle East peace process, which would have been similar to his old position with the Quartet. But other reporting suggests that Blair’s links with Trump may have gone further. According to bombshell author Michael Wolff, Blair met personally with Trump as well as former top aide Steve Bannon. During discussions, Blair is said to have told them that he believed British spies could have informed the CIA about contact between Trump advisers and the Russians prior to the 2016 presidential election [Blair vehemently denies the reports].
Tony Blair at the YES Conference
Blair’s ties to Pinchuk, meanwhile, go back some time. For years, the British politician has been speaking at YES conferences, even before the summit moved to Kyiv from its home base in Yalta. Moreover, Blair has toured Pinchuk’s Interpipe steelworks in the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk. Reciprocating in kind, the industrial magnate has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Blair’s Faith Foundation, which arranges online video conferences between secondary school students across the world to talk about the relationship between religion, poverty and human rights (Blair’s Faith Foundation also funds an educational program in Ukraine, and in 2012 Pinchuk donated $500,000 to the effort).
Some have suggested that Pinchuk has cultivated Blair’s support to enhance his own interests. Despite the magnate’s recent and controversial editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Pinchuk has historically been a supporter of Ukraine’s efforts to join the European Union. Indeed, Pinchuk even set up a firm to promote Ukraine’s E.U. bona fides, going so far as to hire Blair’s former trade secretary. At one point, Blair was even regarded as a prime candidate to become president of the European Union, and the British politician openly backed Ukraine’s bid to join the bloc at a YES conference. Needless to say, one report noted that Blair faced public relations “hurdles” over his relationship with Pinchuk and efforts to extend E.U. membership to Ukraine. In the event, however, Blair never got the job in the E.U.
During his address at last year’s YES conference in Kyiv, I saw Blair speak about the Middle East peace process, his old specialty. An enduring peace, he remarked, could only be achieved if all parties seek it. Reporting on the conference, Kyiv Post was unimpressed, remarking that Blair “has no credibility anymore.” The politician, the publication added, “seemed completely out of ideas, offering bromides about prosperity, Ukraine’s European destiny and how it takes both sides to make peace and war.”
Pro-Maidan French Philosopher
Back at Arsenal Museum and the conference center, other panelists seemed to embody similar political contradictions. Take, for example, French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, who told his audience that leading authorities should hasten Ukraine’s accession to the European Union. Rather than bemoan the arrival of Trump, Brexit and other structural problems besetting the west, Henri Lévy remarked, “I believe that the best way to react to the decline in the West is to get together and to make a strong step forward for Europe to embrace Ukraine, and for Ukraine to embrace Europe.”
The philosopher added that the best remedy for western malaise is to inject “fresh blood” into united Europe. In a sense, Henri Lévy argued, the challenges facing Ukraine are not so different from those experienced by Turkey, which has also sought E.U. membership. “Some weeks ago,” he said, “the process of Turkey joining the E.U. was called a farce, a comedy, a mockery. I would like to say, ‘Goodbye Turkey, welcome Ukraine! Alas, goodbye Great Britain, welcome Ukraine!’”
During anti-Yanukovych protests, Henri Lévy joined demonstrators on Maidan square and the philosopher has taken to his new role of Ukraine’s foreign booster with gusto and an almost messianic fervor. In the New York Times, he and George Soros praised the “new Ukraine” for seeking to turn the page on corruption and promoting much needed reform in the face of Russian interventionism. Europe, moreover, should cultivate an economic partnership in Ukraine by shoring the country up financially and thus dealing a strategic blow to the Kremlin.
In other pieces, Henri Lévy has spelled out his ideas in more detail, advocating nothing less than a “Marshall Plan” for Ukraine. An insurance company, financed by European Union member countries, would help to shore up Kyiv’s economy. Ukrainian oligarchs would assist in the effort, since they, “at least, owe that to their country.” What is more, the Ukrainian treasury ought to float a large European bond issue, which would in turn be guaranteed by the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. Europe, meanwhile, cannot afford to “betray” Ukraine, which “paid dearly, in blood, for its fervent desire to join Europe.” If European investors flood into Ukraine, they will find an “El Dorado” of eager young Ukrainians who are eager to break with the “culture of bad governance and corruption.” Ultimately, the philosopher wrote, “there are situations in which money — yes, filthy lucre — can have a civilizing influence.”
Unlikely Fellow Travelers
In a country beset with seemingly insurmountable internal as well as external challenges, optimistic western figures like Henri Lévy are no doubt reassuring to many in Ukraine. Yet the French philosopher’s elite-driven globe-trotting has led Henri Lévy into some outlandish dalliances. Take, for example, the intellectual’s kind words for Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who was arrested in Vienna on bribery charges at the request of the F.B.I.
Washington has charged the oligarch with violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and a grand jury has ruled that Firtash, a gas, banking and minerals magnate, paid bribes to secure titanium for one of his U.S. affiliates. After being hauled into a local police station, Firtash agreed to post bail to the tune of $190 million. Firtash can’t leave Austria, and he’s currently fighting extradition to the U.S. From Vienna, the oligarch loudly proclaims his innocence and audaciously argues that his entrepreneurial spirit is vital to his country.
In light of the oligarch’s historic ties to Viktor Yanukovych, not to mention links to Russia’s reviled Gazprom, the native son may find it difficult to recruit influential allies. Nevertheless, Firtash remains a power-broker and is hedging his bets, even from afar. In 2016, he sponsored a conference aimed at modernizing the Ukrainian economy. It was in Vienna that Firtash met Henri Lévy, who found the tycoon “interesting.” Though the oligarch kept the “swarm of journalists at bay by his army of assistants,” Firtash took Henri Lévy “into his confidences.”
In light of Henri Lévy’s crusading western evangelism dating from the Maidan, it is unclear why the French philosopher has taken such a charitable view of the oligarch. According to Bloomberg, Firtash “stands accused of being the missing link between Vladimir Putin and the Trump administration.” Indeed, Firtash was reportedly a business partner of none other than Donald Trump adviser Paul Manafort, who has been indicted in the growing U.S. investigation into the Trump administration and Russian collusion during the 2016 presidential election. On the Russian side, Firtash made his billions in state-run Gazprom as Putin’s hand-picked surrogate.
Somewhat incongruously, Henri Lévy has praised Firtash’s ideas to modernize the Ukrainian economy. “Old Ukraine has been cannibalized by its oligarchs, that’s for sure,” Lévy has written. “But I am sure, too, that Firtash is not worse than the others! …And there is also the fact that he has the reputation of being pro-Putin. But the impression I always had during our conversations about my dream of a Marshall Plan for Ukraine is that he is, in his way, a true Ukrainian patriot, with a very touching attachment to his country.”
Perhaps, Firtash’s large confabs in Vienna are aimed at “buying friendship and retaining influence amid the new Kyiv government’s stated policy of de-oligarchisation.” The Guardian quotes Sergei Leshchenko, a former journalist who now serves as an MP, as saying “I’ve never met anyone in Ukraine who considers these [Firtash’s] proposals seriously.” Back in Kyiv, I asked political activist Pilash about Henri Lévy. “I remember when he spoke at Maidan,” my contact remarked, “and he was described as a huge western supporter of Ukraine.” The French philosopher, Pilash declared, is “clownish, but still, if you’re an oligarch, you need some intellectuals to legitimize your positions.”
Anti-Corruption Performance Art
Despite all the many contradictions and inconsistencies amongst individual YES panelists, Pinchuk’s conference highlighted and exposed the topic of corruption which is certainly important. Walking through Arsenal Museum, it was difficult to miss a prominent art exhibit designed to illuminate such pressing issues. Santiago Sierra’s performance piece, “25,000,000 Hryvnia,” featured a woman counting the equivalent of $1 million, therefore prompting the viewer to reflect upon “the value of money” as the “cash reminds us of what still rules in the back-chambers of power.”
On a certain level, the YES conference would seem to be a slightly unlikely venue to broach such sensitive matters. Over the years, Pinchuk himself has been accused of improprieties. From 1998-2006, he served as an MP and “given his sprawling business concerns, which expanded into natural gas and steel during this period, conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of it, quickly followed.” Forbes magazine writes that Pinchuk’s marriage to Elena Kuchma, the daughter of former president Leonid Kuchma, “quickly made things more complicated.” During Kuchma’s tenure from 1994-2005, Ukraine became wracked by scandal and Pinchuk was viewed as receiving preferential access to deals unavailable to others. For example, Pinchuk acquired the Nikopol Ferroalloy plant in 2003 “in a privatization widely regarded as rigged.” Needless to say, both Kuchma and Pinchuk have denied any accusations of wrongdoing.
Dangers of Fighting Corruption
Whatever the case, the YES conference certainly provided an illuminating window into high-level disagreements between Ukrainian and European political elites. “We have the infrastructure to bring corruption down in Ukraine,” noted Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, speaking in a chamber down the hall from Sierra’s exhibit. “We have laws which allow for effective performance. The only weakness,” the politician added, “is in the Ukrainian courts. I believe that we must quickly set up an instrument that enables the prosecution of corrupt officials. Whatever we name it – the Anticorruption Chamber or Anticorruption Court – is not important. What is important is to quickly set up a body which will be completely independent.”
The issue of corruption has seemingly reached a boiling point, notes a European think tank, and the courts “are in the process of being compromised.” Indeed, almost one quarter of judges appointed to Ukraine’s new Supreme Court fail to pass muster since they possess unjustified assets or have participated in cases which either constitute political persecution or violate human rights. Meanwhile, new hires over at the State Bureau of Investigations or SBI were filled without providing for sufficient transparency. What is more, the National Agency for Corruption Prevention, which is in charge of monitoring e-declarations of income and possessions, has failed to file any criminal investigations. Perhaps, notes the European Council on Foreign Relations, this is simply because the Agency is under the thumb of oligarchs.
Even more disturbingly, anti-corruption activists, N.G.O.’s and investigative journalists have been subject to arrest, fabricated evidence and harassment. One alarming case demonstrates just how fraught such anti-corruption work can be. Two years ago, human rights lawyer Iryna Nozdrovksa managed to put a driver behind bars who had struck and killed her sister. The driver was the nephew of a powerful judge, and as it happens the police had failed to promptly administer a drugs test. Nozdrovska’s efforts garnered her praise in the local media but also death threats. Recently, Nozdrovska was stabbed and her dead body was later found in a shallow river outside Kyiv.
Poroshenko in the Hot Seat
For Ukraine, which is intent upon impressing its western boosters, demonstrating progress in the crusade against corruption has become a political imperative and cases like Nozdrovska’s murder certainly aren’t doing wonders for the country’s public relations image. The International Monetary Fund insists that Ukraine must create an anti-corruption court, and last year halted disbursements to the country over the government’s failure to act. The European Union followed suit, withholding more than $700 million in aid. However, splitting hairs somewhat, the European Commission stated that Ukraine could create an “anti-corruption chamber” as an interim step in creating a full-scale anti-corruption court.
The old guard has proven to be acutely resistant to change: investigators working with Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau or NABU have been arrested, while the unit’s offices have been searched by the security services. In addition, administrative decrees have blocked NABU from pursuing effective work, while employees have been forced to process truckloads of useless information which slows down the bureau and allows suspects to get away. Some accuse president Poroshenko, meanwhile, of dragging his feet by not providing the proposed anti-corruption court with enough judicial independence. European think tanks view such lackluster performance as a betrayal of the Maidan revolution, while arguing that “if this continues, Ukraine will again be a quasi-authoritarian kleptocracy in which few holders of power use the state apparatus to advance their private interests.”
Taking to the stage at YES, I noticed that Poroshenko was visibly nervous and sweating profusely. The creation of an anti-corruption court would have to wait, he told the audience, and it might take Ukraine up to two years to create the new entity. As a first step, however, Poroshenko offered to create an anti-corruption chamber or panel in line with European Commission recommendations which could start work immediately. That line, however, didn’t go over too well with the pro-European, reform-minded audience and Poroshenko was obliged to fend off some testy exchanges during a brief question and answer period. Some believe that only an independent court, bolstered in turn by NABU, will suffice in the ongoing fight to clean house. Kyiv Post notes that while anti-corruption courts would be set up through transparent means to guarantee their independence, anti-corruption panels would be created through Ukraine’s “unreformed and politicized judiciary and are unlikely to be independent and to jail corrupt officials.”
Though corruption has certainly touched many in Ukraine, debate at the YES conference was restricted to a relatively small and select group of people. At one point, Poroshenko asked observers from the U.S. and Europe to raise their hands in answer to the question of whether an explicitly anti-corruption court existed in their countries. When most people failed to raise their hands, Poroshenko exclaimed that anti-corruption courts only exist in Third World countries, and even then such entities weren’t particularly efficient. The conservative Atlantic Council called Poroshenko’s maneuver a “classic debater’s trick,” and Kyiv Post remarked harshly that “when it comes to the anti-corruption fight, Poroshenko is many things — the Great Imitator, the Great Joker, the Great Imposter, the Great Fake. But he is not the Great Leader that Ukrainians and their internationals friends demand.” Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was also unconvinced by Poroshenko’s logic, arguing that every court in the U.S. is already a de facto anti-corruption one.
Business Pressure on Poroshenko
On other levels, the heated exchanges over corruption at YES proved to be revealing about the scope and spectrum of debate in Ukraine and the true nature of power politics. Poroshenko may be more prone to pay attention to issues like corruption, since his lifeline to the West depends on it. The International Monetary Fund has already provided more than $8 billion to Ukraine, which has helped the country recover from a recession and the outbreak of war with Russian-backed separatists, though the financial institution has stated that Kyiv must not only create an anti-corruption court but also comply with pension reform in order to ensure the flow of further aid. Reportedly, Poroshenko has come under pressure not only from the I.M.F. but also the foreign and domestic business community which wants the government to cease its raids on private enterprise.
Other disgruntled players include the American Chamber of Commerce as well as the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv which has been pressing hard for the anti-corruption court. At the YES conference, Poroshenko resorted to damage control, claiming the business community felt enthusiastic about the investment climate, despite some reporting suggesting otherwise. The president also promised action on many pro-business reforms which appeal to large financial institutions, including pension reform, health care reform and privatization [subsequent events suggest that “international pressure had become unbearable” and shortly after the YES conference, the president caved to reformers’ demands to create an anti-corruption court, though with an unfortunate caveat that a new anti-corruption chamber be created within the politically compromised Supreme Court. The chamber would serve as the appellate body in all anti-corruption cases.]
Young Anti-Corruption Reformers
In tandem with the underlying anti-corruption narrative at YES, Pinchuk’s conference highlighted Svitlana Zalishchuk, an MP for the Poroshenko bloc and one of the few women panelists in an otherwise male-dominated event. The idea that the government lacked sufficient time to establish an anti-corruption court, she claimed, was utterly false since a bill had already been introduced in parliament and therefore the court could have already been put in place. Mustafa Nayyem, another MP originally propelled into the limelight during the Euromaidan revolution, echoed such sentiments by arguing the West should protect NABU, which he claimed constituted Ukraine’s most significant reform victory.
Both Nayyem and Zalishchuk’s Maidan credentials are impeccable. A longtime journalist, Nayyem’s posting on Facebook calling on people to gather on Independence Square was instrumental in launching mass protest which eventually toppled the Yanukovych regime. The following year, Nayyem was elected to parliament on the electoral list of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and the young, stylish “hipster-like” politician casts himself as “one of dozens of Euromaidan activists who are trying to pivot from street politics into big politics, where they hope to spearhead reform and turn Ukraine into a prosperous European state.”
Like Nayyem, Zalishchuk is also a prominent liberal reformer having previously worked as the Executive Director of Center UA, a Kyiv-based non-governmental organization or N.G.O. focusing on human rights and anti-corruption. During the Euromaidan revolution, Center UA helped galvanize street protests by overseeing a Facebook page which became the largest-ever featured on the Ukrainian internet. Zalishchuk has talked about transforming “the whole relationship between government and society…Only together with civil society can we transform the country. Changing people in power is not enough…. We must stay vigilant; we need to continue the revolution in every working place, in every office.”
From Ukraine to Stanford
In an effort to unite pro-European reformers under one banner, Zalishchuk and Nayyem helped to launch Democratic Alliance, a party which eschews oligarchic ties and populism, features which are all too common on the Ukrainian political scene. Democratic Alliance, which appeals to young liberal voters, seeks to promote free market ideas and socially tolerant views. Mikhail Minakov, a professor of religion and philosophy at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, writes that Democratic Alliance seems to have positioned itself as the transparency and anti-corruption party, though such a platform is “certainly not novel.”
In Ukraine, the academic continues, the “fight against corruption per se has become a surrogate for ideology: parties promise to punish ‘corruptioners’ in order to win votes.” Outside the YES conference, sociologist Kutuev mused about such ongoing debates concerning corruption. To be sure, he said, bringing the issue up is “politically expedient” since corruption is so rampant that 60% of the Ukrainian economy remains in the shadows. This means that profits are unaccountable and money gets distributed or redistributed as graft or a bribe.
On the other hand, Kutuev added, “society is getting tired of this discussion and wants to talk about more down to earth issues like the rising prices of food.” Pilash, my contact outside the YES conference who is also a youthful veteran of Maidan protest, was somewhat critical of the reformers. “They are very oriented toward simply bringing more markets and mixing this with freedom and democracy,” he told me. “They don’t care how this will affect people in poverty or those out in the countryside,” he added.
Needless to say, the reformers’ blend of free market notions, anti-corruption and socially tolerant views has endeared them to a particular anti-Trump wing of the U.S. political establishment. After hours at the conference, I found myself at a bar near Bessarabsky market where Zalishchuk, Nayyem and fellow YES panelist and former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul held forth. A fixture of the Obama administration, McFaul has been a leading Trump critic and a regular on the aforementioned MSNBC network where he criticizes Russian electoral interference. Despite such apparent liberal leanings, McFaul is associated with the conservative Hoover Institute of Stanford University, home to prominent neo-conservatives. Indeed, while at Stanford, McFaul relied on Hoover fellow Condoleezza Rice for career advice.
In recent years, Stanford has become something of a hub for young Ukrainian “emerging leaders” or those who show “leadership potential” and are likely to enhance a reform agenda. In line with such objectives, the university funds fellowships through the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) for policymakers, lawyers, entrepreneurs and “leaders” of civil society. McFaul, who is an advocate of more Western support for Ukraine in the midst of Russian-backed aggression, is one of the architects of the program. Zalishchuk, who has spent time as a fellow at CDDRL, is close to McFaul. In 2014, Nayyem also traveled to California to study in the same program.
Ukraine and “The End of History”
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama also serves as a mentor for CDDRL’s Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program. In his 1989 essay titled “The End of History?” Fukuyama argued that Western, free market-style liberal democracy had triumphed and would become the world’s “final form of human government.” In this model, embodied by such bodies as the European Union, globalization would spread ideas of liberalism and rule of law would supplant narrow tribalistic-style nationalism.
Needless to say, such claims were clearly laid to rest in later years amidst ongoing resistance to neo-liberal reform all across the globe, not to mention recent right wing populism throughout the European Union and the U.S. which has placed Fukuyama’s cherished model in doubt. Today, the academic is coming to terms at long last with how hard it has become to make liberal democracy actually function. Fukuyama’s star was also blemished through his association with the neo-conservative movement which backed George Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq. To his credit, Fukuyama broke with the neo-conservatives over the invasion, though apparently only because he doubted whether the U.S. possessed the long-term resolve to “stick it out” in Iraq.
Despite these problems, Fukuyama has embraced his role as a mentor to young Ukrainians such as Nayyem and Zalishchuk with gusto. “We teach them about the structures of democracy as if they were Stanford undergraduates,” Fukuyama has said. In a video address designed to mark the start of the fellowship, Fukuyama added “It is particularly important that we launch this fellowship at this moment of Ukraine’s national development… Ukraine is an emerging democracy that needs leadership.” The academic declared that Ukraine was “at the center of a geopolitical struggle,” and therefore his institution “can play a very important role in helping to build intellectual capital there.”
For his part, Nayyem has praised Fukuyama as an inspiration. Perhaps, Fukuyama’s notions about exporting U.S.-style democracy rubbed off on the young Ukrainian: on his way back from Stanford to Ukraine, Nayyem stopped to give a talk in Washington at the National Endowment for Democracy, a taxpayer funded agency which has meddled in the internal politics of such countries as Venezuela.
Financial “Shock Therapy”
Meanwhile, one may wonder whether Fukuyama or young Ukrainian MP’s in parliament would embrace anti-corruption reforms at any cost. The I.M.F. and World Bank have placed Ukraine in a bind by suggesting they would not support financial bailouts without significant action on “pension reform,” which was certainly a prominent political buzzword at the YES conference amongst Poroshenko and his circle. Ukraine has 12 million pensioners, which number almost as many as the working population, and the country spends more on pensions as a percentage of G.D.P. than almost any other nation. But pension reform is a dicey subject in parliament, where the issue faces fierce opposition from populist legislators. The latter opposes I.M.F. insistence on increasing the retirement age, arguing that Ukraine can avoid such cuts by deriving savings through other means.
Even the normally establishment Foreign Policy magazine has raised eyebrows at the I.M.F.’s draconian “shock therapy” approach in Ukraine which has prioritized the anti-corruption battle over social needs. Already, the government has reduced social income support for retirees and public employees, frozen the minimum wage and cut public sector wages. Al-Jazeera remarks that it is “galling” to see the I.M.F. and World Bank flaunt their political and economic influence in order to “ensure that ordinary citizens bear the costs of reorienting their economy so that it can be more welcoming to western multinational businesses.” The people of Ukraine, al-Jazeera notes, have been treated with disdain and have been “left out of the decision-making almost entirely.”
With the exception of a smattering of liberals as well as economist Paul Krugman, who seemed like the odd man out at the conference, YES featured a very limited political spectrum with Poroshenko and a certain sector of the Ukrainian elite on the one hand, and anti-corruption forces in the West on the other. Hardly surprised, post-graduate student Pilash remarked that no mainstream politician is ready to challenge neo-liberal orthodoxy, and this in turn tends to create a very stilted and one-sided political discussion. The public is “fed up,” Pilash explained, adding that “people don’t even know what ‘neo-liberal austerity’ is, they just experience it in everyday life with all these cuts and rising fees.” Moreover, the public simply does not perceive any philosophical alternatives, since people must choose between “either this pro-European, pro-market tendency or some kind of nationalist, conservative far right authoritarian tendency.”
Dismantling “Half-Dead Soviet System”
In practical terms, Pilash declared, all of this translates into the dismantling of what remains of the “old half-dead Soviet social security system, free education and free healthcare and so on.” If Poroshenko’s presentation at the YES conference is any indication, Pilash may be right about underlying political agendas: as noted before, the Ukrainian statesman went out of his way to mention the key buzz word of “health care reform” while speaking to his pro-Western audience. Just like pension reform, the I.M.F. has pressured Ukraine to “reform” its health care system. Currently, the country is in the midst of a systemic health care crisis with only about half the population being covered. Though budgeting for health care spending has increased, severe devaluation of Ukraine’s currency has meant that in practical terms such spending has actually gone down.
Despite such shortcomings, the government has proceeded with its reforms, including the creation of a National Health Service which will administer so-called public solidarity health insurance. For their part, health care workers charge the new entity lacks transparency. They argue, moreover, that government measures will undermine compulsory state social insurance as well as the simple and basic notion of providing universal health coverage. Furthermore, workers claim, the reforms go against the Ukrainian constitution and measures have been accompanied by downsizing and wage freezes in the health care sector. The government counters that its reforms will move Ukraine away from the old Soviet system and provide something akin to the British NHS, but Pilash remarked that in practice, “what we see is that this is closer to other industrialized countries and specifically the U.S. model which is highly privatized.”
Battle Over Land Reform
During the YES conference, participants also touted the need for land reform. Take, for example, Suma Chakrabarti, President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development or EBRD. Speaking before the audience, Chakrabati urged prompt action on the issue, a sentiment which was echoed by Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. The topic of land reform has proven to be a politically sensitive one in Ukraine, a country known as Europe’s “bread basket.” The nation is home to 32 million hectares of pristine agricultural land and about seven million farmers.
Ukraine’s agricultural sector is indispensable in helping to spur the country’s economic recovery. By pushing land reform at YES, figures such as Chakrabati and Groysman clearly sided with the likes of the I.M.F., which laments the “underdeveloped land market” and moratorium on the sale of land. The financial institution favors lifting the moratorium and speeding up land reform.
Al-Jazeera, meanwhile, notes that land reform is a high stakes game since Ukraine’s rich black soil yields high volumes of cereals and grains, making the country the world’s third largest exporter of corn and fifth of wheat. “It is a very big prize for whoever ends up with control,” remarks the news outlet. “The I.M.F. and World Bank are clear they are on the side of the West, a club that includes western agricultural corporations.” For some time, the I.M.F. has been pushing moves in the countryside which have been roundly criticized by farmers.
As part of the institution’s structural adjustment policies, Ukraine agreed to change its value-added tax system (or VAT) for agriculture. The system, which allows farmers to put VAT payments into special accounts, provides substantial state aid to agriculture. Farmers are concerned that if the system is cut they will lose such aid and will be unable to pay new accounting requirements which are only affordable to large agribusiness.
To be sure, the VAT system has been marred by fraud, tax evasion and corruption. However, some watchdogs believe that “it is vital that policy-makers protect, not harm, small farmers.” Unfortunately, the odds seem to be stacked against farmers since many top officials in the Ukrainian Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food have close ties with agribusiness and oligarchs. Nevertheless, the I.M.F.’s agenda has run into trouble in Ukraine, with farmers hanging gruesome cow heads on Christmas trees which greeted lawmakers who arrived at their jobs in parliament.
The moves formed part of a nation-wide strike by farmers protesting changes in the VAT system. No doubt aware of such delicate sensitivities, Prime Minister Groysman was diplomatic at the YES conference, remarking that “We do not mind big business, but I stand for those who establish small farming enterprises.” Playing to the nationalist base, Groysman added “no foreign citizens will be able to buy Ukrainian land, nor get hold of it in some way. This is a matter of principle.”
Ukraine’s “Youth Leaders”
Having had my fill of policy wonks and establishment politicians, I sought out some other players at the YES conference. For years, Pinchuk has lavished scholarships on Ukrainian students in an effort to expose youth to outside ideas and global society. In line with such lofty notions, Pinchuk has earmarked nearly a million dollars annually to college graduates who seek to pursue graduate students at institutions such as Harvard or Oxford. Pinchuk has personally exhorted students to toss their hats into the political arena, and in fact the magnate’s foundation seeks to explicitly “empower future generations to become the change makers of tomorrow.” At the Kyiv YES conference, participants of the “Young Leaders Forum” had an opportunity to “develop practical solutions to solve critical modern challenges [and]…discuss pressing Ukrainian and global challenges with leaders, experts, politicians, businessmen and civic activists.”
On the margins of the YES conference, I caught up with Ivan Shmelov, a young software engineer from the city of Dnepropetrovsk. Shmelov told me he wanted to improve his skills while collaborating with folks “who are on the same wavelength as me.” Specifically, Shmelov had made some valuable contacts which, he hoped, might be able to help him advance future projects involving solar energy. Energetic and enthusiastic, Shmelov remarked that he wanted to overcome counter-productive Ukrainian prejudices toward green, sustainable energy.
In many ways, Shmelov’s colleague Vladislav Bandrovsky also exemplified many of the hopes and aspirations of EuroMaidan’s youth generation. A native of the central region of Zaporohizia, Bandrovsky had come to Kyiv as part of Pinchuk’s Young Leaders panel. As a student pursuing a Masters degree in law, Bandrovsky was interested in the anti-corruption agenda taken up at the YES conference. When I asked him whether he thought the government was doing a sufficient job curbing corruption, Bandrovsky said he wouldn’t generalize about the overall performance of diverse government agencies, and despite heavy criticism and incoming flak which had put Poroshenko on the defensive at YES, Bandrovsky was willing to give his president the benefit of the doubt. “You can criticize him,” the young law student remarked, “but I support him…he is a one hundred percent pro-western president and at this point he is the best option for Ukraine.”
Parting Thoughts on the YES Conference
Nearly five years after the Euromaidan protests, youth drawn to the Pinchuk conference still pin their hopes on European integration. When I asked Bandrovsky whether the younger generation looked toward the West as a positive cultural and political model, the law student declared that many seek to travel and study abroad and later bring back forward-looking ideas, including progressive notions on human rights. Judging from what Bandrovsky claimed, youth is determined to make a difference: in the young man’s native town in Zaporohizia, about seventy percent of youth is engaged in politics and actively seek to promote change.
Meanwhile, Bandrovsky told me, Ukrainian youth is “very open to everything, different lifestyles, different points of view, sexual orientation and ethnicity. I have several friends who are gay and this is perfectly fine in university or the workplace.” Bandrovsky added that even though youth remains traditional as far as gender relations are concerned, Ukraine is still less traditional than Russia on this score.
Outside the YES conference, however, Pilash argued that youth should do more than simply adopt the trappings of western society and socially liberal views. To begin with, Pilash took issue with the entire emphasis on “youth leaders” and “leadership” which is so pronounced at forums such as YES and elite U.S. universities such as Stanford. “The concept of ‘youth leader,’” he said, “presumes there are young wolves intent on pursuing this capitalist rush for more money and power. We don’t need young leaders but rather more youth engagement as a whole. It’s really about having a more horizontal and grass-roots movement or promoting student movements, as opposed to creating some kind of future bureaucrats or minor oligarchs.”
From Pinchuk with his sprawling interests to Poroshenko to the neo-conservatives to Tony Blair to young Turk reformers to unusual characters such as Henri Lévy, YES certainly provides an eye-opening and revealing glimpse into elite circles. At the end of the day, however, what is the impact on average, everyday people? “I suspect that broader sectors of society aren’t aware of the Pinchuk conference,” noted sociologist Kutuev. “I think that for Pinchuk, the conference represents a kind of insurance policy: he’s bringing global politicians together and trying to get the message across that ‘I’m useful to the common establishment and I can socialize with Clinton and Tony Blair. I am ready to serve you and fulfill your dreams, and you too can belong to an exclusive club.’”
Eager to move beyond mere criticism, I asked Pilash “If you were organizing your own conference, and you had all this money to put people up in hotels, who would you invite and how would the conference be different?” Sighing at my question, the young organizer muses “Well, if I had the money, I suppose we could find better uses for it other than putting people up in lavish hotels.” Warming to his theme, Pilash added, “obviously my conference would include figures with a more progressive perspective and the discussion would be more oriented toward social science and humanities and bringing more activists together from different countries.” Pausing for a moment, Pilash remarked, “but of course this wouldn’t be a ‘prestigious’ conference in the typical sense.”
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