After being accused of large-scale corruption, Ukrainian oligarch and MP Oleksandr Onyschenko left Ukraine. Photo:bbc.com
We have previously written about Ukrainian oligarchs who have a tremendous influence on the Ukrainian media landscape. However, are Western media safe from their influence? As several publications show, some world media can also easily fall into a trap of games in Ukrainian politics. Some can do it deliberately.
The Wall Street Journal publishes an oligarch’s plan for Ukraine
As there are more and more international discussions about corruption within the Ukrainian government, more and more people are trying to present an alternative voice from the country and tell the truth. Weakened trust in those who are in power in Ukraine can lead to a demand for new leaders to be presented to the international audience. But are they really new? And what interests do they follow?
On 29 December 2016 an article named “Ukraine Must Make Painful Compromises for Peace With Russia” appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Its author, Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, gives pieces of advice about what Ukraine should do, taking into account new trends in world, especially US, policy. Let’s see who Pinchuk is and why his voice is not the last one in Ukraine.
Its roots grow from the mid 90’s, during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma. Pinchuk, husband to Kuchma’s daughter, was criticized for gaining his capital by using the power of his father-in-law. When Kuchma was accused in being involved in the murder of the journalist Georgiy Gongadze, it were Pinchuk’s media outlets which whitewashed Kuchma’s reputation to the best of their abilities. But the dirty 90’s are over.
Now Pinchuk has such friends as Hillary Clinton, he funds educational and cultural projects and organizes the prestigious YES conference. His father-in-law, Kuchma, was known for his pro-Russian (or almost controlled by Russia) policies during his presidency. It was Kuchma who brought the notorious ousted president Viktor Yanukovych to power. However, after the Orange Revolution (which was a successor of the protest called “Ukraine without Kuchma”), he stepped aside and did not intervene into protests with military force. Like Yanukovych in 2014.
Kuchma is now a member of the trilateral contact group on settling the conflict in Donbas. The meetings of the group take place in Minsk on a permanent basis. Thus, the messages which Pinchuk promotes in his article might outline the real path which those defining Ukrainian policy are really going to follow. Among them are:
“Now, Ukraine should give up the idea of EU membership.”
“Crimea is Ukraine, but this position should not be an obstacle on the way of returning Donbas” (Meanwhile, rumors that Ukraine will give up Crimea for Donbas appear in discussions more and more often).
“There will not be conditions for fair elections until Ukraine has full control over its territory. But we may have to overlook this truth and accept local elections.”
“Let’s accept that Ukraine will not join NATO in the near- or midterm.”
“We should also make clear that we are ready to accept an incremental rollback of sanctions on Russia as we move toward a solution for a free, united, peaceful and secure Ukraine.”
Taking into consideration Pinchuk’s background, connections, business interests, and influence, we can assume that these are not just some random messages. These are principles which will be promoted for and pushed upon the Ukrainian people, and which those who are in power will follow in the nearest future, without asking the Ukrainian citizens.
Ukrainian corruptionist has a say in Time
On 23 December 2016, the respectable Time Magazine published a manipulative article by Ukrainian MP-in-exile Oleksandr Onyschenko. In it, the deputy accuses the President Petro Poroshenko and the government of bringing corruption in the country to the highest level. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), as told by Onischenko in the article, “was created more for public relations ‘spin’ than taking the action necessary to remedy continual abuses of the political system.”
The accusations of Poroshenko and the government are not new and they might be grounded in reality. However, Onyschenko in his material does not give any facts, only generalizations. The main message of the article is that Onyschenko presents himself as a subject of political prosecution:
“Like many others, I am an example of Poroshenko and his associates going after their enemies.”
Also, the exiled MP refers to the Freedom House report on corruption, resignations of the Minister of the Economy Aivaras Abromavicius and Odesa governor Mikheil Saakashvili because of the corrupt environment within the Ukrainian government. Onyschenko even provides the quotation of Saakashvili from the New York Times:
“I’ve been severely disappointed with Mr. Poroshenko’s apparent inability to see that the status quo is unsustainable. Ukraine needs real change, not an imitation of it.”
But would Saakashvili and Abromavicius be happy to be equated to Onyschenko? Well, at least Saakashvili didn’t deny the need to arrest the MP:
“Poroshenko did not want to arrest Onyshchenko, but the National Anti-Corruption Bureau started to deal with his case. The rest of the bodies allowed him to leave the country,” Saakashvili chided the Ukrainian President.
Let’s see why Onyschenko was stripped of parliamentary immunity, in support of which the Ukrainian Parliament voted on 5 July 2016, along with giving permission to arrest the MP.
The corruption scheme was implemented in agreements with the Public Company Ukrgazvydobuvannya, which is the largest natural gas producer in Ukraine. It is also part of the structure of the state company Naftogaz Ukrayiny. During 2013-2016, the company concluded a number of agreements on common activities with private enterprises. The mediators involved in the agreements set prices for gas which were lower than market price in favor of some entities. After that the winners from the trade sold the natural gas to subjects of the real economy at a higher price. The difference between the prices that the mediator and subjects of the real economy paid were transferred to the accounts of individuals through fictitious companies.
The investigation revealed that the whole scheme ran under Onyschenko’s control. However, by the time he was stripped of parliamentary immunity, he already fled the country.
Almost a half of a year later, the escapee caused another scandal in Ukraine and, again, Western media gave the corruptionist a platform to express himself.
Dubious publication in The Independent
In early December 2016, Onyschenko claimed that he has a recording which discredits the President Poroshenko. As the MP told, during his few years of work with the President’s team, he used a special technology in his watch to record Poroshenko’s conversations. In the recording, Mr. President allegedly persuaded MPs to vote for laws as he wants. Onyschenko says that Poroshenko controls all the state enterprises. This might be true; however, so far the recordings themselves were not made public. The fugitive MP says that he gave them to the US intelligence.
However, the absence of the recordings did not stop The Independent from interviewing him and presenting his words to discredit the Ukrainian government and the president.
Also, Onyschenko told The Independent that he received money for a campaign to discrediting the former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The campaign, he said, cost nearly $3 mn a month and ran for nearly 10 months.
“The Independent has been unable to verify Mr. Onyshchenko’s claims and is not naming the senior figure or his intermediaries for legal reasons,” says the authors/author of the article (the author of the article is not named).
In Ukraine, doubts about the independence of the article in The Independent were raised, and Onyschenko was accused of playing for the Kremlin.
“The article was published in the newspaper The Independent which belongs to the Russian oligarch Aleksandr Lebedev,” said the deputy head of the Bloc Petro Poroshenko faction in the Ukrainian Parliament Iryna Lutsenko, alluding that the publication might be paid for.
The head of the Center of Public Relations Yevhen Mahda also assumed that Onyschenko can be used by the Kremlin:
“Do not forget that he is accused of serious abuses in the gas sector, in particular, Yuriy Lutsenko said that the Prosecutor General’s Office have tons of evidence against him. And the format of the publication of compromising materials, and the content of the statements of Onyshchenko allows us to suppose that Russia uses him. And his statements are manipulative.”
The main voice of the Kremlin, Perviy Kanal, called the incident with the recordings an international media scandal and referred to the words of Onyschenko.
After the interview for The Independent Onischenko did release some recordings. Not the ones that were advertised, but his conversation with MP Oles Dovhyi, after Onyschenko’s escape from Ukraine. Onyschenko refers to Dovhyi as a negotiator from Petro Poroshenko. In the conversation, Onyschenko asks Dovhyi how he can avoid punishment. The recording did not prove or deny the credibility of the previous accusations of the MP.
Corruption of the Ukrainian President and within the Ukrainian government has to be revealed. However, allegations without proof, like those provided by Onyschenko, can discredit all the initiatives aimed to prove cases of corruption. Also, when discussing corruption at large, it is important to note who is talking about it, and determine whether the person follows national interests or his/her own. Or maybe the person is used by someone else?
The case of Onyschenko is not the only example of how Western media gives a platform to people who are known for manipulating information.
Be careful when talking about the freedom of speech
In September 2016, Politico published an opinion piece of Serhiy Liovochkin telling about the freedom of speech which is supposedly under fire in Ukraine.
Serhiy Liovochkin is a co-owner of the Inter channel, former head of the Administration of the disgraced President Viktor Yanukovych, and an Opposition Bloc MP.
In his article, Liovochkin refers to the incident when the Inter channel was attacked this summer. The incident indeed is not a pleasant page this year for Ukrainian media. It raised accusations among the international community that freedom of speech is abused in Ukraine. People related to Inter, including Liovochkin, blame the government for the attack. The representatives of Poroshenko’s party suggest that the attack on the channel was organized by Kremlin. The results of the investigation have not been released yet.
But there are other interesting details in Liovochkin’s article.
In some moments, the Opposition Bloc MP talks on behalf of the Ukrainian people:
“The climate of fear in Ukraine has intensified. To be sure, we have been facing existential threats over the past few years.”
“Ukrainians have shown time and again that we will defend our basic freedoms. We may have grown used to corrupt politicians. Violence and chaos may be the dispiriting features of our ‘new normal.’ But we will not be muzzled without a fight.”
Liovochkin also referred to the Euromaidan revolution:
“The ‘Euromaidan’ movement of 2013-2014 led to a change of power, but the tide of corruption has not waned. Many would say it has grown worse.”
But the author does not clarify that it were rallies against his power that gathered hundreds of thousands of Euromaidan protesters on the streets. Liovochkin also does not mention that it was the Inter channel which set the greatest example of abusing the freedom of speech in the whole history of the Ukrainian media during the Euromaidan revolution. The events at the main square of Kyiv were ignored or presented in a distorted way. At that time, Liovochkin had been a co-owner of the channel for about a year.
Also Liovochkin does not say that after the Euromaidan, Inter was involved in several scandals caused by the taking a pro-Russian position, including one where the Kremlin’s involvement in its policy and collaboration with Russia’s puppet statelets in the Donbas, the Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics,” was revealed in a hack.
This is how he ends his article:
“If we are to keep alive the hope of integration with the West, we will need the help of those who share our values of democracy and free expression to let the Kyiv government know that we are not alone in this fight.”
Lectures about democracy from the right hand of ousted tyrant Yanukovych give the article even more cynical colors.
“Fight against corruption” – popular topic among the corrupt
The question about the freedom of speech and the case of Inter was also mentioned in an article in The Guardian written by another Ukrainian oligarch Vadym Novynskyi, and published in September 2016.
“What kind of justice can be expected if just before the attack, MPs from Ukraine’s ruling coalition called for the TV channel to be punished for its allegedly ‘unpatriotic’ editorial policy?” asks Novynskyi.
The article is called “The west looks on as corruption and bigotry rule in the ‘new Ukraine'”.
His words about corruption within the Ukrainian government is even less specific than Onyschenko’s article in Time:
“Those who came to power in Kyiv to the applause of western elites now hope that their international partners will turn a blind eye to the way they run the country,” says Novynskyi.
However, let’s take a closer look who he himself is.
For a long time, he made in the top-10 of the richest people in Ukraine. His business interests are shipbuilding, mining industry, agriculture, and metallurgy.
He also used to be an MP of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and then its successor Opposition Bloc. He was accused in receiving Ukrainian citizenship while not giving up his Russian passport. He is strongly associated with the Yanukovych regime and was pictured as a raider in the media.
In December 2016 he was also stripped of his parliamentary immunity. The reason was a case of kidnapping an assistant of that time Metropolitan Volodymyr, who died in June 2014.
According to the investigation, ex-president Yanukovych wanted to replace Volodymyr, known for his independent position, from the position of the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. To pressure Volodymyr, his personal assistant Oleksandr Drabinko was kidnapped. According to the investigation, Novinskyi gave orders during the kidnapping operation.
As we see, speeches about the fight against corruption are now popular among the corruptionists and henchmen of the Yanukovych regime, who deflect any attempts to prosecute them for their previous crimes as accusations of political prosecution by the government.
In this regard, it appears that publications in Western media serve them well by allowing them to present themselves in a good light to the international community, which is not familiar with their crimes in Ukraine.