How the president is failing to put super-rich in their place

5 August, 01:27 AM
The authorities plan to persuade oligarchs to get rid of monopolies and sell media assets, NV sources say. The collage depicts Zelenskyy and Danilov on the left and Ukrainian big entrepreneurs, including former President Petro Poroshenko on the right. (Photo:NV collage)

The authorities plan to persuade oligarchs to get rid of monopolies and sell media assets, NV sources say. The collage depicts Zelenskyy and Danilov on the left and Ukrainian big entrepreneurs, including former President Petro Poroshenko on the right. (Photo:NV collage)

Only one thing can be said with certainty about the register of oligarchs – this document has turned into a losing game.

In wartime conditions, Ukraine has enough secrets that have to be hidden not only from the enemy but also from the majority of citizens.

However, among the copious amounts of confidential information, there is also one that, in fact, should be publicly available.

Moreover, Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself promised to make it public.

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It concerns the register of oligarchs, as well as the principles of its work.

So far, only a few things are more or less known about this topic.

Namely, that at the end of June, the president put into effect a decision of the National Security and Defense Council or NSDC to launch a register of persons who have significant economic and political weight in public life.

A fortnight later, Oleksiy Danilov, the Secretary of the NSDC, said that the list was ready, and the "subjects of the declaration", i.e. the oligarchs, who are required to submit an income declaration to get on it, were "collecting documents."

Then the NSDC secretary — whose department handles this issue — said that 86 people meet one of the four criteria for being an oligarch as defined by law, and explained that now they are all being checked for compliance with two more. He did not give the names of the "front runners."

At this point, the meager flow of information about the formation of the register and its participants ended.

Except that after the billionaire Vadym Novinsky vacated his parliamentary seat, and then his partner — the richest Ukrainian Rinat Akhmetov — stopped the work of his media holding Ukraina, the Justice Minister Denys Malyuska somewhat paradoxically declared that Akhmetov ceased to fall under the concept of "oligarch." This is despite the fact that many experts initially predicted that the top Ukrainian billionaire would take the top spot on the register.

NV addressed a number of questions to Danilov's department: when the verification of 86 people would begin and end, whether the register will be public and how the criteria for participation in political life are determined for a specific person in wartime.

The NSDC did not answer any of the questions.

Only with the help of sources in the presidential Servant of the People faction did NV editors manage to get some idea of ​​who is most likely to be added to the oligarch register. Most likely, it will be three people who have a direct relationship with the Verkhovna Rada – ex-President Petro Poroshenko, head of the European Solidarity faction, the For Future group MP Oleksandr Hereha, co-owner of the Epicenter-K company,q and also a representative of the banned Opposition Platform Viktor Medvedchuk, who was previously arrested on suspicion of treason.

In addition, according to NV sources, whether there will be room for Akhmetov, Viktor Pinchuk and Ihor Kolomoisky, as well as Dmytro Firtash, who is exiled in Austria, is still being discussed on the sidelines of the government.

One of NV’s top contacts in the Servant of the People said that the list of oligarchs would most likely include the owners of the largest agricultural holdings: Yuriy Kosyuk, founder of MHP holding, Andriy Verevskyi, co-owner of Kernel, and possibly some other representatives of agribusiness.

A difficult matter

According to the law adopted by the Rada in September 2021, a businessman must meet three out of four criteria to be included in the register of oligarchs. Namely: exert significant influence on mass media; participate in political life; own a monopolistic enterprise that maintains or strengthens such a position for a year in a row; and have a confirmed asset value exceeding 2 billion hryvnias ($54 million).

"Society will have information about their (potential oligarchs) passing checks for compliance with other criteria," Danilov explained recently.

Danilov also clarified that not being Ukrainian would not exempt oligarch from scrutiny — it is enough to conduct business in the country to stand a chance to become an "oligarch in law."

There were no volunteers in the country willing to openly join the register. And this is not surprising: the status of an oligarch will not only affect the businessman's image, but also create a scrupulous attitude towards him among Western banks and negatively affect the value of their companies shares, believes Olena Shcherban, chief lawyer of the Anti-Corruption Action Center.

And for the largest Ukrainian entrepreneurs who attract Western loans, making the register could close the possibility of debt restructuring, which is a handy option in difficult times.

Just a few months ago, creditors agreed to postpone payments of bank debts of Akhmetov’s DTEK-Energo division worth a total amount of more than $2 billion.

Don’t count your oligarchs before they hatch

According to official reports, now the NSDC is engaged in difficult work — entering data on each of the potential oligarchs into the register. There should be a declaration of their assets and income, as well as some form of evidence that these people meet three of the four criteria.

The problem is that the NSDC is not the best body for such work. According to the Constitution, the council is a platform for coordinating the actions of the country's top leaders: the president, the prime minister, the head of the SBU security service, and key ministers. And it remains a compact structure with a total staff of 200 people.

For example, twice as many employees are officially employed in the Office of the President, and five times as many by the Ministry of Economic Development. But for Zelenskyy, the NSDC has become an effective instrument of direct action, offering loopholes to bypass the labyrinths of the law, as was the case with the introduction of various sanctions against Medvedchuk and his accomplices.

Two NV sources in Zelenskyy's team and another from the National Agency on Corruption Prevention noted that the NSDC is failing with the creation of the register.

There are two explanations for this. The first is the lack of qualified personnel working with data. The second is the difficulty of gathering information about the assets of businessmen in wartime conditions and the unclear norms of the law regarding two criteria: "significant influence on the mass media" and "participation in political life."

First of all, Danilov's subordinates, according to NV, sent letters to the NACP, which specializes in keeping a register of declarations of officials, the SBU, and the Ministry of Justice, requesting data on the assets of potential oligarchs.

In addition, the NSDC suggested that the Antimonopoly Committee share information about the owners of companies with a monopoly position in the market, and the National Television Agency about the owners of large media.

The council also contacted the State Fiscal Service, asking them for data on the incomes of big businessmen.

The NACP confirmed to NV that they had received such a request. "NACP can provide all data related to participation in political life. Namely, information about persons who financed the activities of a political party. Now we are waiting for a response to our proposal from the NSDC," the agency's press service said.

And in a letter to the National Agency on Corruption Prevention, the NSDC proposed that the agency compile its own list of potential oligarchs. "Submit to us candidates for oligarchs, and we will look at them," one of the employees of the NACP told NV, quoting the approximate wording of the letter.

The NSDC encountered all of the imperfections of the law when forming the first list of 86 potential oligarchs, Shcherban explains. After all, it includes, for example, a requirement for the persons appearing in the register to submit a declaration. But now, due to martial law, the obligation to declare income has been suspended.

"Regarding the register, there are many issues that need to be regulated," adds the Anti-Corruption Action Center lawyer.

Oleksandr Novikov, the head of the NACP, believes that the creation of a register during the war has lost relevance since potential oligarchs do not have their former political weight. In addition, the national telethon, which united the country’s top TV channels, leveled the influence of their owners on the information policy of the state.

Recently, the National Security and Defense Council reported on a large meeting devoted to the formation of the register. It was attended by Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, First Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Svyrydenko, Minister of Justice Denys Malyuska, and acting head of the SBU, Vasyl Malyuk. The report of the press service stressed that they discussed "problematic issues in the implementation of the law on oligarchs."

"Danilov is trying to do something, but everyone attends these meetings (regarding the register of oligarchs) very reluctantly," one of the top sources in Zelenskyy's team told NV.

According to him, officials are reluctant to participate in such meetings because they don’t know where to get data on the up-to-date financial status of potential oligarchs.

The Ministry of Justice, which should be the main pillar of the NSDC in the matter of data collection — as this department deals with registers of individuals and legal entities — as well as its chief Malyuska, did not respond to a request from NV about the interaction of the ministry with the council on the issue of oligarchs. For all questions, including the possible inclusion in the register of Akhmetov, Kolomoisky and Pinchuk, the Ministry of Justice advised contacting the National Security and Defense Council directly, who, in turn, ignored requests from NV.

But during a recent public discussion, Malyuska made it clear that even without launching the register, the law on de-oligarchization is already working.

The biggest businessmen are already allegedly getting rid of some of their assets.

At the same time, the minister admitted that "during the war, the relevance of the law has decreased significantly." He also added that "the oligarchs were scared and invested a huge amount of money in discrediting the law."

The change of original attitude towards "voluntary de-oligarchization" was confirmed by one of NV’s sources in the president's team.

He said that now the goal is no longer to recognize all influential businessmen as oligarchs.

"They will be invited to a civilized dialogue and will be offered to sell TV channels or get rid of other criteria," he explained.

The same source of NV is sure that no corruption risks would arise in such "conversations." For example, the authorities will not be able to negotiate with potential oligarchs behind the scenes, as the investigative media will quickly receive data on who was able to bribe themselves free.

Shcherban suggests that the President’s Office take its time with the launch of the register, but for another reason: in her opinion, it is worth waiting for the conclusion of the Venice Commission, which is preparing proposals for the modernization of the law.

"Sooner or later, the law will still have to be amended, because de-oligarchization is mentioned in the conclusion of the European Commission regarding the country's application to the EU," reminds the lawyer.

She urges the authorities not to forget about the accompanying reforms of the Antimonopoly Committee, the law enforcement and judicial systems. After all, a fair court could carry out a real de-oligarchization of any top businessman, including the richest of them. Danilov

According to NV, the Venice Commission will deliver its verdict on Ukrainian de-oligarchization in early fall.

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