Sunday, December 21, 2014


Ukraine

Poroshenko's Right-Hand Man Emerges

Media mogul Boris Lozhkin (left) with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko
Media mogul Boris Lozhkin (left) with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko

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By Zhanna Byezpyatchuk and Robert Coalson
KYIV -- Every move that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko makes is being examined as if under an electron microscope.

And the reception of his first crucial appointment -- naming media mogul Boris Lozhkin as his chief of staff on June 10 -- has been, at best, mixed.

Lozhkin's supporters stress his management skills. Critics, however, are suspicious of his decades-long role as a media mogul and political insider as well as his longstanding ties to Russia.

"I think that for Poroshenko it is a powerful argument that he brought in a fresh person, unjaded, who can look afresh at how the presidential administration has functioned and how it should function," Kyiv-based analyst Volodymyr Fesenko tells RFE/RL.

On the other hand, Lozhkin -- before he sold his stake in Ukraine's United Media Holding (UMH) group just prior to his appointment -- was a media-tycoon who thrived during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych.

"Did we make this revolution just so the oligarchs could keep their advantages," Ukrainian journalist Oleh Shynkarenko asks, echoing the view of many of the Euromaidan protesters who were already skeptical of Poroshenko, himself a wealthy oligarch.

Not only are Lozhkin's personal qualities still crucial unknowns, but the nature of the job is as well.

Ukrainian presidential chiefs of staff have usually been powerful behind-the-scenes political figures. But recent reforms -- particularly the restoration of Ukraine's 2004 constitution -- have aimed to limit the power of the presidential administration and restore balance among Ukraine's government structures.

For the Good Of My Country

No one can say to what extent Lozhkin is on board with such changes. With Ukraine facing crippling unrest in the east, mounting tensions in relations with Russia, and a sputtering economy, there could be irresistible temptations to play fast and loose with niceties like checks and balances.

"I am an anticrisis manager," Lozhkin said in a video statement on June 16. "At this moment, that is the key ability." 

Lozhkin added that he came to do all that he could "for the good of my country."

A 42-year-old native of Kharkiv, Lozhkin got his start in the publishing business in 1990.

In 1994, he founded the television-listings periodical "Telenedelya," which went on to become one of the strongest print-media brands in the entire former Soviet Union. In later years, he moved into broadcast and the Internet and began publishing local versions of leading Western magazines.

In April 2011, he purchased KP Media together with Poroshenko. By the end of 2013, UMH owned more than 50 media brands and was among the leading private media companies in the former Soviet Union.

Lozhkin's success in this rough-and-tumble part of the world is already enough to raise suspicions. Civil-society activist and former Kyiv City Council member from the Batkivshchina party Ihor Lutsenko says Lozhkin's media projects are rife with "low-quality publications from the point of view of journalism that, to speak directly, are paid-for placements."

It's Just Business

In 2004, Lozhkin purchased the Dovira broadcasting company, which for about six years had been carrying the Ukrainian service of RFE/RL. After the purchase, Dovira decided not to rebroadcast RFE/RL anymore, a decision that RFE/RL's central management at the time decried as a "political act aimed against liberal democracy and freedom of speech."

And last year, Lozhkin also raised eyebrows when he sold publications from KP Media and a few other properties to a company belonging to Serhiy Kurchenko, an energy-sector oligarch with close ties to Yanukovych.
 
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Lozhkin insisted the deal was "just business," but analysts viewed it as an attempt by the ruling elite to eliminate key independent media. The price of the sale was rumored to be in the range of $450 million-$500 million, making it one of the most lucrative media deals in Ukrainian history.

Critics also note that almost all of Lozhkin's media projects over the years have been in Russian. He has defended himself by saying there is greater demand for Russian-language media and that his attempt to create "Telenedelya" in Ukrainian failed. 

But activist Lutsenko says Lozhkin's failure to create successful Ukrainian-language products reflects his own lack of commitment.

"Lozhkin has the position of going along the path of least resistance," Lutsenko says, "of taking some sort [version of the Russian tabloid] 'Argumenty i fakty' and just distributing it in Ukraine."

Moreover, in July 2013, Lozhkin accepted an award from Russia's Federation Council, the upper chamber of the country's parliament, for "his large contribution to the development of mass media in Ukraine and for strengthening good-neighborly relations between Russia and Ukraine." 

Presenting the award, Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko said that in order to work successfully with Russian media, Lozhkin must be "a great professional and a friend of Russia and must understand what an important mission he is carrying out."

Managing The President

As President Poroshenko moves ahead with his agenda for Ukraine, one of the key issues will be how the presidential administration works and interacts with the government.

Poroshenko has also named Hennadiy Zubko as first deputy head of the presidential administration and Oleh Rafalsky as deputy head. Both men hail from Zhytomir Oblast and are political operatives with reputations for fitting in rather than reforming.

Poroshenko appointed Sergiy Berzenko as head of state administration affairs. Berzenko was an adviser to Yanukovych-era Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskiy, who has been implicated in numerous corruption scandals. Poroshenko named Svyatoslav Tsegolka, a journalist from a television station Poroshenko owns, as his press secretary. 

None of the appointments has been greeted with particular enthusiasm by the Euromaidan protesters who are seeking radical change from the corruption of the Yanukovych era.

However, Poroshenko himself seems to be in command of his team and that fact itself encourages some analysts.

"The only thing we can say for certain is that the current presidential administration is not going to manage the president of Ukraine -- that is for sure," Vitaliy Bala, director of the Situations Modelling Agency in Kyiv who worked as an adviser to a deputy prime minister in the early 2000s, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

"The current president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, will manage his administration. He will decide all of the major, political decisions -- political, economic, legal. It won't be like it was before when the tail was wagging the dog."
 
Zhanna Bezpiatchuk reported from Kyiv. Robert Coalson reported and wrote from Prague. RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Dmytro Shurkhalo also contributed to this report from Kyiv.

Robert Coalson

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