Former owner of VAB Bank, now identified by law enforcement as a suspect, speaks about bad manners at Bankova, shady underpinnings of the criminal case, and discusses who will be buying Ukrainian land and at what price
Disgraced Ukrainian businessmen in confrontation with the establishment can be broadly divided into two camps. The first one includes those fighting in Ukraine. They allow law enforcement to serve them with a ‘notice of suspicion’ and sometimes throw them in jail, they only get out of there on bail or an MP’s guarantee. The others simply leave the country. They sell some part of their business; they lose some or relocate to other jurisdictions.
The owner of one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural holding companies Ukrlandfarming, Oleh Bakhmatyuk, now finds himself somewhere in between. He is not in Ukraine now and, as he tells us, he hasn’t finally decided whether or not to return to his homeland.
We met with the businessman the day after the National Anti-Corruption Bureau issued him with a notice of suspicion in absentia, and also to VAB Bank executives alleging misappropriation of a stabilisation loan of UAH 1.2 billion, that had been granted by the NBU. Several current and former top managers of the NBU also figure in this case. This is arguably one of the most high-profile corruption scandals of recent times.
Bakhmatуuk has denied all accusations and has publicly appealed to President Zelensky asking him to intervene. The President has stayed silent.
It’s hard to tell, which path Bakhmatуuk will eventually choose – to come back and potentially face prison or emigrate. In the meantime, we are meeting in Vienna to discuss his conflict with the President’s Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan and a personal vendetta pursued against him by Artem Sytnik and who is going to buy up millions of hectares of Ukrainian black soils once the land sale moratorium is lifted.
Bakhmatiuk denies the allegation circulating in the market as rumours that a large bribe was extorted from him in exchange for non-issuance of a ‘suspicion notice’; he, however, does not rule out this whole thing is masterminded by competitors trying to shake him down for his business.
— We are meeting with you at a hotel in Vienna. Why here?
— Recent events caught me in travel, and Vienna’s become a temporary safe harbour for me. That’s why we are meeting here.
— Did you leave Ukraine a long time ago?
— Some two weeks ago. I was travelling around the Middle East – Qatar and the UAE. I had meetings with the management of Cargill, one of our top grain-trading partners. Then I met in Geneva with the head of Cargill’s global trading platform. I also had a trip as part of our arrangements with the Deposit Guarantee Fund.
— What about?
— That I would search and find resources to clear the bank’s debt. Basically, we wanted to take the first step by repaying initially UAH 500 million and then repay UAH 1 billion a year. We submitted such a proposal. It was an act of good will – after four years of an absolutely pointless war – to start a constructive dialogue.
— Were you aware that arrests and a notice of suspicion to you personally were being prepared when leaving the country?
— We’ve been living in all this for the past four years. We’ve been through hundreds of searches and dozens of interrogations of our management.
— Let me put it another way – was your departure triggered by news of a suspicion being prepared to be issued to you?
— Absolutely not. There were some signs though. But I had the hope that if I came up with something, the authorities would use it as a successful case of striking a deal with a business. It must have been our progress in achieving tangible agreements that prompted our adversaries to act.
— We are meeting the day after you were issued with a notice of suspicion. Did it come as a surprise?
— For any normal person, it would come as an unpleasant surprise. I tried to bring home to country leadership, to the Ministry of Finance and all other stakeholders that our case is large enough to potentially affect the economy as a whole. What is more, we employ a huge number of people, we have a great number of foreign partners. In seven years, we raised some two billion [US dollars] in loans. We have restructured almost all of it. It is only with our own government that we haven’t been able to find common ground. I proposed to them a civilised path, but I wasn’t heard. Furthermore, those who made the decision to issue the suspicion knew full well what consequences that would trigger for my business. They realised that that would send a signal to all my foreign creditors. As a result, it would seriously damage my relationships with them. This is a blow aimed at the business of course. This doesn’t make any sense, however, from the government’s perspective. If you think somebody owes you money you should be interested in that person having the money to be able to settle with you.
— Who exactly didn’t hear you? You told the media about your meeting with Bohdan. Is that what you are talking about?
— Originally it was supposed a meeting with President Zelensky.
— Do tell us more.
— I came up with the initiative that the trade conflict between China and America opened up an opportunity to enter the Chinese agricultural market. I know all key players in that market, and they know me. I came up with a model to potentially attract 10 billon US dollars’ worth of investments from China secured by grain supplies. This is what I proposed specifically: ‘Gentlemen, look. I’m going to work for the benefit of this country and clean up my reputation while at it. I’m going to invest in my company, which would also help clear the debt to the government’. I saw clearly during that meeting that Bohdan did not like the fact that the President started to listen to me.
— Why didn’t he?
— He is very protective of the President’s space and he wants to be the only voice on any economic matters. It was evident from his behaviour.
— Can you describe it?
— How can rudeness be described? I felt it through his words and the way he was interrupting and getting the conversation side-tracked. I tried to engage in dialogue and there was no response. That’s how Bohdan’s animosity to me started.
— But why? Why do you think Bohdan doesn’t like you?
— Access to the president, as in Byzantium, is controlled by one person who does not allow any alternative. I’ve seen lots of people; I’ve known all Ukrainian presidents and prime ministers. I think I’m a good judge of character. But I haven’t come across anything like this. This is plain rudeness.
— Let’s describe it anyway for our understanding – what actually happened. You come to see the president. Next to him sits Bohdan. You come up with your idea. What is Bohdan actually doing? Yelling, growling, swearing?
— He said that I wasn’t telling the truth and that I had no evidence. The discussion was, how shall I put it, not quite traditional for such offices. All I wanted though was to be heard.
— Who introduced you to the president?
— I contacted Shefir (Serhiy Shefir is an aide to the president – editor.) about my proposal. He talked to subject-matter experts; they liked my idea. At the end of the day, I was proposing an alternative source of investment to the president. And large investments too. It would enable the president to conduct a very different dialogue with foreign creditors. The situation in the country would be different. A colossal change.
— But Bohdan didn’t like the idea?
— I think he wasn’t excited about any of that. I had the impression that the president liked my idea initially but then I saw Bohdan trying to protect the space around ‘the august person’.
— How did the meeting end?
— Zelensky told me that we would revisit the issue later. After that I had a meeting with Bohdan initiated by the Deposit Guarantee Fund. It was also attended by Kasko (Vitaliy Kasko, First Deputy Prosecutor General – editor), Kovaliv (Yuliia Kovaliv, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Office of the President – editor), Smirnov (Andriy Smirnov, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Office of the President – editor), Rozhkova (Ekaterina Rozhkova, First Deputy Governor of the NBU – editor), Rekrut (Svitlana Rekrut, President of the Deposit Guarantee Fund – editor). I laid out my vision, my proposal – 500 million [hryvnias] upfront and then one billion per year. Then Bohdan showed up and I understood that he was in no mood for dialogue.
— How did you understand that?
— By the way he was behaving. He claimed none of what I was saying was true and that none of that mattered. Then we took time out to raise the first tranche of 500 million and a guarantee of annual instalments.
— When did that meeting take place?
— Some three weeks ago.
— Did your criminal cases and government claims come up during that conversation?
— No. That came later. At that time, we just started a discussion with the Deposit Guarantee Fund. They have two alternatives – sell off the assets or negotiate with the owners. The DGF as any debt holder wants to recover not just 800 million but more. We sat down at the negotiating table. We agreed on an initial guarantee payment of 500 million.
— You are talking about your proposal to restructure 500 million upfront and then one billion of the next 8 years. There’s information suggesting that you initially came up with a very different option. You spoke about a restructuring over 11 years with 500 million to be paid upfront followed by a five-year grace period, then followed by five years with minimal instalments and a big settlement at the end of the 11th year. That option was not acceptable to anyone and that brought about an escalation of the criminal cases against you.
— No. I spoke about one-billion repayments beginning from the second year. It was an expression of our good will and a tangible proposal. Bohdan came to that meeting 20 minutes late and indicated that they would discuss and decide everything without me.
— How would you explain such an attitude on the part of the president’s chief of staff?
— Ukraine has a problem with social lifts. Whenever a person gets to the top, it is a great trial, tougher than wealth. It’s a drug; and people mounting the social ladder understand that there are boundaries not to overstep, that there are accountabilities. All things have consequences.
— Did you share your thoughts with Shefir after that meeting? Or did you possibly search for alternative channels?
— Shefir is not a close friend. He is just a person who listens. I came to see him and explained the situation. He enlisted experts. I had a chance to talk to Prime Minister Goncharuk but, as far as I understood, he was too afraid to get involved in a conflict between me and Bohdan.
— So, how did your last meeting with Bohdan end?
— Bohdan made a speech, which ruled out any dialogue. I realised I had no business being there. Bohdan constructed a model with marching orders given to Sytnik (Artem Sytnik, NABU Director – editor) and Ryaboshapka. More than Bohdan’s sneers and jeers, I care about the point of the matter, I want the public to know not only about the manners of the president’s chief of staff but also about his clout over the law enforcement authorities and his role in making unlawful decisions. That same Mr. Kasko who was only yesterday running around Kiev with suspicion notices decided to [reinstate] a case that had been dismissed by two court decisions. And then he handed the case over to Sytnik, with whom I have a direct conflict of interest.
— What is that conflict about?
— An anti-corruption case is being investigated against Sytnik (read in detail here – editor). A key witness in that case is my sister Nataliya Vasylyuk’s aide – Nikolay Nadeyko. The whole case essentially hinges on his testimony. In any civilised country, such a coincidence would suggest a conflict of interest, which Prosecutor General Ryaboshapka knew perfectly well when handing the case over to Sytnik. What he is doing is personal vendetta for Nadeyko’s testimony. By the way, I met Nadeyko at the NABU offices in the presence of Sytnik and his deputy, Novak. I think he’s a good guy that Sytnik simply set up. That said, Sytnik has no right whatsoever to investigate Bakhmatiuk or large businesses in the first place. NABU’s job is to deal with corruption within the top echelon of the government. That’s why to [fit the case within] NABU’s jurisdiction they went after Pysaruk (former first deputy governor of the NBU, also issued with a suspicion notice in the VAB Bank case- editor). It’s funny. What’s the link between me and Pysaruk?
— You did have contacts with him during the refinancing process, didn’t you?
— Pysaruk and Gontareva killed my banks. I never had, nor would I ever have had any contacts with them. Our relations are hostile, and everybody knows that. How could I possibly have colluded with them? There’s one more fact: the case against me was launched based on a complaint by a certain Irina Ross. She is now wanted on blackmailing charges for extorting USD 500 thousand from us. She also got caught forging 80 US medical visas – go talk to the US embassy.
— How did she blackmail you?
— Somebody with NABU shared with her some documents involving me, which she tried to extort money for. It is probable one of the NABU detectives was in on the scheme. We had all those demands properly documented with the SBU. It was an entire special operation. She was caught red-handed when collecting the money. She was later released on the personal bail of former Member of Parliament Ihor Lutsenko. She fled Ukraine immediately. A case into that leak to her by NABU is being investigated by the State Bureau of Investigations.
— You talked about Sytnik’s personal vendetta. There’s a more popular alternative version explaining your animosity. The IMF demands that law enforcement force former bank owners to pay their debts. First and foremost, this concerns Kolomoysky, of course. But it’s not only him. There’s you and Kostyantyn Zhevago (former owner of Finance and Credit Bank, who also has been served with a suspicion notice in absentia on charges of embezzlement of bank funds – editor). They are afraid of taking on Kolomoysky, so they decided to start with you and Zhevago.
— Quite possibly it’s a diversion. All NABU has learnt to do is draw nice tables. If the anti-corruption court acts impartially the case will quickly fall apart.
— Let’s now discuss the merits of the case. NABU claims that the refinancing issued to VAB Bank was misappropriated. You claim that that the proceeds went into paying off depositors. But it’s a known fact that a large proportion of depositors never got any money. The bottom line is that while refinancing was provided it didn’t save the bank, leaving depositors without their deposits. What is the way out of this situation? After all, you were the bank’s owner, weren’t you?
— As a shareholder of the bank, I issued a personal suretyship as a sign of my commitment to saving the bank. I pledged as collateral real estate in Kharkiv and a business, a distillery in Ivano-Frankivsk. The NBU recorded that collateral as a business. We had an NBU curator [supervisor] posted at our bank who was supervising the spending of the 1.2 billion tranche. What did NABU do? They pick a prior period, an internal transaction. The shareholder took out a loan, which was repaid as a deposit. It was some one or two months prior to receiving the refinancing. They are mixing things up that don’t belong together. And then they manipulate and mislead the public by staking on its lack of awareness. And in this I agree with Valeria Gontareva when she claims that the NBU would not have allowed me to take out a single penny.
— According to NABU documents, however, companies related to you withdrew UAH 380 million worth of deposits in breach of an NBU ban. Is that what they are talking about?
— Yes. But this is double dealing. That withdrawal had been made before the refinancing, not afterwards. Whenever an NBU detective sees that his case of embezzlement lacks evidence, he goes looking for it in a prior period.
— Let’s go back to the collateral. NABU claims it did not cover the refinancing.
— The distillery that we pledged employed 720 people. We built it from scratch in 2007. It generated some 60 million hryvnias per year in profits. Over the past four years, the NBU has won all court cases and now they are the owner of all its buildings and manufacturing assets. The bottom line is that the distillery has stood idle for two years. They simply don’t know what to do with it. I told them to relaunch it and they would now be making at least 50 million hryvnias a year in profits. A business in operation has a higher value than an idle one. As a result, 720 people had to emigrate to Poland. Now there’s only three guards at the plant. This is a spectacular example of how the government fights to defend its property, they don’t care how those disputes and courts will end. A public official only knows how to destroy things. And they have zero accountability for that.
— NABU claims the distillery did not cover the refinancing.
— NABU has an expert assessment that the distillery is worth 72 million hryvnias, I have expert appraisals from the Kharkiv and Odessa institutes showing that its value is UAH 1.2 billion. Why are NABU’s figures assumed to be accurate and mine are a lie?
— If that business generating profits of 60 million per year, how can it possibly be worth 1.2 billion? That’s a multiple of 20. Sounds like a little too much.
— Firstly, apart from the distillery we also pledged real estate. Secondly, its value as of 2014 was about three times higher than now. Am I to blame for that decline in value? And what about my personal pledge for 1.2 billion, is it zero then? As the bank’s owner, I shouldn’t have done any of that, no refinancing, but I was trying to save the bank.
— Rumour has it there was a scheme to release financing to bank in exchange for a 10% kickback to certain NBU officials.
— We didn’t pay anything. We couldn’t possibly have, because we were at loggerheads with Pysaruk and Gontareva. They were the ones who eventually brought our bank down.
— Did other banks pay?
— I have no knowledge of that.
— 10%, as they say, was the minimum charge; in the case of a completely fictitious collateral it was up to 50%. That’s the rumour.
— This is ridiculous, no one in their right mind would kick back 50%.
— What is your total exposure under your suretyships for the bank?
— Around 3 billion.
— And the total amount of refinancing of the bank itself?
— Some 5 billion.
— But the NBU has been giving very different numbers. They claim you owe them up to 30 billion, of which 8 billion is your personal pledge.
— Firstly, they are mistaking my personal obligations for what they want to see. This is debt owed by two banks. Secondly, they are always giving different numbers. Yesterday, it was 10 billion, today I already owe them 29 billion. Why not 40 or 50 billion? Now they are bringing state-owned banks into this. But the Group has signed a restructuring deal with Oschadbank. Those state-owned banks are commercial dealings of the Group with Oschadbank, Ukreximbank and Ukrgazbank. We have signed 12-year restructuring deals with both Oschadbank and Ukrgazbank. What are they talking about? If they are talking about NBU refinancing, it is some 10 billion for both my banks (VAB Bank and Financial Initiative – editor), which had other shareholders and other creditors. This exceeds the loans at both banks. That said, it is important to bear in mind that Financial Initiative Bank was removed from the market unlawfully, which is confirmed by a court ruling. But nobody seems to care about that. I don’t know why the NBU is doing that. On one hand, they are saying that Pysaruk did everything right, on the other they launch media attacks against Bakhmatiuk. For the sake of fairness, let them publish similar data for other debtors and put us all in a table with names and how much each of us owes.
— Then my next question is this. You are offering to pay back 8 billion to the government. But the government can say for its part – why strike a restructuring deal with Bakhmatiuk with 500 million paid upfront and then one billion per year over 8 years, if the government claims you owe them 30 billion. That is four times more than you are offering. So, their logic can be as follows – launch a criminal case, seize all assets and then sell them.
— And recover zero. Because they won’t be able to sell those assets. They have been pledged under 2 billion US dollars’ worth of foreign loans, which we borrowed to grow our business. Foreign creditors are not going to just sit and wait. They are already responding pretty harshly. Who believes in the Ukrainian government’s ability to repossess assets pledged to Deutsche Bank and export credit agencies of the US, Canada, Spain, France and Italy? It’s just wishful thinking. Let’s wait for a year and see how much the government has recovered. The answer is nothing.
— It’s been quite popular recently to compare your case with that of the agricultural holding company Mriya, which was taken over by the creditors.
— It is a great example. Do you know how much Mriya’s creditors eventually recovered? They got 5% of the total amount.
— Yes, but they took over the assets.
— Over the past three years, the company has lost half its lands and 70% of its workforce. Who needs an asset like this?
— Aren’t you afraid of a similar scenario for your company?
— Of course, I am. But let’s just simulate it. I owe 2 billion in loans to foreign banks. All assets are pledged as collateral. And they are pledged to the largest holders of Ukrainian government bonds. And if somebody tries to rip my business apart, they will be the ones selling the assets. Not the government. And if my business is ripped apart it will lose all its value. They’d be selling assets for pennies. And by them, I don’t mean the government. The government cannot repossess anything because it’s no longer me they’d have to fight for it. Because the assets are pledged to others. But there are some people who wish to profit by this.
— How exactly? Buy up your assets when they go on sale? Take over the land leases?
— I do not rule out the possibility that somebody may have such motives and those motives may be playing quite a part in the actions of certain public officials. When a company is in trouble, jackals close in on it. True. But the grain elevators are pledged to foreign creditors. This is a single organism, which cannot function normally under such conditions. The elevators will be sold cheap.
— Who could be some of those jackals? Foreign companies on the eve of the land market opening up?
— No. Foreigners are not getting into this mess.
— Igor Kolomoysky?
— I don’t think so. Not his cup of tea.
— Rumour has it, Bohdan owns a farming business.
— I think we are too big for him. It’s more than he can chew.
— Who then? Your competitors in the farming business? Kosyuk, Verevsky?
— I wouldn’t like to give any names. I have my suspicions. But we’ll talk when facts come out.
— Back to the facts. One fact is that yesterday you were issued with a suspicion. What are your next steps?
— The suspicion notice was delivered using an unusual method. I was never formally served. I’m now consulting various lawyers. They’ve arrested four of our people. We are working to provide them with quality legal advice. In no other country of the world are people thrown in jail until found guilty. And here people are put behind bars for three days to ‘pressurise’ them.
— Are you planning to come back any time soon?
— I don’t know that yet. We think there are lots of violations here. Firstly, human rights violations, because Kasko reopened those cases unlawfully. Secondly, there’s the conflict of interest with Sytnik. I want the public to know about that. I’m not going to stay silent; I’ll defend myself. The most painful aspect of all this is my company. My people need to feel that we continue working and that we are fighting. I’m also talking through you to my people now.
— How long will you be staying abroad?
— I have to make a decision. I now communicate with my creditors on a daily basis. On my way to meet with you this morning, I got 20 calls. Everyone wants an explanation. This is a new reality. Basically, we’ve been set back by 4 years with this suspicion notice. Back then, after we lost Donbass and Crimea where we had assets, where we had a vast market, we completed very tough restructuring negotiations. But we made it. And now it all begins again.
— After the suspicion notice you are most likely to be put on the wanted list and your name might show up on the Interpol database. Then you’d have to stay in a foreign country. Would you stay in Vienna or move to a different country?
— I don’t know.
— What about Russia, China or Belarus?
— I haven’t thought about where I would go if I decided not to come back. But I haven’t decided that yet.
— All fugitive oligarchs are broken down into two types: the first one includes those who risk coming back to Ukraine. The other type are people who’ve settled down in Europe and moved their assets to other countries. Which type are you?
— 100% of my assets are in Ukraine. It’s impossible to move them. Some lawyers are recommending that I come back now, but we understand at what amount they are likely to set bail… It would certainly be easier to defend ourselves there than here. The other option is to stay abroad. I’ll have decided that in a week’s time.
— If you were to compare Presidents Viktor Yanukovich, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky. How was the business environment under all of them?
— Leonid Kuchma was the best president. By the quality of governance, by defending the national interests, by his commitment to build an elite. He was surrounded by many competent people with morals, truly committed to the nation.
— What about Yanukovich?
— I was a stranger to him, but he wasn’t the worst. It is under Poroshenko that they began to exterminate me.
— How so?
— It was over my banks. We have a large company. And then they stabbed us in the back by bringing down the bank. And then they launched massive mud-slinging online. A blow to your reputation hits everything else. I did not realise back then that I needed to change my government relations strategy. My bad.
— But how? Create your own party?
— Create a party, buy TV channels. Don’t you think that if we could afford to invest 900 million dollars into grain silos, we could afford to buy a TV channel? Of course, we could. My mistake was that I only focused on business and I wasn’t thinking of creating my own system of political defences.
— So, what you are saying is that a large business cannot survive without a TV channel in this country?
— So it seems.
— You were talking about problems you had under Poroshenko, but you weren’t issued with a suspicion. You were served under Zelensky. How so?
— Because back then people were afraid of crossing all boundaries. And certain people around Poroshenko realised that and heard me. And now it only took Kasko one day to break the law.
— Was it maybe because under Poroshenko the government was not as consolidated as now and there always were people who, as you put it, heard you?
— That too.
— But who were those people?
— It‘s water under the bridge. But the extermination of my business started under Poroshenko. They fired twenty shots and now a twenty first came, which I didn’t dodge.
— So, the first shots were fired under Poroshenko?
— But they did not finish you off, did they?
— They were not united. That’s why the business could stay in balance.
— What was Poroshenko’s motivation? Shake you down?
— Initially yes. But then they lost interest in me.
— Was Poroshenko personally involved.
— Him and Gontareva. Poroshenko would receive me and listen to me but then he just turned around and did the exact opposite.
— Now let’s talk about the lifting of the land sale moratorium. You’re one of Ukraine’s top agricultural businessmen. You currently lease over half a million hectares. Naturally now you have more urgent things to worry about than making strategic plans, but if we were to digress for a moment from your current problems, then my question would be: were you planning to buy land once the moratorium was lifted?
— I support the lifting of the moratorium. People must be allowed to dispose of their property. I’ve always believed that, even though it may not be beneficial for major land lessees. But in principle this is the right thing to do. People must have the right to dispose of their land. And yes, I had plans to buy land.
— What’s your forecast for the initial price?
— 1,000 to 1,500 dollars per hectare is a realistic average price at the initial stage. In Vinnitsya though it may start at 42,000 hryvnias. And in the south, where the climate is dry, it’s going to be less. Later, if a market is created, the price will grow.
— What’s the average size of a land holding in Ukraine?
— It varies. In the southern regions, it may reach 8 hectares, in the central ones it’s around 3 ha.
— So, at the prices you’ve specified, land owners will collect 5 to 8 thousand dollars per land holding?
— Yes, about that much. But a family normally has several members who own land. So, it could be getting on for 15-20 thousand dollars per family. Some will think it’s good money, enough to buy a car or a flat. Others will not rush to sell their land.
— How many according to your projections will be selling right away?
— I think not more than 10-15% in year one. Statistically, up to 65% of the land owners leasing to us are people living in town or abroad. 35% live in their home villages. Those living in town will be more willing to sell, those in villages not so much. The poorest are most likely to sell first. The rest will wait for a good price.
— How much land were you planning to buy?
— Initially around 100 thousand hectares.
— That’s around one fifth of your land bank?
— How were you planning to raise the money?
— I had plans to raise foreign debt.
— Do you think Ukrainian companies can borrow from abroad to buy land? Our private businesses have had trouble borrowing recently, haven’t they?
— We’ll see how the situation changes in a year’s time. In my current situation, all those plans are all but theoretical for quite obvious reasons.
— What do you think of the idea of allowing foreigners to buy land?
— I’m fine with that.
— But that’s not favourable to you.
— No, it isn’t to me as a capitalist but as an expert I believe that the market should be as liberal as possible to enable people to get a good price for their land.
— Is it true that it is large agricultural holding companies that are acting as the main lobbyists for imposing a ban on foreigners buying land, to buy it themselves at a cheaper price and then open the market for foreigners later and sell those hectares to them at a higher price?
— I’m not against selling land to foreigners. I think that any restrictions reduce the price and they are not necessary. You’ll have to ask the others to find out what they think. I don’t know. But logically speaking, it’s not as much the large companies but small and medium-sized farmers that should be more against such land sale. Competing on price is very tough for them.
— Are foreigners interested in buying Ukrainian land in the first place?
— Absolutely. The Americans to start with. Second come the Chinese, with the Middle East in third place – Saudi Arabia, Qatar. We are one of the dominant players in the Middle East, everyone knows us there. Then come Japan and Korea followed by Europe. But Europe doesn’t like us. We are competitors in the farming business. Agriculture in Europe is just one large social safety net supported by the government. It creates employment. They are living on subsidies and they don’t like us at all. That’s why they wrote the free trade agreement so as to prevent us from selling anything to the EU. Those quotas are exhausted in a matter of months, the rest is heavily taxed at customs. Europe is not a priority market for us.
— So, the Americans will be the first buyers?
— They’ve been here for years. US companies are some of the largest farmland lessees in Ukraine. Of course, if they are allowed to buy land, they will do so, as they have much better possibilities to do that compared to large Ukrainian agri-businesses. Western companies have unlimited access to very cheap debt money.
— Could foreigners try to make an entry through Ukrainian companies already operating in the market? Through you, for example, or through Kosyuk or Verevsky?
— A viable strategy would be for Ukrainian companies to buy some of the land they are now leasing. And the rest of the land, its current lessees are interested in seeing big buyers come in that would build large land holdings, which they would then lease to those same agricultural producers, to whom that land is being leased now. In this respect, Ukrainian agricultural holding companies could well cooperate with large institutional players interested in land acquisition as an investment.
— Let us go back to your case and the suspicion. You have publicly appealed to Zelensky asking him to intervene. What exactly do you want from him?
— I want him to change his negotiator. The negotiator from his side.
— But he never agreed with you on anything, did he?
— I think he’s interested in preserving economic stability. I think that he doesn’t want our business to collapse, one that pays 3 billion in taxes. He has de facto appointed Bohdan to be his negotiator and he’s not been effective.
— Knowing him, he will most probably say it’s the prerogative of the independent NABU and Prosecutor General’s Office and that he has no influence on them.
— There’s no such thing in this world as absolute independence.
— Do you want the president to give a call to Sytnik and summon Ryaboshapka or put pressure on Kasko?
— I want him to bring everybody round – law enforcement, the NBU, the Deposit Guarantee Fund and Bakhmatiuk and ask the question: what do we do to enable the state to recover its money and at the same time save all those jobs?
— Has there been any response from the president to your appeal?
— Who would suit you as negotiator other than Bohdan?
— I don’t know.
— It is the other side’s prerogative. I think that by law this role is vested in the Deposit Guarantee Fund. I’m ready to work with it to ensure that the state interest is fully satisfied.
Ihor Guzhva, Svitlana Kryukova