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Sergey Kurchenko quickly rose from being an obscure businessman into one of Ukraine’s largest importers of petroleum products. (A. Lesik/Shutterstock)
Sergey Kurchenko quickly rose from being an obscure businessman into one of Ukraine’s largest importers of petroleum products. (A. Lesik/Shutterstock)

Journalists vindicated as Ukraine’s ‘Gas King’ faces financial scrutiny Add to ...

When Canada and several other countries recently froze assets and bank accounts belonging to Ukrainian businessman Sergey Kurchenko, journalist Vladimir Fedorin gave a small smile.

In 2012, Mr. Fedorin and his colleagues at Forbes Ukraine had been investigating Mr. Kurchenko for months and they wrote a lengthy profile of him that raised questions about his sudden rise to power in Ukraine’s business scene.

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What happened next shook Mr. Fedorin and left him wondering about the conflicts that arise when business interests collide with journalistic freedom. “It was a sad experience,” he said, sipping cappuccino in a small Kiev coffee shop. “It was a moment when I saw that to struggle for Western values you can’t always trust your Western partners, because business is business.”

His saga began a few months after the article on Mr. Kurchenko appeared. Titled “The Gas King of All Ukraine,” the story described how Mr. Kurchenko, 27, had quickly risen from a relatively obscure businessman into one of the country’s largest importers of petroleum products. According to the article, Mr. Kurchenko’s well-connected companies, known as the VETEK Group, had benefited from a steady stream of government contracts, a red flag in a country rife with corruption.

Mr. Fedorin, who was the magazine’s editor at the time, expected some fallout from the story, but all he received was a letter from Mr. Kurchenko’s lawyers pointing out a few minor inaccuracies. But Mr. Kurchenko didn’t go away.

In June, 2013, he announced he was buying the Ukrainian company that owned Forbes Ukraine as well as other daily newspapers and magazines for an estimated $340-million (U.S.). When the deal closed last November, Mr. Kurchenko issued an edict to Forbes Ukraine journalists: no more stories about a long list of business people and politicians, especially those close to then-president Viktor Yanukovych. Within days, roughly 15 journalists walked out, almost the entire editorial staff.

“We didn’t want to work under that kind of pressure and we urged [American owner] Forbes Media to revoke the licence for the magazine,” said Volodymyr Verbyany, one of the reporters who quit.

Mr. Fedorin resigned as well, but not before writing an editorial on the magazine’s website the day the deal was announced. In it he said Mr. Kurchenko’s purchase marked the end of the magazine since the new owner’s objective was to silence journalists and “whitewash his reputation.”

Mr. Kurchenko responded at the time by saying he planned to invest in the magazine and ensure editorial independence. Forbes Media stood by the new owner, insisting that if there was any breach of its editorial standards, the licence would be terminated.

Mr. Fedorin said he tried to warn Forbes Media about Mr. Kurchenko, pulling aside the company’s vice-president of television and licensing, Miguel Forbes, during a visit to Kiev after the sale announcement. “I said to him that for me it would be the greatest shame to work for such a man like Kurchenko,” he recalled. His concerns were ignored.

Last month when Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia, Mr. Kurchenko vanished. Now the former president, members of his family and more than a dozen others, including Mr. Kurchenko, have had their assets and bank accounts frozen by the European Union, Canada and other countries that allege they embezzled state funds. The new Ukrainian government is also going after Mr. Kurchenko for tax evasion.

In a statement, Mr. Kurchenko said he was surprised to be included on the list and he was prepared to co-operate with international authorities. “I am an honest Ukrainian businessman,” he added, and a victim of “political forces” that are trying to take advantage of the country’s instability to “seize my assets.”

A Forbes Media spokeswoman declined comment. But the company has said it is revoking the Forbes Ukraine licence.

Mr. Fedorin is trying to launch a new business publication in Kiev and he feels somewhat vindicated. “The journalists and editors who said, ‘No we can’t work in this environment,’ they are really heroes,” he said. “The whole history of Forbes Ukraine and the [popular uprising] in Ukraine shows that there is nothing more valuable than freedom of speech.”

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