LONG READ: Poroshenko’s empire – the business of being Ukraine’s president

LONG READ: Poroshenko’s empire – the business of being Ukraine’s president
Ukrainian President Poroshenko and his allies Ihor Kononenko and Oleg Gladkovsky have been busy building a business empire behind the scenes.
By Graham Stack in Berlin, Sergei Kuznetsov in Kyiv, Ben Aris in Berlin August 29, 2016

When Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, was swept into power following the Euromaidan protests two years ago, he promised to sell most of his business interests to avoid any conflicts of interest. “We are going to embed new traditions. I will make a point of selling my assets immediately after occupying the post,” Poroshenko promised in the run-up to the presidential election that he won in 2014.

Yet two years later and he has sold nothing. Quite the opposite in fact; according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), in 2015 not only did President Poroshenko’s personal fortune rise to $858mn, he was the only one of Ukraine’s wealthy businessmen to see his net worth actually increase that year.

Poroshenko, it seems, has continued building an empire centred on a holding company registered in Kyiv, called Prime Assets Capital, of which he is beneficial owner, according to the Ukrainian corporate register. Poroshenko holds 60% in International Investment Bank (not to be confused with the Moscow-based multilateral development bank of the same name) via Prime Assets Capital and directly, according to National Bank of Ukraine data. The bank acts as the financial node of a tangled web of companies and investments that is as active today as it ever was.

And Poroshenko is not acting alone. His two longstanding business associates, who hold stakes in many of his businesses, have followed him into politics, but remain key players in the Poroshenko financial-industrial group, a bne IntelliNews investigation can reveal.

Poroshenko has thus blurred the line between business and politics, deflected the anti-corruption efforts at every turn, and the businesses and politicians associated with him are flourishing at a time when Ukraine’s economy is mired in its worst crisis since the country’s independence in 1991.

Chocolate wars

The most valuable assets in Poroshenko’s empire are his Roshen Confectionery Corporation, a chocolate maker that has attracted most of the media attention, along with his TV5 broadcaster, which Poroshenko said from the start was not going to be sold. For a sitting president to own a TV station is unorthodox to say the least, but in the political chaos following the ousting of former president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, the Ukrainian public and the country’s international partners were prepared to overlook it.

Poroshenko did make some attempt to sell Roshen, which he valued at $3bn, promising to “wipe the slate clean” in an interview with the German tabloid Bild: “I will and want to only focus on the wellbeing of the nation.” But he has failed to follow through on that pledge.

Roshen was founded in 1996 after Poroshenko merged half a dozen chocolate, cookie and cake producers that he controlled, taking the name from the middle letters of his family name. The company became Ukraine’s biggest confectioner, a major player in the region and also includes factories in Russia’s Lipetsk, Lithuania’s Klaipeda and Budapest through the Bonbanetti Choco company. It earned $750mn in 2014, but that fell to $500mn in 2015 during the recent political unrest and clash with Russia in the east of the country.

But with both the country and Poroshenko’s business empire under attack from Russia, it proved impossible to do a deal. “There’s absolutely no way the company will sell for that much at this time,” Roshen’s CEO, Vyacheslav Moskalevsky, who is also a minority shareholder, said in 2015. “Nobody can sell anything here now.”

Instead, Poroshenko attempted to warehouse the company by transferring ownership from Prime Assets Capital to a “blind trust” managed by Rothschild Trust (Schweiz) AG on January 14, 2016. “What does this trust foresee? First of all, during my tenure as president, neither I nor someone else can terminate this trust. Secondly, under the contract, neither my signature nor my orders have legal force,” Poroshenko told reporters at a press conference in January this year.

But the blind trust story quickly began to unravel when Poroshenko got caught up in the “Panama Papers” scandal . As late as April this year, Poroshenko was still claiming that he was no longer involved in the company when the leaked documents showed he registered offshore holding companies in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) indicating he was still very much involved in the running of Roshen.

“Actions by his financial advisers and Poroshenko himself, who is worth an estimated $858mn, make it appear that the candy magnate was more concerned about his own welfare than his country’s – going so far as to arguably violate the law twice, misrepresent information and deprive his country of badly needed tax dollars during a time of war,” Anna Babinets and Vlad Lavrov wrote in the OCCRP expose of Poroshenko’s offshore holdings.

Poroshenko registered the offshore company Prime Asset Partners Ltd on August 21, 2014 in the BVI. The name echoes that of his Ukrainian holding company Prime Assets Capital. This lends some credence to his subsequent claims that the offshore was intended as a new ownership vehicle for the holding in the run-up to a sale to an international investor. Such a sale would have seen Poroshenko's cash from the deal stay offshore, in time-honoured Ukrainian fashion. But in the event, Ukraine's economic collapse means there were simply no buyers even for such ‘tasty’ assets as Roshen.

Two other firms also appearing in the Panama Papers – Linquist Services and VIP-jet linked Intraco Management, both set up in the BVI in 2005, and Chartomena Ltd registered in Cyprus in December 2012 – also feature prominently in Poroshenko’s empire, although in contrast to Prime Asset Partners Ltd his name does not feature in the paperwork. Intraco Management is owned by Serhyi Zaitsev, a top manager at Roshen, according to the Panama Papers. There is no data on the beneficial owners of Linquist and Chartomena.

Records in Cyprus list Poroshenko as the only shareholder in Prime Asset Partners. OCCRP, which made many of the documents public, even has a scanned copy of Poroshenko’s passport that was attached to the application. They give his official address in Ukraine’s capital, “Kiev – apartment 39, Hrushevskoho Street”.More damagingly, Prime Asset Partners was founded after Poroshenko was already president, but he failed to report the company on his income disclosure statements, which is illegal.

Mossack Fonseca records specify that Prime Asset Partners would serve as the holding company for the Ukrainian and Cyprus companies of Roshen confectionary corporation and that Poroshenko is the sole beneficiary owner, with “proceeds from the business trade” of the corporation being its source of funds. Oleksii Khmara, executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, told OCCRP that, “this is a violation of the law, no matter what the conditions (under which it’s registered) or the jurisdiction used”.

Three other firms registered earlier  by Poroshenko, but also appearing in the Panama Papers – Linquist Services set up in the BVI in 2005 together with his airline holding Intraco, and Chartomena Ltd registered in Cyprus in December 2012 – also feature prominently in Poroshenko’s empire. Poroshenko later claimed that these offshore vehicles were part of the setting up of the blind trust, but the process has not been completed yet. But these excuses were given years after the first offshore was founded and the blind trust is clearly still not in place.

Financial spider at the centre of the web

Delving deeper into Poroshenko’s empire and you quickly run across his International Investment Bank (IIB), which is the financial glue that holds the financial-industrial group together.

Poroshenko holds 60% of the bank, while his business partners, now political lieutenants, own the rest: Ihor Kononenko, deputy head of the parliamentary group of Bloc Petro Poroshenko, owns 14.9%; Oleg Gladkovsky, first deputy head of the Security Council, holds 9.9%; while Konstantin Vorushilin, head of the state Deposit Guarantee Fund, owns 5.5% via relations, according to banking open-source information compiled by the central bank. Oleh Zimin, owner of leading Ukrainian carmaker Bogdan Corporation, which Poroshenko claims to have exited, also owns 9.9%.

IIB has been a smashing, and surprising, success. Its assets rose by 85% year on year in 2015, the fourth best result among Ukraine’s banks, despite the rest of the sector in a deep crisis as the economy collapsed. IIB was the 31st largest of Ukraine’s 120 banks, with total assets of UAH6.1bn ($244mn) as of April 1 – up by over a third from UAH4.7bn just six months earlier. For 2015, IIB booked UAH32.6mn ($1.3mn) in pre-tax profit. Again, like many of the businesses linked to Poroshenko, it was one of the few in the sector to actually remain in the black during this turbulent period. In April, IIB announced the profits would go toward boosting capital by 18.6%.

Ukrainian media have branded IIB shareholder Vorushylin “the president’s personal banker” – and for good reason: the 46-year-old has been part of Poroshenko’s financial and business interests for half of his life and in addition to owning a stake in IIB, he was appointed head of the state agency in June that is responsible for deposits repayment when any bank in the country goes bankrupt.

Clan of Poro

Unlike the Russian financial-industrial groups, which were owned and controlled by a single man, Poroshenko’s organisation actually looks more like a clan. Top of the tree are his longtime business associates Kononenko and Gladkovsky. But Poroshenko loyalists can been found scattered throughout the government, according to local investigative reporters. 

Kononenko epitomizes the overlap between business and politics in today’s Ukraine. He was named Poroshenko’s eminence grise and the reason why the Lithuanian-born economy minister Aivaras Abromavicius quit at the start of this year after Poroshenko tried to insert Kononenko into the workings of his ministry, which is in charge of appointing management to many state enterprises. “Neither me nor my team have any desire to serve as cover for covert corruption, or become puppets for those who, very much like the ‘old’government, are trying to exercise control over the flow of public funds… These people have names. Particularly, I would like to name one today: the name is Igor Kononenko,” Abromavicius said in his resignation speech.

Serhiy Leshchenko, Ukrainska Pravda’s star investigative reporter and now a member of Ukraine’s parliament, elected in October 2014 as a deputy in Bloc Petro Poroshenko, recently released a Philippic against his own party and president, accusing them of widespread corruption. “Instead of fighting against the oligarchs, the government forces them to make concessions and to share. As a result, the system is not being cleansed. The flows of money are simply being redistributed in the interests of the presidential clan,” Leshchenko wrote.

Leshchenko went on to name names in ministries, state-owned companies and the regional administration that he claims are working for the president and not for the Ukrainian people. And like Abromavicius, he named Kononenko as the kingpin of the new system. “For instance, this is the case with the company Centerenergo where a lawmaker from Poroshenko’s Bloc, Serhiy Trehubenko, being close to the top, is responsible for the coal supply schemes. For the second year in a row, the privatization of the company has been disrupted in spite of the interest shown by the large French company, Gaz de France,” Leshchenko wrote, before reeling off a litany of other abuses.

The bottom line, Leshchenko concludes, is that corruption in Ukraine is deep rooted and endemic. But rather than attempting to root it out, Poroshenko is deeply invested into such a system and is simply trying to turn it to his and his clan’s advantage.

Cold fusion

Poroshenko, the 50-year-old Kononenko and 50-year-old Gladkovsky are joined at the financial hip. All three men are connected by their links to an asset management company called Fusion Capital Partners, as it manages the main part of all three of their businesses, a bne IntelliNews investigation can reveal.

On paper, Prime Assets Capital, a Ukrainian-registered version of the Poroshenko holding company, is run by the nominally independent Kyiv-based Fusion Capital Partners. However, publicly available information raises flags over its true ownership. Two little-known individuals control almost 19% of Fusion Capital Partners, while another 10% is owned by the little-known Ocean Invest Company, registered in Kyiv.

A 72% stake of Fusion Capital Partners “is owned by the company itself”, according to the asset management firm’s 2015 audit report, seen by bne IntelliNews. However, the document states that the company “should sell this stake to other shareholders or third parties within one year [by the end of 2016]”.

Kononenko was one of Poroshenko’s first business partners in the 1990s, and in 2014 he was made first deputy head of the Poroshenko Bloc parliamentary faction after Poroshenko took office, answering to directly to the president. Kononenko conducts most of the inter-parliamentary faction negotiations acting on Poroshenko’s behalf.

Gladkovsky studied together with Kononenko in the Kyiv-based Auto-Transport Institute, and currently occupies the post of deputy secretary of Ukraine's National Defence Council.

Fusion Capital Partners also manages Kononenko’s asset fund VIK and a similar structure owned by Gladkovsky, SOVA. However, both funds have refused to disclose their portfolios, as is the case with Poroshenko.

Fusion Capital Partners, Poroshenko’s Prime Assets Capital and the funds of his two allies are all registered at the same address in Kyiv, on Elektrykiv Street, leading some to speculate that all these companies are merely fronts for the three men who are the ultimate beneficiary owners of all the firms’ assets.

Jet propelled

According to a source with knowledge of IIB’s business, the lion’s share of the bank’s clients are from Poroshenko’s Roshen Confectionary Corporation, associated offshore firms and industrial companies that were formerly part of his Ukrprominvest industrial holding company, founded by Poroshenko and his crew.

Apart from Roshen, amongst the bank’s 15 biggest depositors are those two Poroshenko-linked offshore companies, whose names came up in connection with the Panama Papers leak: the BVI firm Linquist Services and Cyprus firm Chartomena.

According to Austrian investigative journalists, in 2010-11 Raiffeisen Bank issued $115mn in loans to the Roshen concern secured by a guarantee from Linquist. Likewise, a $12.7mn loan made to major Ukrainian newspaper concern UMH, at the time owned by Boris Lozhkin, now Poroshenko’s head of administration, was also collateralised by Linquist. According to experts quoted in the investigation, such loans resemble the back-to-back loans that are frequently used to disguise transactions typical in money-laundering operations.

IIB is also intimately involved with Roshen’s Russian factory based in Lipetsk. Among the top-10 IIB depositors is Cyprus firm Chartomena. Since 2014, Chartomena has also owned the Russian producer Krakhmaloprodukty based in Russia’s Lipetsk, where Roshen’s Russian subsidiary is also based. Chartomena was set up in 2012 and is owned by UK firm Morewig Ltd, a structure of the Ergofinance company that is basically a shell company factory used to create the multitude of offshore holdings used by the Poroshenko’s empire to organises its offshore life.

Roshen and affiliates make up the largest part of IIB’s deposits, but unusually they barely feature on its loan book, which suggests strongly that the funding for this gigantic enterprise is coming via offshore structures that was partly revealed in the Panama Papers leak.

Another BVI firm established simultaneously with Linquist was Poroshenko’s Intraco Management, also set up in 2005, and is the offshore vehicle associated with his private Ukrainian jet business called Business Airline that is used to collect the payments. Ironically, this airline provided private jets to fly some of the Yanukovych cronies into exile after the massacre of protestors on Kyiv’s streets in February 2014, which forced the ex-president out of office. Business Airlines, set up in Ukraine in 2002, is in turn the largest borrower on IIB’s books, but Intraco itself does not feature as a client of the bank. Intraco is owned on paper by a top Poroshenko lieutenant, deputy CEO of Roshen Serhii Zaitsev, according to files found by journalists among the Panama Papers.

IIB declined to comment on any of these details uncovered in the bne IntelliNews investigations, referring to banking confidentiality. “My question is about the legality of the information got by you and its source of origin,” Ihor Kononenko told bne IntelliNews when presented with the findings of our investigation.

Buses to tanks

The classic feature of Russian oligarchs’ financial-industrial groups in the 1990s was their ability to tap into state money and put public funds to work on their own behalf. There is no indication that any of the firms associated with Poroshenko have access to public money, but many of the same firms have recently started winning an awful lot of state tenders.

The remnants of his once mighty Ukrprominvest industrial empire now mostly depends on state orders, not least in supplying Ukraine’s war effort against the Russian-backed separatists and Russian troops in the Donbas region.

The Bogdan car plant at Cherkassk is Ukraine’s biggest carmaker, which was also run by Poroshenko ally Gladkovsky between 2012 and 2015. Poroshenko used to have a stake in Bogdan, but in May 2013 he said in an interview with Forbes Ukraine that he had exchanged his stake for Gladkovsky’s shares in Roshen. However, the claim cannot be independently verified, as the identity of the corporation’s final beneficial owner is missing from the state register of legal entities, run by Ukraine’s Justice Ministry, which is a violation of law.

And Poroshenko has never actually ever outed himself as owner of Bogdan; when bne IntelliNews interviewed Gladkovsky in 2010, the official line was only that Poroshenko “takes an active interest in the business”. 

The plant opened in 2008 and was designed to turn out up to 150,000 cars per year, but now has entirely ceased car production after domestic demand collapsed. The company booked net losses of UAH811mn ($32.6mn) in 2015, according to the company’s financials. But recently, the company’s fortunes have begun to look up again after it switched its focus to making military vehicles. Now it produces army trucks on a licence from Belarus producer MAZ and various armoured patrol vehicles for the war effort, according to press releases. While the firm was still loss-making in 2015, its losses were already 25% less than the year before.

Sister company Bogdan Industriya, also an IIB client, won UAH81mn ($1.55mn) in orders this year to supply vehicles to Ukraine's National Guard and also to state oil pipeline operator Ukrtransnafta, according to the database of the anti-corruption website monitoring state tenders, Anti-Corruption Monitor (ACM).

Bogdan’s Lutsk plant produces buses and trolleybuses for mostly state-owned public transport services. Bogdan Motors won a tender worth UAH535mn ($21.4mn) to supply buses to municipalities and government institutions in 2015-16, also according to ACM.

Bogdan-linked Ukrzapchastina, one of the biggest borrowers on the IIB books, a supplier of vehicle parts, won over 300 state tenders in 2015-16 with a total value of over UAH300mn ($12mn). Another IIB client, aviation company Kii Avia, in which Poroshenko formerly held a stake, supplied just under UAH50mn ($2mn) in services to the military, the foreign ministry and other state institutions in 2015-16.

None of these deals is especially huge and the ticket size will not propel anyone into oligarch status. Moreover they could be justified, as all these companies are serious players in their various markets. But the owner of the Kremenchuk Automobile Plant, Kostyantin Zhevago, is angry – his automotive parts business sells in more than 80 countries around the world, but he has been unable to obtain permission to sell on the domestic market. He complained in a recent interview with bne IntelliNews: “The orders instead are made to the Cherkasy plant, Bogdan, which produces primitive screwdrivers used to assemble the Belarusian MAZ.”

Milk, bread and sugar

Poroshenko’s agricultural holdings are also doing very nicely from state orders. In June, Ukraine’s Ministry of Agrarian Policy published its quotas for sugar production and supplies to the domestic market for local enterprises in the marketing years 2016-17.

Two plants located in the Vinnytsia region – Zorya Podillya and Podillya – came out at the top of the list with significantly larger quotas than their rivals (102,400 and 113,400 tonnes respectively, which is 13% of the total amount for all Ukrainian companies). Both companies are owned by Poroshenko.

The man responsible for allocating the quotas is the newly appointed agriculture minister, Taras Kutovy, who was handpicked to serve in the new government in April by Poroshenko as part of the presidential party’s quota for choosing ministers in the new cabinet.

Adding to the rank smell of the quota allocation decision is the fact that Poroshenko’s son was returned as a lawmaker for a seat in the region of Vinnytsia in 2014. He was on the board of Podillya as deputy general director for foreign relations, according to Ukrainain parliament's official information.

Zorya Podillya and Podillya are the core enterprises of Poroshenko’s Ukrprominvest-Agro conglomerate, which is also owned by Prime Assets Capital. It produces beef, sugar and grain, as well as controlling various processing plants. The butter-milk plant Bershadmoloko in this group also supplies Roshen's plants with dairy raw materials to make chocolate and is also part of the business.

In 2015 the conglomerate was ranked as Ukraine’s fourth largest agricultural concern, as well as one of the country’s top-five largest flour exporters.

The situation with Poroshenko’s shipyard companies is very similar. Prime Assets Capital controls a 82.5% stake in Kyiv-based shipyard Leninska Kuznya and Kononenko’s VIK fund owns another 11.5% stake, according to the Stock Market Infrastructure Development Agency.

Also an IIB client, Leninska Kuznya has recently switched production to small armed coastal-patrol boats intended as the core of a new navy. According to ACM, it won tenders totalling nearly UAH50mn ($2mn) in 2015 and 2016 for four boats, in addition to two boats already delivered in 2014.

And like the car business, Leninska Kuznya is in financial difficulties, with net losses of UAH5.54mn ($200,000) in 2015. But again, like the car business, this loss was much reduced from the previous year – 83% less – after the shipyard switched to producing military craft and won a number of fat state contracts. “Any country can be independent as long as there is ship construction and military modernisation,” Gladkovsky told workers at the yard shortly after the state contract was awarded to Leninska Kuznya.

According to the Ukrainian cabinet, up to 20 additional military vessels should be constructed by 2020, which could provide extra business opportunities for the shipyard and its owners.

Poroshenko had a second shipyard in Sevastopol, but he lost that when the Russians annexed the Crimean peninsular in March 2015. The company has since been taken over by Russia’s state-owned shipbuilding company Zvezdochka and is supposed to be modernized. The Ukrainian president has never commented on the fate of the shipyard.

IIB clients doing well

All said and done, the tens of millions of dollars in tenders that have been won by these companies is not going to make anyone super rich. And while many of these deals are slightly iffy thanks to Poroshenko’s ownership of the group, are all justifiable in theory.

A lot more worrying is the raft of deals by a slew of IIB clients with no previously known affiliation to the president, but which have come out of nowhere to do very well for themselves thanks to public tenders since Poroshenko came to power.

One of the bank’s top-30 largest depositors is a company called TOV Biznespostavka, which literally means “business supplies”. The problem with this firm is that it barely seems to exist. The company was only founded in October 2014 by an obscure Donetsk businessmen, according to public records. It does not answer its telephone number. It lacks a website. And there are no offices at its present registered address. And yet it has hit the state tenders jackpot: in 2015-16 it won 232 tenders worth a total UAH225mn ($9mn), predominantly for Ukrtransgaz, which operates Ukraine’s massive and politically sensitive international gas pipelines – traditionally the most corrupt part of the Ukrainian economy. In its first year of operation, Biznespostavka was the ninth largest supplier to Ukrtransgaz, while also supplying equipment to Ukraine's state-owned railways.

Adding to the intrigue, according to details of a criminal investigation contained in Ukraine's online litigation database, Biznespostavka was part of an alleged chain of sham firms used to defraud the authorities of VAT by engaging in fictitious contracts with real firms.

Numerous other IIB clients with no visible ownership link to Poroshenko are also significant suppliers to the state sector. There is TOV Artek-Soyuz, a major supplier of rations to the army, which won just under UAH900mn ($36mn) in tenders to supply rations to the army in 2015-16, according to ACM. One of Artek-Soyuz’s competitors in tenders, PP Balansovoe Kharchovane, is also a client of IIB.

Another significant supplier to Ukraine’s defence and health ministries is also present on the books of IIB – pharmaceuticals company Farmplaneta, which won over 300 tenders in 2015-16 totalling over UAH200mn ($8mn).

TOV Akku-Energo, another IIB client, supplied around UAH125mn ($5mn) of accumulator cells from foreign manufacturers to Ukrtransgaz and power generation companies in 2015-16.

A further cluster of IIB clients account between them for up to UAH100mn ($4mn) in supplies to the state in 2015-16: Ukrainskii Avtobus, Dozor Avto, Ukrsplav, Evroterm Technology, Naftogaz-Allyans, Kompaniya Interlogos, BNKh Ukraina, and more besides.

Other IIB clients have longstanding business relations with state companies dating back over a decade. The president’s bank also holds deposits for state publishing company Pressa Ukrainy, which is owned directly by the presidential property department and is one of the country’s main printing houses. The billing department of Kyivvodokanal, the Kyiv water utility, also holds funds at IIB. According to statements made by Kyivvodokanal, the company has deposits across many banks, and IIB has the advantage that it can provide sophisticated automatic mass clearance of payments.

IIB emerges as a pivot in a sprawling empire of firms that are owned by, or tied to, President Poroshenko directly. A second circle of clients of the bank have no ties to Poroshenko or his clan, but sport distinctly dodgy reputations. It seems that IIB has not been very careful when doing its “know-your-customer” due diligence. Given the bank’s owner, that reflects back on the president.

A number of IIB clients are currently under criminal investigation, according to public sources. These include TOV ESU, at the time the local subsidiary of Viennese investment company EPIC. ESU acquired Ukraine’s national fixed-line provider Ukrtelekom at a controversial privatisation auction in February 2011 for $1.3bn, before selling the company on to oligarch Rinat Akhmetov in 2013 for an undisclosed sum. EPIC claimed to be acting independently during the privatisation, although many critics of the deal alleged that it was actually a vehicle for the Yanukovych administration.

Prosecutors have now opened an investigation into TOV ESU on account of the company’s failure to implement one of the main terms of privatisation: to spin off and return to state ownership the militarily strategic communications network.


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