Thursday, June 27, 2013

Nouveau Riche Kurchenko Buys Large Ukrainian Media Holding



By Oleg Varfolomeyev

Ukrainian businessman Borys Lozhkin has agreed to sell his Ukrainian Media Holding (UMH) company to Serhy Kurchenko, an energy businessman. Kurchenko is reportedly linked to the circle of officials and businessmen dubbed by local pundits “the family” for their links to the family of President Viktor Yanukovych, in particular his elder son Oleksandr Yanukovych who is a banker and mining businessman. This is the latest in a recent chain of acquisitions of local media organizations, either neutral or opposition-minded, by businessmen reportedly linked to the ruling party, evidently in order to monopolize the media ahead of the presidential election scheduled for early 2015.

The chief editor of Forbes Ukraine, which is part of UMH, Volodymyr Fedorin, suggested that Kurchenko made the acquisition in order to stifle journalists and improve his own reputation (Forbes.ua via Pravda.com.ua, June 20). Kurchenko denied this, saying the acquisition was a good business investment (http://forbes.ua/business/1354323-kurchenko-o-pokupke-mediaholdinga-umh-group). It has been rumored that Lozhkin was pressed into selling UMH, but Lozhkin said there was no pressure on him and all his partners approved the deal (Interfax-Ukraine, June 21).

The deal attracted very much attention in Ukraine. UMH is one of the largest local media holdings and publishes the Ukrainian versions of international newspapers such as Forbes, Vogue, Agrumenty i Fakty and Komsomolskaya Pravda, as well as the popular local weeklies Korrespondent and Fokus. The media company also owns a host of popular FM stations and news websites. However, UMH has also drawn wide interest because of the personality of the buyer. Kurchenko, who is only 27, rose from obscurity astonishingly quickly. He was virtually unknown until last December, when he sensationally acquired one of Ukraine’s most prominent soccer clubs, Metalist Kharkiv. In February, Kurchenko founded VETEK, an energy holding company. Within weeks after that, VETEK bought the Odessa oil refinery from Russia’s Lukoil, and a petrol station chain in Germany (Kyiv Post, June 21).

VETEK is rapidly turning into a strong competitor of the national oil and gas behemoth, Naftohaz Ukrainy. In March, it started importing gas from Hungary and recently it launched talks to buy gas from Russia’s Gazprom. Kurchenko also wants to buy the Lysychansk oil refinery from the Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft (Kommersant-Ukraine, June 17). In Ukraine, it would have been impossible to rise to such prominence so quickly without links to the very top of the government. Speaking in his first public interview in May to a newspaper that he would buy within less than a month, Kurchenko had to deny the rumor about his close links to First Deputy Prime Minister Serhy Arbuzov, Tax Minister Oleksandr Klymenko and Member of Parliament Artem Pshonka, the son of the prosecutor general. He said he had climbed the career ladder from a courier and a sales manager within ten years thanks to his devotion to the energy business and a favorable business climate (Korrespondent, May 24).

The national news outlets that changed hands shortly before UMH included Inter TV, which energy businessman Dmytro Firtash, who is linked to the ruling party, bought from former cabinet minister Valery Khoroshkovsky in February; the formerly outspoken pro-opposition TVi, whose owner changed in April; and the UBR business channel. Also, before selling UMH to Kurchenko, Lozhkin sold Fokus. Natalya Lihachova, a prominent local media analyst, opined that “the purpose of those acquisitions leaves no doubt: the 2015 election” (Telekrytyka, June 19).

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