UARU
How the Ukrainian President Rules The Country After Three Years
7 June, 2017

Written by Maksym Kamenev, Nataliya Gumenyuk

Illustrations: Tora

“Power is the way of managing things in your own way,” according to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his inner circle. This was his answer to the question: what does power mean to you? Over the past three years, President Poroshenko has had the opportunity to manage in his own way, he is the president of Ukraine.

People within the Ukrainian president’s inner circle are reluctant to talk about his internal working process, and if they do, they do so anonymously. Therefore, in order to understand how the president chooses his people, delegates and makes decisions, Hromadske spoke to the Presidential Administration’s leadership, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc faction and members of the Strategic Council, an informal body consisting of top state officials.

The Ukrainian president has managed his billionaire business with the help of his partners. They lead their separate ventures but he has the right to veto any of their decisions. The president transferred this business model to the running of the country, only adapting it slightly. For every action, whether it be staffing, collecting votes in the parliament, or military reform, a number of people on his team are always responsible for it. His officials call this “leadership by competition” and are not always thrilled by this. If there is one thing they all definitely know, it’s that the last word always lies with President Poroshenko.  

 This can be applied to another one of the Ukrainian president’s inherent features - micromanagement. The president immerses himself in the nuances of a wide variety of problems, such as calculating utility tariffs, purchasing new weapons systems, or a draft law on pension reform.  

President Petro Poroshenko’s formal powers have not increased over the last three years. The president’s faction, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc does not have the majority in the Ukrainian Parliament. However, their coalition with the People’s Front party, the second largest party in Ukraine, created by former PM Arseniy Yatseniuk and former interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, and the loyalty of a significant part of the deputies elected by majority, have allowed the president to control most of government and law-enforcement appointments, which legally he is not responsible for. These appointments include the Prime Minister, the Prosecutor General and the head of the National Bank. Ukraine’s fugitive former president, Viktor Yanukovych, tried to legally fix the concentration of power by returning to the 1996 Ukrainian Constitution. President Poroshenko operates in a more subtle way.

The access to information  

Usually, the Ukrainian head of state arrives at the Presidential Administration building at 11 a.m. and works until 1 or 2 a.m. He often works weekends.

On the way to Bankova, the street on which the Presidential Administration is situated in Kyiv, he looks over the news on his phone or tablet. Petro Poroshenko’s newsfeed was set a while ago. Among others, he reads the internet publication Ukrainska Pravda, BBC Ukraine and the online newspaper, korrespondent.net.

President Poroshenko used to have a personal Facebook account but during the 2014 presidential elections, his staff made him a new account. 

After he won the election, they linked it to the president’s personal account. 

“I am limited to 20 minutes of Facebook per day and I use it as an alarm clock,” the president told Hromadske.

On-the-spot control

The Ukrainian president’s office is located on the fourth floor of the Presidential Administration building in Kyiv. Before entering the waiting-room, there is a metal detector through which visitors have to leave all metallic items and electronic devices. After the former deputy Oleksandr Onyshchenko (who is currently wanted for corruption) said that he recorded conversations with the president using his watch, visitors have started leaving their watches at the gate as well. Today, Onyschenko, who used to brag about his good relationship with president, is hiding in London after accusations of embezzlement of large sums from state property surfaced.

Once the president gets to his office, he goes through the monitoring reports that the administration analysts usually prepare for him as well as the “red folders” – Security Service memorandums about the situation on the frontline in the east of Ukraine or inside the country. According to the media outlet Ukrainska Pravda, there is data gathered through wiretapping, including wiretapping journalists. However, the president claims he hasn’t received this kind of information since February 2015. 

 President Poroshenko generally doesn’t like it when people hide things from him. He always insists, even from those who do not work directly beneath him, that if something happens they must call or text him on messengers, which the president checks straight away.

 In preparing for an important conversation or meeting, such as with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel or US President Donald Trump, he tries to gather as much information as possible. He calls the leaders of countries that have recently met with those people and summons the ambassadors. Similarly, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pavlo Klimkin and the deputy head of the Presidential Administration Konstantin Eliseev gather information at their level.

 Apart from this, President Poroshenko personally visits the places where important or tragic incidents have taken place. On 10 February 2015, when the Ukrainian president received news that the Russians fired rocket launchers at the Anti-Terrorist Operation Headquarters in Kramatorsk, he quickly made his way to the scene of the incident, despite the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin was waiting for discussions in Minsk the next day. These talks lasted 19 hours and ended with the signing of a new edition of the Minsk ceasefire agreements.

 President Poroshenko is used to lengthy talks. For example, his so-called Vienna meeting in 2015 with the Ukrainian oligarchs Dmitry Firtash, whose company “RusUkrEnergo” was a mediator between Russian “Gazprom” and Ukraine, Serhiy Lyovochkin, the former head of fugitive Ukrainian President Yanukovych Presidential Administration, and the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, who at that moment was also one of the leaders of the opposition, lasted more than a day.  

After these talks, Vitali Klitschko decided not to run in the presidential elections.

The first meeting

The composition of the first meeting, which the Ukrainian president holds daily, has not changed in the last six months. This meeting includes the first assistant to the president of Ukraine, Yuriy Onyschenko, the head of the Presidential Administration, Ihor Rainin, and the secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, Oleksandr Turchynov. They are often joined by the former head of the Presidential Administration, Borys Lozhkin.

For the first two years of his presidency, Petro Poroshenko started his working day with a meeting with only his first assistant, Yuriy Onischenko, and the then head of the Presidential Administration, Borys Lozhkin. However, in August 2016 Borys Lozhkin resigned from his position and planned to move away from public affairs. The president hasn’t let him go –  he is currently the secretary of the National Investment Committee, which the president heads and aims to attract foreign investment into the country.

Why is Borys Lozhkin, who was president’s business partner between 2007-2013 and owned one of biggest Ukrainian media holding “UMH Group”, is so indispensable to the president of Ukraine? The ex-head of the Presidential Administration, who was Petro Poroshenko’s business partner from 2007 to 2013, is certain that the president values his opinion. “Unlike many others, I have never been Petro Poroshenko’s junior partner. In our joint projects, the shares were 50/50. I managed and he controlled,” Borys Lozhkin wrote in his book, The Fourth Republic. “In terms of my relationship with him, it wasn’t insincere piety, I always told it like it was and insisted on making decisions that I considered to be correct. I managed to persuade him most of the time”.

Borys Lozhkin is not only one of the Ukrainian president’s closest advisers, he is also his intermediary with the oligarchs. According to him, before his resignation from the Presidential Administration, he was in regular contact with wealthy influential Ukrainians, Ihor Kolomoyskyi former owner of one of the biggest Ukrainian banks “Privatbank”, which was nationalized in 2016, Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov, who is the richest Ukrainian businessman and Yanukovych’s ally. As a result of this role, he gained the status of Secretary of the Investment Committee.   

 This past winter, Borys Lozhkin spent over a month in the USA, where he officially held negotiations on attracting investment. It was around this time that Oleksandr Turchynov started going to the president’s morning meetings with the current head of the Presidential Administration, Ihor Rainin. The Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, whose offices are located on the other end of Kyiv, spends a significant amount of time at his office in the Presidential Administration Building.

If the ex-head of the Presidential Administration, Borys Lozhkin is President Poroshenko’s former business partner, then Oleksandr Turchynov is his current political partner. He is one of the leaders of the “People’s Front” faction, which, together with the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, has formed a parliamentary coalition. He became the president’s ally before the 2014 presidential elections when he left the former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko’s team. Up until that point, under Viktor Yuschenko’s presidency (2005-2010), Oleksandr Turchynov was Petro Poroshenko’s opponent. They “fought” in 2005 when he was the head of the Ukrainian Security Services and one of then Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s closest allies. He worked with her for twenty years before she became involved in politics. As head of the Security Service, he accused Petro Poroshenko of corruption. Petro Poroshenko’s inner circle reckon that the president has not forgotten the history between him and Oleksandr Turchynov, and operates on the principle of “keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” In his role as Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, he coordinates with the heads of the security agencies and monitors the progress of the military upgrades. At the beginning of May 2017, he and President Poroshenko observed the launch of new missiles.

The former head of the Presidential Administration, Borys Lozhkin, and the current Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, meet with President Poroshenko as advisors. The current head of the Presidential Administration, Ihor Rainin, attends the meetings as a speaker. He talks about the key events of the day. First he talks about the regions. That’s why when activists blocked the railway in the occupied territories, Ihor Rainin tracked events in the other regions of the country and reported on the decisions of the regional councils on supporting the blockade.

 The Ukrainian President’s first assistant, Yuriy Onyshchenko, attends the meetings as a secretary. He notes down the main ideas and proposals in a notebook, which he then gives to President Poroshenko. The President sometimes takes notes himself when he is listening to guests. Yuriy Onischenko has been working with the President since their time in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2009-2010. At that time, the current president was a minister and Yuriy Onyschenko was the head of one of the departments in the Ministry’s Secretariat.  

 The meetings with Rainin, Turchynov and Lozhkin last for an hour and a half. In this time, other officials who have been called to a meeting with the Ukrainian president wait for him in the waiting room. They have to wait a long time, sometimes even a few hours. Staff stand guard so that the visitors don’t leave, the president could call for them at any moment. Once, Andriy Pyvovarskiy, (the Minister of Infrastructure 2014–2016) couldn’t stand the four-hour wait and decided to leave the Presidential Administration Building. The secretary caught up with him and explained that he had to wait for his meeting in the reception room. He argued that he had been absent for no more than 15 minutes, but the secretary was not convinced. Hromadske’s sources in the Presidential Administration claimed that President Poroshenko leaves his guests to stew, so that after 4 hours of waiting, people usually agree with everything and forget all their minor requests.

“Situation room"

 The “know how” of the President’s Administration is the “situation room.” This is a large room equipped with special screens that stop people from listening in. This room also has a closed communication system, which allows the president to talk to the head of any state department. There are also monitors for displaying pictures, for example, of statistics. The president also speaks to officials via videoconference. This room was equipped right after the presidential elections in 2014. When fugitive former President Viktor Yanukovych was in power, this room was a banquet hall.

The “situation room” is not just a room, it is also the name for the kind of meeting the president calls when he has to make a quick decision. The participants in this meeting regularly change, it depends on the issue discussed and other meetings. For example, in autumn last year, when Poroshenko found out about the publication of the “Onyshchenko tapes” (a deputy, according to the media, recorded tapes that prove the president bought votes in the parliament and manipulated business), he summoned the then head of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc Ihor Hryniv,  the key spin master and ideologist of the president’s team, Minister of Information Policy Yuriy Stets, one of the closest Poroshenko’s friends who run president-owned TV “5 Channel”, the head of Presidential Administration Ihor Rainin, Press-Secretary Svyatoslav Tsegolko and his old friend from army and business partner and First Deputy of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc in the Ukrainian parliament, Ihor Kononenko.

 Normally, if the situation involves the parliament, the first deputy parliamentary head of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and Poroshenko’s key business partner, Ihor Kononenko attends. Alternatively, the deputy chairman of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, Serhiy Berezenko, an influential deputy from ‘Petro Poroshenko Bloc’ faction, would attend. If they are discussing the war or security, the head of the Ukrainian Security Services, Vasyl Hrytsak also attends.

Often these meetings result in a draft of a future presidential statement. Like President Poroshenko’s other speeches, these are usually written by his freelance consultant and, since 2014, his freelance speechwriter, Oleg Medvedev. Medvedev doesn’t attend the “situation room” meetings himself. Having written the text, he brings it to the Ukrainian president who reads and checks the document.  

On his way back from the “situation room” meetings, President Poroshenko sometimes stays and works in the ex-head of the Presidential Administration, Borys Lozhkin’s, office. Staff at the Presidential Administration joke that the main reason for this is Borys Lozhkin’s refrigerator, which is always filled with delicious food and wine. The Ukrainian president is unpretentious when it comes to food. Sometimes, during meetings with the head of the parliamentary faction or a minister, he makes himself sandwiches and pours himself mineral water on ice.

More meetings

The president has around 20 meetings and conferences a day. President Poroshenko’s characteristic style is to invite a few officials to report on the same issue at a time. Therefore, if the issue relates to the army, then he summons the Minister of Defence, Stepan Poltorak and Chief of General Staff, Oleksandr Muzhenko. He discusses future foreign visits with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pavlo Klimkin and the deputy head of the Presidential Administration and diplomat Konstantin Eliseev.

Borys Lozhkin says that the president found out about the separatists shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight, MH17 on 17 July 2014 whilst in a meeting with the National Security and Defence Council. After half an hour, the Minister of Transport Maksym Burbak, who is not formally subordinate to the president, relayed the first facts about the tragedy to President Poroshenko.

 “The president calls two or three times a day. We talk about various issues,” said the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman. He was a long-term mayor of Vinnytsia, one of the most developed cities in Ukraine,  where many of Poroshenko’s factories are located.

 Presidential Administration’s staff call the president’s manner to go deep into details “micromanagement.” Poroshenko himself doesn’t see anything wrong with it.

“Micromanagement? Let them say that. I don’t think of it. If we talk about the level of knowing details - yes, I know them, I dig deep. It requires different spheres. I know the information that the ministers and their first deputies should know. But I don’t try to question their authority. I don’t give direct assignments. Klimkin (the minister of foreign affairs) makes decisions for himself. Micromanagement is when the president comes to the parliament and asks if the deputies need any help in reforming the country?” Poroshenko told Hromadske.

Poroshenko not only tries to control everything, he also instructs those below him. His demeanour can be explained by the following analogy: “If I want some soup, then I ask my wife to make me some. President Petr Poroshenko, on the other hand, explains in detail to his wife which vegetables, in which proportion she needs to add them to the pot, how long to cook it and how to stir it”.

That is how he managed the industrial business group “Ukrprominves”. Another example would be from 2013, when he sold his share in the Ukrainian media-holding to former head of the Presidential Administration, Borys Lozhkin. Lawyers spent a month working on the paperwork for this. Nevertheless, when the day came to sign the documents for the transaction, President Poroshenko read each page of the agreement himself.  

President Poroshenko’s relationship with his inner circle is ambiguous. Those who joined him after the presidential elections think that he does not trust anyone.”After someone is appointed to a position, they think that they are like a partner to the president, like it would be in the business world. However, President Poroshenko regards them as arbitrators of his will, so the conflict continues,” says Hromadske’s source in the management of the Presidential Administration.

However, his close allies who have been working with him since the 1990s say that, in fact, he sincerely believes that it’s better to be versed in many fields, regarding his experience working in many different state departments.

 In response to accusations about his excessive control, the Ukrainian president loves to quote the Russian poet and writer, Samuel Marshak:

 The Ukrainian president’s tendency to micromanage also has its downside. The actions of his team and his subordinates are seen as his own initiatives. For example, the prosecutor’s decision to charge opposition deputies is seen as the president applying pressure on the opposition. So it is not possible that the president, who always personally instructs his officials and constantly follows the news, did not know about this, which means this could have been done with his consent.

This also applies to the president’s business. The company, Prime Asset Partners Limited, created in 2014 in the British Virgin Islands has one owner - Petro Poroshenko. This was stated in the joint investigation by Hromadske’s investigative unit, “Slidstvo.Info”,  and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The journalists claim that this was set up to sell President Poroshenko’s confectionery corporation, “Roshen”, without paying taxes in Ukraine. The Ukrainian president says that his lawyers registered the company and that by their recommendation, the firm was set up in the British Virgin Islands, to hand it in trust. In a Facebook post, he claimed that the company was created to sell his confectionary business “Roshen.”

Interestingly, in his e-declaration on Facebook, Poroshenko noted that the company was set up this way for the sale of “Roshen”.  

Deputy Oleksandr Onyshchenko, who moved abroad after the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine accused him of embezzling state funds, said that in 2015, the president forced the owner of the SCM Holdings, Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov to take shares in gas exploration and extraction company “Naftogazvydobuvanniya”. Beginning 30 March 2015, it ceased operation because of a criminal case opened in 2012 into the disappearance of the former owner of the company, Oleh Seminsky. Later on, the court seized the company’s estate.  

At the end of December 2015, the Pechersk district court in Kyiv approved a series of decisions, which overturned the seizure of the assets and simultaneously unblocked the company’s bank accounts. In February 2016, the owner of 25% of “Naftogazvydobuvannaya” was the Dutch company, Salazie B.V. Its beneficiaries are unknown, but the ownership structure ends with the offshore Oxnard Ventures Ltd in the British Virgin Islands. President Poroshenko denies all these accusations.

G-9

Late in the evening, the president convenes the Strategic Council. This is an informal body which he created in 2015. At the start, this group consisted of President Poroshenko himself, Oleksandr Turchynov, PM Volodymyr Groysman, former PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Borys Lozhkin, Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov and Prosecutor General, Yuriy Lutsenko. The participants of this council named it “G-7” in reference to the Big 7 countries. Over time, many members of the informal council changed positions, but they never lost their position in “G-7.” Last year they were joined by the new Parliament Speaker, Andriy Parubiy and head of president’s administration Ihor Rainin. So the Strategic Council is now called “G-9.” “Meetings of the Strategic five, seven or nine - whatever they are called - take place regularly. And how to coordinate the work otherwise? However, I can clearly say that we don’t discuss anything apart from state affairs,” President Poroshenko told Hromadske.

What do they talk about in these meetings? “In fact, it is an expansion of the council coalition. All of the members have influence in the Verkhovna Rada. They talk primarily about voting in parliament. Therefore it is more accurate to call it the Tactical Council, because it discusses immediate needs, and not forming strategy,” one of the G-9 members told Hromadske.  

Another member of the council says that the President Poroshenko’s collective approach to work allows him to avoid any personal responsibility. In February of the this year, the President called in the Strategic Council when he found out that separatists from the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” had “nationalised” companies that were paying taxes to the state budget of Ukraine. The outcome of the four-hour meeting was the decision to cease trade with the occupied territories. Officially, the decision was consolidated by another the council -  the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine.

The Strategic Council meet a few times a month now, but at the start of 2016, these meetings took place almost every night. At that time the main topic of the meetings was the resignation of the former Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. “President Petro Poroshenko chose tactics of attrition. The meeting of the Strategic Council began at 12 AM and went on until 5 in the morning. Given the fact that Arseniy Yatsenyuk needed to attend a government meeting at 9 a.m., then the president could sleep peacefully until noon,” says one of the participants of these meetings. Finally, according to Hromadske’s source, Arseniy Yatsenyuk agreed to resign as Prime Minister in one of these meetings. President Poroshenko’s inner circle state that he “drives like a tank.”

Even before the parliamentary election, the President planned it so that the results allowed the appointment of the Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman. However, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and and Oleksandr Turchynov’s People’s Front party surprisingly came out ahead of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and took 22.14% of the votes. The outcome of the negotiations between members of the coalition meant that Arseniy Yatsenyuk retained his position as PM. However, after a year, President Poroshenko got his way and Arseniy Yatsenyuk resigned. Deputy Oleksandr Onyschenko stated that President Poroshenko spent 30 million dollars on the campaign to discredit Arseniy Yatsenyuk in 2015-2016, which he helped organise. The president refutes Onyschenko’s claims.

 During the negotiations on forming the new cabinet, the President’s inner circle suggested a number of candidates for the Prime Minister position, from the Minister of Finance, Natalie Jaresko to the ex-PM of Sweden, Carl Bildt. Eventually, President Poroshenko presented Volodymyr Groysman to the parliament as a candidate. And within a year, the president became dissatisfied with the work of the Prime Minister. Poroshenko’s inner circle repeat the President’s words that Groysman is a “PM-socialist”, in reference to government initiatives such as raising the minimum wage and recalculating pensions.  

The strategic goal

People from the inner circle of president like to tell, as an example, the story about how Poroshenko fought for Groysman’s appointment as prime minister and their other relationships to illustrate why Poroshenko is considered to be a strong tactician rather than a strategist. “The president concentrates on current affairs, he actually doesn’t have time to engineer  strategic solutions on how and where the country should move, and what model of  state management can achieve that. We told him this several times,” one of the members of the Strategic Council said to Hromadske.

 The President himself is convinced that he had formed a clear vision of his strategic goal long ago - to lead Ukraine to the European Union. Once, answering the question about who he wants to be after his presidency, he said that he would like to became a representative deputy of Ukraine in the European Parliament. Hromadske’s sources in the President’s Administration and the Petro Poroshenko Bloc state that the president plans to push for EU membership until the end of his term. However, members of the Strategic Council are more sceptical about it. Among themselves they call the president “Isaac” - in honor of famous fantasy writer Isaac Asimov.