The scandal surrounding well known journalist Serhiy Leshchenko’s apartment brings up a number of different problems.
In truth I have read nearly all of what Leshchenko writes in his blogs, articles and books. This is because he is one of only a few journalists in Ukraine who I can classify as an “investigative journalist.” His recent book on former President Viktor Yanukovych is well researched and informative.
Firstly, it is important to stress that Leshchenko’s apartment scandal is small scale when compared to the very high amounts of corruption in the senior ranks of Ukraine’s so-called ruling elites. State institutions with responsibilities for fighting corruption are ignoring past and present high-level corruption and the oligarchs while devoting precious and limited resources on this relatively small case. This looks like personal revenge by President Petro Poroshenko’s team against one of Ukraine’s leading investigative journalists.
Additionally, Leshchenko should not be punished for living in a country where the so-called ruling elites have permitted the existence of an underground economy for nearly all of Ukraine’s quarter of a century of existence as an independent state. The state budget loses billions each year because of the unpaid taxes in this large underground economy.
When half of Ukraine’s GDP is produced in the underground it is little wonder that cash (principally US dollars and less so Euros) is important for a large number of people. This does not just apply to Leshchenko but to many other “pro-Western” journalists, academics, lawyers and television consultants that I know who live and work in Ukraine. None of them have mortgages because all of them have paid for their apartments with cash. I know of an academic in Kyiv who owns four apartments and a television consultant who has two. Both of them supported the Orange and Euromaidan Revolutions.
At the same time, Leshchenko is different in that he claims to have earned a very large sum of money merely working as a journalist, together with his occasional fellowships abroad in foundations such as the National Endowment for Democracy. I have worked as a journalist for three decades (www.taraskuzio.com) and know at first hand how difficult it is to make a living in the field of journalism. You receive a decent salary if you are employed by an influential publication but I very much doubt that Ukrayinska Pravda pays high Western-style salaries to its staff, including to Leshchenko.
In the West, if you work as a freelancer your income has declined in the last decade. In the pre-internet era publications would pay for articles but in todays world that is rarely the case. Only a very small minority of all the publications where I write articles and blogs for actually pay me any money (this includes the New Atlanticist and Foreign Policy where Leshchenko has also published). It is therefore only possible to write for them if you have a steady income from your main source of employment, which in my case is the University of Alberta and in Leshchenko’s case Ukrayinska Pravda and the Ukrainian parliament.
An intriguing question is why Leshchenko has excessively written about Pavlo Lazarenko and Yulia Tymoshenko? There are after all, many examples of corruption and high-level abuse of office in Ukraine which could be the subject of Leshchenko’s investigations. Perhaps this is part of a deal with the editor of Ukrayinska Pravda Olena Prytula who is known to have a personal hatred for Tymoshenko.
I felt Prytula’s venom when she banned me from writing blogs on Ukrayinska Pravda. Her choice of the date when she censored me was bizarre as it was on the same day that the Euromaidan began – 21 November 2013 (http://blogs.pravda.com.ua/authors/kuzyo/). I wondered if Ukrayinska Pravda had received instructions from the authorities to censor me just as a political crisis was unfurling in Ukraine? Maybe the authorities and Ukrayinska Pravda had common goals to thwart Tymoshenko’s return to power and mistakenly believed I was working for her. The following month in December I was included on a blacklist of people to be banned from Ukraine that was drawn up by the Party of Regions for the Security Service (SBU).
It is without question that Leshchenko’s criticism of corrupt elites has not been entirely balanced because of his excessive focus on Lazarenko while ignoring Rinat Akhmetov, Viktor Pinchuk, Serhiy Tihipko and many other corrupt oligarchs and big businessmen. Lazarenko is – let us remind ourselves – the only Ukrainian oligarch who has been punished (by the Americans not Ukrainians) and therefore in the language of justice he has “repaid his debt to society.”
Lazarenko was accused of laundering $120 million which, even Leshchenko agrees, is a pittance compared to what oligarchs and corrupt officials have stolen from the Ukrainian state and budget. Former First Lady Kateryna Yushchenko collected half of this amount from oligarchs for a children’s clinic that was never built. Lazarenko purchased a $6 million home in California which is a small pittance compared to the hundreds of millions that Pinchuk and Akhmetov paid for their palaces in London (http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/09/16/corrupt-ukrainian-politicians-have-a-taste-for-mansions/). The $6 million cost of Lazarenko’s Californian home is the same amount that Pinchuk spent on one recent New Year’s Eve party in the Swiss Alps.
Leshchenko’s fascination with Lazarenko (and Tymoshenko) makes me suspicious as to whether he has written investigations, blogs, articles and books to order. After all, it costs a lot of money by Ukrainian standards to fly to the US, live in hotels and eat to do research on Lazarenko who is small fry compared to the far bigger crooks that Leshchenko could find at home.
I do not therefore believe Leshchenko’s claims to have made a large amount of money as a journalist. Unless that is, if another Ukrainian journalist can convince me that they make far more money than journalists do in the West.