Interviews and articles

10.10.2007

Viktor Pinchuk. The art of retirement

Having mixed business and politics, the Ukrainian oligarch has refound his innocence again by turning into a philanthropist and amateur supporter of contemporary art.

Here comes Viktor Pinchuk in his new kingdom of contemporary art. The businessman is laughing while hugging five human-sized dancing dolls wearing fake explosive belts; he shakes the hand of each workman who passes; further one he advises the construction manager to move a Japanese sculpture from nowhere into the limelight so that visitors notice this kind of giant colored sweet. Enthusiastically, he describes the surprises planned for the opening of the exhibition which will attract important people, but most of them less important than him.

It is Monday October 1 in Kiev on the second floor of the PinchukArtCenter. In four days time the "Reflection" will begin, an exhibition of contemporary art unprecedented in this part of the world with works of major artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

The day before this review the legislative elections were held. The second richest man in the Ukraine - behind the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov - cast his vote before going for a walk in his Japanese garden, a sublime haven of peace outside the city, with a hill, lace and tea house. He assures us that his involvement in the elections is limited to casting his vote. This is a huge transformation in the life of an "oligarch", a term akin to a "locust" in the former Soviet Union that people attributed to men who made a fortune in the privatizations of the 1990s taking advantage of their personal connections with those in power.

In the past 46-year-old Viktor Pinchuk deserved this title. He even had a family connection with those in power since he married for the second time the daughter of Leonid Kutchma who was President from 1994 until the Orange revolution in November 2004. Pinchuk was member of parliament and advisor to the president for eight years and received favors in the privatizations. "When I look back, I see mistakes but they were neither moral nor legal mistakes", he dares to say.

This is not the opinion of Julia Timochenko, the figurehead of the nation, who harbors a hostile opinion of him since she spent 42 days in prison in 2001 for fraud and tax evasion. Pinchuk claims that he was against the proceedings taken against her.

Subsequently involved in the agony of the regime that had fed him - even if he had already made his fortune before his second marriage he emphasizes - Viktor Pinchuk decided to withdraw from politics. Nobody took him at his word. "I know that I am not a politician but father a businessman", he explains. "The difference between the two jobs is that a businessman has more chances to be honest."

The political analyst Korst Bondarenko gives another slant on this version. "Quitting politics was not really a choice. He paid for his close connection with Kutchma after the fall of the president. Today he has turned into a lover of art who does more for the country than the entire government."

A funny lover of art, far from the cliché of the billionaires of the former Soviet Union, Viktor Pinchuk loves Burgundy wines "less known than Bordeaux wines but so fine", is long-winded when he has to talk about sensitive issues and buys countless works of art in which he say he physically feels the energy. The Orange revolution represented a turning point. A man from the presidential clan, which at that time was accused of fraud and the most criminal maneuvers, he voted for the candidate from the East of the country a favorite of Moscow, and lost. He then took his daughter to Independence Square in order to see the defenders of democracy sleeping in their tents.

"I was not there to listen to the speakers but to witness a historical moment. It was like an orgasm of a social body. It does not happen very often". A unique moment. "Democracy and the power of the people on the streets are two things fundamentally opposed to each-other."

Today, his contacts are not members of parliament but rather artists and world leaders. What's the point of scrabbling around in the dirt if you have a fortune to change things? Pinchuk has just returned from a trip to New York as a guest of Bill Clinton. He invited Elton John to sing in Kiev as part of an AIDS campaign and he is co-producing a documentary film with Steven Spielberg about the Holocaust in Ukraine.

He has also turned into the largest philanthropist in the country: combating child mortality and AIDS, he gives support to the best students in the country, he set up the Business School of Kiev, he promotes Ukrainian artists. Is this a way to sharpen up his image ? "Conscience can be sold but cannot be bought", he exclaims.

His big goal is to achieve Ukraine's entry to the European Union and for this purpose has set up the Yalta European Strategy (‘YES'), which every June brings together leading politicians and intellectuals to the Black Sea resort. Dominique Strauss-Kahn has come to the conference twice, as has Stéphane Fouks, chairman of Euro RSCG and close to Pinchuk. "Ukraine is a European country and not just from a geographical point of view", explains Viktor Pinchuk. "It's the most popular idea in the country and can unite everyone. But above all, we must not present it as an alternative to deepening our relationship with Russia."

The president of the Pinchuk Foundation is a 34-year old Frenchman introduced by Stéphane Fouks. Thomas Eymond-Laritaz, a graduate from the elite Polytechnique college, has a high opinion of the businessman. "Viktor is not very interested in the past", he says. "His motto is how can we modernize? He has not got a romantic vision but rather a pragmatic one of Ukraine's entry to the European Union. He believes it is the only way to develop a state based on the rule of law and a real democracy in Ukraine."

The philanthropist is affable and spiritual but the businessman remains a force to be reckoned with. A graduate from the Metallurgy Institute of Dniepropetrovsk in 1983, he set up Interpipe in 1990, which has become one of the pillars of the country's economy. Recently he brought all his business activities together under EastOne, an investment fund with assets amounting to some $ 10 billion. These assets cover his interests in media including the ICTV channel, which he gave as a birthday resent to his wife Elena. A gift that hardly cost anything that has now become an excellent investment thanks to the 30% annual surge in advertising revenues. It's a promise, this is the only thing in media that interests Viktor Pinchuk today. Not politics.

Source: Le Monde
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