“The Family”

03.11.14

Sergiy Kurchenko, Ukraine’s Missing Oligarch

Gas magnate Sergiy Kurchenko appeared out of nowhere two years ago with a massive buying spree of Ukraine’s assets—and stirred up allegations of ties to Yanukovych. Now he’s disappeared back into the shadows.

For a man who left a million-dollar mansion behind him when he fled Kiev, Ukraine’s fugitive president Viktor Yanukovych certainly liked to play the pauper. Once, when a journalist asked him where he’d received the money to build his suburban palace—his official salary was $77,000 a year—Yanukovych replied, “Listen here, you should have a long life ahead of you. Remember, God sees everything! Don’t talk nonsense.”  

It was a veiled threat, of course—but Ukrainian journalists weren’t deterred. Even as the president and his associates racked up a fortune through allegedly corrupt dealings, investigative reporters were digging into the backgrounds of several rich officials whom they suspected of serving as Yanukovych’s “living wallets” to fund his lifestyle. The most shadowy among them, according to Ukrainskaya Pravda, was a 28-year-old gas magnate named Sergiy Kurchenko. The media dubbed him a ‘billionaire from nowhere’ and the ‘wizard of gas’—and now he’s under investigation by the new government in Kiev for billion-dollar corruption charges and faces EU sanctions. Kurchenko has said he was surprised to see his name on the list, avowing, “I am an honest Ukrainian businessman who always invested in Ukraine and it is here that most of my business is concentrated.”

Kurchenko has left Kiev—he’s believed to be in Russia, along with his former boss—and Forbes magazine, which had licensed its Ukrainian edition to Kurchenko to publish, is now in the process of revoking the license, according to Buzzfeed, which quoted a statement from a Forbes Media spokesperson.

Kurchenko’s name first surfaced in the Ukrainian press in October 2012 in connection with the purchase of the Lysychansky petroleum refinery. The refinery was bought by a little-known company based in Kharkiv called “GasUkraina-2009.” When journalists from Forbes Ukraine (in an investigation launched prior to Kurchenko’s involvement with the magazine) looked into GasUkraina-2009, they reported that it had ties to firms that happened to be embroiled in court cases involving the minimization of tax liabilities and alleged gas smuggling. GasUkraina-2009 had also received lucrative but “questionably awarded” state contracts, according to Buzzfeed and Ukrainskaya Pravda.

Opposition MPs, including Yuriy Syrotyuk, made inquiries into the company’s alleged connection to the son of Ukraine’s General Prosecutor, and claimed that the company had skimmed more than $300 million off the national budget in just nine months. Styrotyuk accused the company of smuggling petrol, but the General Prosecutor’s office dismissed the claims and said that no family members had connections with the company’s management. Kurchenko also denied that he had connections to the General Prosecutor’s office.

Many wondered how such a young and unknown guy would come up with $300 million to purchase a famous soccer club.

Two months later, in December 2012, Kurchenko made headlines again when he purchased the Ukrainian soccer club “Metalist” for a reported $300 million from the Kharkiv businessman Alexander Yaroslavsky. Many wondered how such a young and unknown guy would come up with $300 million to purchase a famous soccer club. The sale happened quickly, and at a time when Yaroslavsky, the former club owner, was reportedly at odds with Kharkiv’s authorities over property rights for the Metalist stadium, according to the Kyiv Post. (Yaroslavsky had also backed an opposition candidate in a recent local election, irking Kharkiv’s power structure.) The sale was widely seen as a kind of compromise between the businessman and the ruling party.

In February 2013 “GasUkraina-2009” was transformed into “The VETEK Group of Companies” and Kurchenko was named the head of strategy and group development. One of the new company’s most prominent purchases was the UMH group, which controlled 50 Ukrainian and Russian Internet, radio and media brands. Among them: the Ukrainian edition of Forbes. Miguel Forbes, a family scion, approved the deal despite protests from the journalists working for the magazine, who had previously investigated Kurchenko’s questionable business dealings. (At the time, Forbes dismissed the concerns and reportedly became an informal business advisor to Kurchenko’s VETEK group, ++according to Buzzfeed++[http://www.buzzfeed.com/maxseddon/forbes-distances-itself-from-ukrainian-magazine-as-oligarch]; Forbes has since left his family’s company, a departure that a spokesperson told Buzzfeed is not related to the Forbes Ukraine controversy.)

Even as Kurchenko was buying up independent media, he was allegedly serving as a key member of the mafia-like “family” that surrounded Yanukovych. Many of their names have since turned up on the EU’s sanctions list from March 5th, 2014, which lays out restrictive measures against certain persons, businesses and institutions with suspected ties to Yanukovych. Kurchenko’s name is on the list for alleged embezzlement of state funds. What’s more, on Thursday, Ukraine’s new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, announced 11 criminal investigations into Kurchenko’s oil and gas companies, alleging that he’d stolen around $1 billion from state coffers. Kurchenko has denied any illegal dealings in Ukraine and has said authorities routinely inspected his group of companies without finding violations, according to the International Business Times.

In a statement on VETEK’s website, Kurchenko called the corruption allegations a “misunderstanding.” He has not yet commented on the bags of shredded documents and the dismantled computers that his employees allegedly abandoned after Yanukovych fled Kiev, according to the Kyiv Post.