‘Without independent journalism you cannot get democracy’
See Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner’s interview with Adnan Kivan starting on
ODESA, Ukraine — Adnan Kivan first read the Kyiv Post “a long time ago,” usually on commercial flights that stocked Ukraine’s Englishlanguage newspaper. But he took no special interest in it — let alone buying it.
However, amid recent conflicts with local authorities that have put him off making hundreds of millions of dollars in new investments in Ukraine, Kivan paid close attention this year to an internet advertisement from Mohammad Zahoor putting the newspaper up for sale and naming the asking price.
A defining incident soon happened that solidified his desire to buy the independent and incorruptible newspaper, with its 23-year reputation for fair, feisty and fearless reporting, as well as tough stances on the opinion pages against corruption in high places.
Whatever the incident was — he won't say — it prompted Kivan to fly to Kyiv during a winter storm in February and seal the deal with Zahoor in a single sit-down session for a price that both sides pegged at more than $3.5 million. The deal closed on March 21.
'I need the Kyiv Post'
“I will surprise you someday with this news. I saw something and said ‘I need the Kyiv Post.’ When I will tell you, you will be happy,” Kivan said in an interview from the 10th floor headquarters of his Kadorr Corporation, overlooking the Black Sea on a sunny March 27. (The KADORR name is an acronym that stands for his family — Kivan Adnan, daughter Diana, wife Olga, daughter Rosanna, son Ruslan.)
So, on this note of intrigue and mystery, the Kyiv Post enters a new era under only its third owner since the newspaper’s founding in 1995.
The new owner is an emotional man, a Sunni Muslim who embraces secularism over sectarianism. He punctuates his conversations or greetings with "God willing" or "Inshallah." When asked about his successes, he likes to say: "Whatever happened to me, it’s from God. I must do my job properly, decently; the other thing I must rely on God." He is also fond of saying: "Bad deeds will not last for long in this world."
He can also easily switch from Arabic to English to Russian or Ukrainian, depending on the needs of his conversation partner, saying that when he is determined to learn a language, he does it. His English, he said, is mostly self-taught.
‘Investments with God’
American Jed Sunden founded the newspaper on Oct. 18, 1995, and kept it until July 28, 2009.
Then came along the Pakistani Zahoor, and now the Syrian Kivan. There are similarities in their biographies: Both came to Ukraine during the Soviet Union as college students, learned Russian quickly, married Ukrainian women and earned fortunes in metals and other trading.
After selling the newspaper, Zahoor noted that no one from North America or Europe, where the Kyiv Post has most of its online readership, stepped forward to buy. Kivan thinks he knows why. “You know what this means? We (from Asia and the Middle East) are more eager and we are ready to fight and to work and be patient more than Europeans and Americans for democracy and justice. We need it much more than you. We are ready to give our lives for these principles,” Kivan said. “Not every American and every European is ready to say ‘I will give my life for democracy.’ We are suffering from totalitarian regimes. This humiliated us and our families and I saw all that. We are very eager one day to build justice That’s why here we need it, there we need it. We need justice everywhere.”
While Kivan paid big money for a small newspaper, he said that supporting the Kyiv Post’s mission is worth the price and he hopes to improve its commercial viability as well. The newspaper relies mainly on advertising, subscriptions and events. Primarily, he sees independent journalism as “the No. 1 square” to building a democratic society.
“Sooner or later, everywhere will be justice, democracy, freedom of speech, complete independence for journalism,” Kivan said. “Without independent journalism, you cannot get democracy. This is why I tell you and I am telling myself openly: Investing in decent media resources, this is investments with God.”
Famous in Odesa
When news of the March 21 sale broke, many inside and outside of the Kyiv Post had never heard of Kivan. But in Odesa, Ukraine's third-largest city, he’s famous and influential.
In 2016, an Odesa media outlet ranked Kivan as the fourth most influential person in the city, behind only Mayor Gennady Trukhanov, then- Odesa Oblast Governor Mikheil Saakashvili and another businessman.
He estimates that 100,000 peo- ple — nearly 10 percent of the city’s population — live in one of his apartment complexes.
When the 19 projects under construction are completed, he said they will provide homes to 70,000 more people. By then, he will have built 50 residential complexes and five shopping malls. All but two of the buildings are in Odesa.
In 2012, Focus magazine pegged his fortune at $95 million, but that seems short of the mark. One recent survey estimated his Kadorr Group, with 12,500 employees, at $1 billion.
Kivan either can’t or won’t put an exact figure on his net worth, but it’s enough for him to be considering a $440 million investment in agriculture — the sector that he sees as the nation’s most promising in coming decades.
He believes that if Ukraine goes in “a business direction” by creating an agricultural land market and other investor-friendly changes, the nation can quadruple its grain production — from 75 million tons to 300 million tons in the coming decade.
"I don’t think that America will increase their productivity in this way," he said. "The opportunity is only inside of Ukraine."
To bet on this brighter future, he wants to build 12 grain storage centers each capable of holding 100,000 tons or 1.2 million tons altogether.
He will put some of them near the Port of Chornomorsk, formerly Ilichivsk, and others elsewhere. He will also process the grain into animal feed and repackage it to increase its value for export. He said Ukraine is losing a lot of money by simply exporting raw materials to other countries, where it is processed into higher-priced finished food products.
"It could be implemented within maximum two years from now," he said. "We have already started. Now
we have a little bit bad mood. We are waiting."
He and a partner are also interested in building Kyiv’s tallest building — a 100-story mixed-use complex.
But he is also holding back on that and other investments in Ukraine, he said, again because of what he obliquely call his “bad mood” about the current business climate.
While he didn’t want to get into politics during the interview, saying he prefers to talk business, his “bad mood” can be traced to highly publicized conflicts in recent years with Odesa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov, leading to a media war between the two men. A flashpoint came during what Kivan labeled as a groundless search of his offices in November by the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU.
Investigators found nothing wrong, but publicly justified the raid by saying they suspected Kivan of supporting Russian-backed fighters waging war against Ukraine. Five months later, the investigation remains open, he said, and inconclusive.
The SBU, a presidentially controlled law enforcement agency, is notorious for using searches and criminal investigations to put pressure on businesses. These abuses have prompted calls from Finance Minister Oleksandr Danylyuk and other top officials to limit the scope of the secretive 40,000-member agency's powers to counter-terrorism and counterintelligence operations.
The search and accusation offend Kivan as a Ukrainian citizen and, he said, a Ukrainian patriot. He and others suspect the aim is to pressure his construction empire to be more accommodating to Odesa power brokers.
Kivan said that he is anti-Kremlin, blaming Russian dictator Vladimir Putin for propping up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the bloody seven-year civil war that has killed at least 700,000 Syrians, including several of Kivan’s relatives, and driven at least 5 million people from his homeland to live as refugees abroad in Turkey, Jordan, Germany and other nations. Kivan said his opposition to the Assad regime began with the current ruler’s father, the late Hafez-al Assad. He said an uncle was a political prisoner who died in confinement under the elder Assad, who died in 2000.
Kivan also said that, besides devoting most of his 56 years to Ukraine and raising three children with his Ukrainian wife Olga, he has invested heavily not just in business but also in philanthropy in Ukraine.
His political views are also clear: the European Union and Ukrainian flags fly on the rooftops of his buildings. He sees a EU-style democracy with eventual NATO membership as the nation’s best path to progress.
In that desire, he notes, he is aligned with the policies of President Petro Poroshenko, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman and most Ukrainians. "From time to time, we are hearing from the president and prime minister they always want to remove all the obstacles against business people," he said.
'Best place in Europe'
He hopes they mean what they say and, if his current "bad mood" improves, he's ready to resume his investments in Ukraine.
"Today it is very difficult to invest $100 million in London, Europe, America. Of course you can go and buy a hotel in Paris and make 2–3 percent easy. You will sleep without difficulties. You will be very confi- dent. But if you want to make more money, the best place in Europe and it seems to me the world is Ukraine today," he said. "Unfortunately, there are some difficulties. But we hope and pray these difficulties will be removed."
Owns TV station
The Kyiv Post is not his only media asset.
Amid the EuroMaidan Revolution, on Dec. 3, 2013, Kivan bought Channel 7. It is a popular station in Odesa that employs 100 people. It also broadcast the revolution. Kivan was happy when President Viktor Yanukovych fled power on Feb. 22, 2014, after the 100-day uprising. "During President Yanukovych, I prayed every day that the regime will be finished," he said.
When Russia tried to instigate violence in Odesa and other major cities after seizing Crimea in 2014, Kivan said he spent a lot of money to help the city's residents fight off the Russian-instigated vigilantism that took hold in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, but rebuffed decisively in Odesa.
In Odesa, Kivan has opened a cultural center and two schools, among other community projects.
Kivan said that he’s never done anything wrong or illegal, so he doesn't fear authorities.
"My conscience is very clean with God. I have done nothing wrong," he said. "I am doing the maximum I can do in all fields. My wife and my chil- dren, we are not greedy. We can stop doing business and we have enough to live in any country. But it seems to me we must do more and more for Ukraine and be very determined. Now the battle is hard."
Home in Odesa
While born and raised in Syria to a large middle-class family with 17 brothers and sisters, Odesa has been Kivan’s home for 38 years — since he was 18 years old.
The business titan started as a university student studying engineering technology in 1980, during Leonid Brezhnev's rule. He was living in a dormitory but miserable at first with his new surroundings.
"The first some days and some weeks, I was crying by myself and eager to go back," Kivan said. "The facilities for me here at the dormitory were very bad. In Syria, it was better for me. I had family, a house, a car. Emotionally and financially; everything at that time was very tough and difficult here."
He resolved to stick it out for only a year, learn Russian so that he could say that he accomplished something and return to Syria.
But Odesa grew on him to the point that, today, he loves to spend most of his time in the city, working 12-hour days and rarely taking vacations.
His average day sees him up at 4 a.m., having breakfast and exercising for an hour. By 7 a.m., he visits one or two of his construction projects until about 11 a.m.
"I like to talk to builders, engineers to all the people there, to check everything, to talk to everyone," Kivan said. "It gives me some energy."
Then he goes to the office and spends the rest of the business day with his managers.
"I go to sleep at 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m.," he said. "Some people laugh at that."
He married his wife, Olga, in 1987. The family is an integral part of the business, with his wife and son, Ruslan, sharing responsibilities with him. "They're my best friends and my family. In an Arabic family, you can’t say my partners," Kivan said. "I give everything for them, my children and my wife."
Sometimes they encourage him to leave Ukraine's difficulties behind, but now he remains determined to stay in Odesa and has no plans to relocate to Kyiv or anywhere else.
Pain of Syrian war
If not Ukraine, there’s probably only one other place he’d rather be — Syria.
He predicts that Bashar al-Assad, who has used chemical weapons against his own people, will end up like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, both executed by their own people, Kivan said.
Kivan said Assad is guilty of
the greatest atrocities since World War II, but no longer thinks he can be toppled militarily because of support from Russia and Iran as well as the weak response from the West.
If Assad leaves power voluntarily, Kivan will be happy to help fellow Syrians return home and begin rebuilding the nation that once numbered 18 million people.
“We have to stop killing each other and building the nation," Kivan said. "We have a lot of intelligent people, engineers, doctors students, hard workers. We can build this by our hands. We have decent people and we can build democracy appropriate for our culture."
He believes the Kyiv Post should be highlighting the plight of Syrians and finds it painful that his homeland and his adopted homeland are facing Russian aggression that most of the world is doing little to stop.
A standard question asked of wealthy people — "How did you earn your first million dollars?" elicits an unusual response.
"It was immediately first some millions," he said.
He got his start from a millionaire relative on his mother's side in Syria who traded with the Soviet Union.
To settle loans and debts between Syria and the Soviets, his relative worked out deals that mixed cash settlements with trade in goods such as wheat, sugar, food and clothes.
"In 1988, I got a call and he told me, I need you to accompany me as a translator and I went to Moscow and I was translating to him all these deals between countries," Kivan said. "The first contract was $500 or $600 million at that time. With these deals, he noticed I was very useful. Thank God, I was the right man, at the right time with the right skills. He’s a relative and I trusted him."
Kivan soon evolved from translating deals to negotiating them for a commission of 1 percent or so. On one deal alone, his commission was $2 million. And that's how "I became a millionaire during Soviet times."
But he also made some missteps. He invested heavily in the stock market and lost big in 1989, he said, not knowing what he was doing.
When Ukraine regained its independence in 1991, four years after marrying his wife, he took on Ukrainian citizenship and "invested $20 million in the metals business." He got off to a rocky start. "We went to factories, bought from the factories and started to sell it. We had difficulties and lost money."
Then he decided to read everything he could about metals, talk to those in the business and learn from metallurgy professors. Soon, he taught himself enough about types of metals and pricing them to start making money. He once owned 45 ships and was exporting 100,000 tons a month. He stayed in the sector until 2007 before switching to construction.
Again he entered a field that he knew nothing about. So he tried to teach himself the business by studying architecture, building materials, construction costs and so on.
But this venture got off to a rocky start also, like his trade in metals. He started in 2010 by building luxury seaside villas that he hoped to sell for $2 million, but many of which now remain empty, even at an asking price of $600,000 each.
But he got wise and switched to building high-rise apartment complexes, finishing his first one in 2012.
To hear him tell it, his competitive advantage is his ability to undertake multiple construction projects at once and to bring modern high-quality designs and features — big closets, central air conditioning — that replaced cramped Soviet apartments.
Customer service is perhaps, however, his biggest advantage.
He finances buyers himself, giving 10-year loans at 9 percent per year to purchase the apartments, a novelty in Ukraine's undeveloped mortage market.
He also gives personal money-back guarantees.
"I don’t know why I have done that, but i do it and people like it and accept it and it works wonderfully for them and for me," he said. "If we start building any house, we must finish before the time we announce to people. I don’t think there’s any construction builders in Ukraine who can do the same." He calls his buildings "pearls." "From day one, we changed the picture of Odesa completely. Before me, nobody could build simultaneously five or 10 or 20 buildings. We put our own money in this business which we got from metal. We were eager from day one not to build as everything was building before us. They are really pearls."
Affordability is also a key. He said he has he has apartments starting at $20,000. His buildings have 22-24 stories. The biggest one has 1,485 apartments.
Like luxury villas, shopping centers are not profitable. He has five of them. They can cost at least $100 million and take many years before returning slight profits. But he builds them anyway, despite shopping habits that are shifting online, because he views the centers as ways make the community more beautiful.
Plans for Kyiv Post
Kivan said he doesn't have specific plans for the Kyiv Post and doesn't think staff, advertisers or readers will notice any differences right away.
But, over time, he said he will make the newspaper stronger. If he ever sells it, he will make sure the buyer is committed to keeping the Kyiv Post alive and independent.
It will not become the Odesa Post and he will not relocate to Kyiv.
“I am not going to move to Kyiv,” Kivan said. “And the newspaper will remain the Kyiv Post, as it is, to speak about the whole problems, the whole issues, the whole matters, the whole positive things about Ukraine, the whole of Ukraine.”
Kyiv Post owner Adnan Kivan, who bought the newspaper on March 21 from Mohammad Zahoor, gets acquainted with Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner at the headquarters of Kivan's KADORR Group in Odesa on March 27. Kivan told Bonner that he will retain him...
Kyiv Post staff say goodbye to Mohammad Zahoor (C) as the newspaper's owner on March 23 in the newsroom. Two days earlier, Zahoor sold the newspaper to Odesa-based businessman Adnan Kivan, a native of Syria who has lived in Ukraine since arriving as a...
Kyiv Post publisher Adnan Kivan, who bought the newspaper on March 21 for $3.5 million, says he supports editorial independence. Kivan, a Ukrainian citizen and native of Syria, owns the KADORR Group that employs 12,500 people in Odesa. He was active in...