‘With­out in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ism you can­not get democ­racy’

Kyiv Post - - Front Page - BY BRIAN BON­NER BON­[email protected]

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.

‘Bad mood’

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.

Soviet mil­lion­aire

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.

Con­struc­tion mag­nate

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...

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