What are your thoughts on the recently held elections in US?
There were not too many surprise for me. Republicans expanded control of the Senate. Democrats took the House. Democrats poured a great deal of money into the races and proved yet again that there is a major partisan split in America. Affluent and educated suburban voters continue to voice opposition to the current administration. Fundamentally, at a macro level these changes will not have a long term material impact and are part of our political system. What impact do the midterms have on Ukraine’s elections? US is Ukraine’s ally, and will continue to be highly influential in that role. The elections in themselves will likely not have significant impact on Ukraine. Our foreign policies are not as volatile as some allege.
There have been different accounts of your background. Some information sources state that you are from Russia and some that you are from Ukraine. Where were you born and when and how did you come to U.S.?
I am from America. Yes, I have read different accounts about myself. Some of them are completely made up, while others simply capture public records and internet gossip, but lack context. It seems that some reporters don’t do any fact checking and assume that whatever they see online is accurate regardless of the source.
Unlike some of the "news" articles assert, I was brought to U.S. when I was a young child in the 1970s – not in 1991 or 1995. I was born in Kyiv, USSR, and have never been back, but hope to visit Ukraine soon. I hear that Kyiv is a beautiful city. My parents and my grandmother immigrated through the Jewish immigration channel during the Brezhnev era. Our relatives left USSR even earlier – in 1973 – and moved to Israel. There are various stories claiming that we were super wealthy business people in the USSR. Of course, most people who have any idea of what life was like in the Soviet Union understand that private enterprise was illegal until the early 1990s, and allegations that we immigrated with wealth are absurd.
What business are you in? Are you a lobbyist? Lawyer? Investor?
Socrates had said that an unexamined life is not worth living. I adhere to this tenet, and systemically reevaluate my goals, my achievements, and my failures. I am a lawyer by training and practiced corporate law initially with a large multi-national law firm on the east coast, and then with a small firm, where I was a partner. I would characterize myself as a private investor focusing on real estate, mining, and oil and gas projects. I am also a political activist. I have been passionately active in politics for as long as I can remember. Last several years, I started doing political consulting. This was not planned. It just happened as people and corporations kept turning to me for advice, while expressing frustration with the politics of American politics.
I am not a traditional lobbyist by any measure. This is why, I typically engage advocacy firms for various projects that require experts in public affairs. I believe in hiring experts. I am an experienced political strategist because I have been personally involved in political finance, coalition building, and worked with public relations and advocacy firms for many years. Most typical lobbyists don’t have these experiences, and don’t always grasp cultural differences that can lead to mismatched expectations when dealing with foreign executives or politicians.
What have you done in politics? There is various information that you have been involved in political finance. Is that correct? What does that entail?
It is generally correct, but I have also gotten involved in policy and political strategy. I have mostly been active in fundraising for campaigns and political establishment, including certain NGOs. I have supported mostly Republicans, and although I am a Republican formally, I am really a libertarian with certain deference for Objectivism. I have held high level posts with the Republican Party as Chairman of the Eagles, the most important finance group in the Party. I was also Co-Chair of Team 100, and led numerous fundraising efforts over the years. I was a major fundraiser for Rudy Giuliani and for John McCain. I also held appointments as California Criminal Justice Commissioner, and California Lottery Commissioner. It is a long list. From being a political activist and fundraiser, I evolved into a what I would call a political strategist with a great deal of business experience. This is a natural progression for me and it draws on my skills as a lawyer, businessman, and a policy wonk. To succeed in the world of political consulting, you need to be passionate about politics and have an ideological grounding. That is what drives me.
There have been stories that you are advising Ukrainians and have a branch office in Ukraine. What if anything are you doing in Ukraine?
I never planned to do any political work in Ukraine. Although I have worked with some Ukrainian politicians last several years, my goal was always business development. I was investing in relationships. I have never been back to Ukraine, and have never had an office there. I have had many offers, but they have not been compelling enough for me and my team. I do think that there are investment opportunities, and that U.S. and Ukraine should be allies for the long term.
Over the years I have cultivated relationships with think tanks and policy-oriented organizations. I have advised some East European business people to seek out an ideological connection with Western policy institutions to better understand what drives our political process. I think Ukraine is a worthy subject for our think tanks to analyze as a currently troubled experiment in democracy.
I believe Ukraine has immense potential because of its educated citizens, amazing natural resources – including agriculture – and strategic location. My work with Ukrainians has been a cultural learning experience. The biggest challenge has been debunking the misconception that everything is for sale and that process is meant to be ignored. I have met incredibly smart and courageous business leaders not only in Ukraine but through out the former Soviet empire. However, many of them fail to understand that in America – in Washington – process does matter. Relationships are earned over time – not bought with disdain. Professionals are confidants, advisors, and guides – not VIP concierges or butlers. Individuals and institutions that respect our rule of law and our process and are disciplined and systemic reap the rewards that they seek – and gain trust and respect from our opinion leaders. Unfortunately, extrapolating from my experiences, this is rare. There is a profound cultural chasm between Eastern Europe and Eurasia and the West.
There were stories recently written that insinuate that you have legal problems and you are subject of investigations. Is any of that true. Why do you think these stories have been written?
No. These allegations are patently false. I believe that some of these stories were yellow journalism or paid for attack pieces that mostly failed. I have never been investigated by any agency and never charged with anything. I have complied with all laws, and unlike many others registered under Foreign Agents Registration Act – even when I could have elected to register under a less stringent law.
I believe that when you are effective, you often get attacked.
I was involved in a business dispute about 5 years ago with a long-time acquaintance and political activist by the name of Elliott Broidy. At its core, it was a dispute over a pension plan investment of $750,000 in shares of a public oil and gas company where I served on the board of directors. Numerous parties were named in a lawsuit and we lost, which was surprising for us. The case is now under appeal. Our lawyers believe that our appeal is very strong, and we expect to win. Everything else that has been written about this case and my relationship with Elliott is a farce. The McClatchy written stories about me are at best gross exaggerations drawing false conclusions. They are anti-republican commentary pieces rather than what one would consider news. It appears that there is a crisis in journalistic integrity which is not just limited to Ukraine. The lies that I see written in U.S. press and the sense of impunity that some journalists exhibit is shocking and is no different from Ukraine.
I have the utmost respect for true journalism that values truth, newsworthiness, and meticulous research. I write opinion pieces and have been published in many first-tier papers and journals. In fact a friend and a highly regarded journalist and I are collaborating on a book project deciphering what we call the entitlement generation.
Is there a formula for Ukrainian politicians or business that want to access U.S. markets or establish relationships in Washington?
There is. The formula is that there is no formula. There is process. There is planning and coordination. Process values consistent, responsible behavior where you deliver what you promise and make room for mistakes. It is unreasonable to expect your new American friends to do what you ask when you don’t live up to your end of the bargain. The mantra is be systemic and have rational expectations. As with anything, you start out with a business plan. To succeed in Washington, you need to prove that you are serious. You don’t buy access. You earn it. That does not mean that you don’t spend money, but unlike in the former Soviet Union, where the popular metaphor is that "money cuts steel," money is merely a necessary component. Foreign principles that can force themselves to put aside third world conspiracy theories and show their worth and commitment to U.S. on the merits, will win. U.S. has to benefit as well. In America, Americans come first.
What advice would you give to Ukrainian politicians that want to visit Washington and get to know American politicians? Would you give the same advice to business leaders?
Again, assuming that they have limited experience in US, I would suggest that these people hire experienced and accomplished advisors rather than – as often happens – friends from the old country that settled in U.S. but have not been immersed in the business of politics. The key thing is to understand that unless your goal is to have fun and take some cool pictures, this is a long-term commitment. You cannot gain access by proxy. You also have to define your goals early on. It is true that they may change and the deliverables that you set for yourself may also change. Notwithstanding, you need to develop a roadmap. This means showing that you are valuable to people that you meet with in US. People that come only to complain or ask for favors generally don’t get very far. This applies to both foreign politicians and businesses. Many Ukrainians make their way to Washington. Few if any achieve real impact mostly because they are erratic and tend not to listen to their Washington advisors. For businesses, seeking market entry, affiliating with industry groups, think tanks, and other NGOs is very much worthwhile. Few foreigners appreciate the importance of properly courting our establishment. We adhere to the rule of law, and we harbor a disdain towards shortcuts, impatience, and attitudes that money can buy anything. Our transactions are veiled in congeniality that is difficult for Ukrainians to grasp. "May be" often means "no", and "Yes" often means "may be". I believe that market entry or strategic communication in America’s capitol involves public relations. PR is very powerful but is often misunderstood by the East Europeans. I have observed that they often see it as something dirty, which it is not. You need to be first to define who you are and tell your story; otherwise, someone else will tell your story the way they see it.
I think that Ukrainian guests need to focus on developing a constructive dialogue, rather than complain. Many don’t know where to go to be heard and how to build relationships with the West.
As an American of Ukrainian heritage, what do you see in Ukraine’s political future?
I am genuinely concerned for Ukraine. It is approaching a Hobbesian state of nature – which is state of war. I have written on this topic. Ukraine is highly strategic for Europe and for US. It is an escalating conflict with Russia. Its rule of law is hollow and its law enforcement, intelligence, and regulatory institutions mimic commercial enterprises through selective and commercially motivated enforcement.
Ukraine’s politicians often succumb to their business interests without a sense of any ethical boundaries. There is a tremendous brain-drain as educated and successful Ukrainians are leaving their homeland for Western Europe, North America and Israel. Because of this, I worry about Ukraine and believe that U.S. could lose its relationship with Ukraine, unless Ukraine reinvents itself away from a kleptocracy into a true democratic state that it aspires to be. I hope that US – Ukraine friendship sustains, but I have grave concerns for the future. I will tell you what I would like to see in Ukraine’s future. I want to see a powerful, heterogenous, economically robust, democratic Ukraine that proves the nay-sayers wrong and triumphs over corruption, poverty, and cultural decay. As a Ukrainian American, I hope that I can be part of the successful, proud Ukraine that dispenses with its Soviet colonialist past. Perhaps the future is with Ukraine’s youth, which I believe is not burdened by the mind set of the Soviet regime.