Kiev Oligarch Keeps It in Family

For MTViktor Pinchuk
KIEV-- It feels like living in Ukraine's very own royal family.

But Viktor Pinchuk, one of Eastern Europe's richest men, says he gets few perks from being married to President Leonid Kuchma's daughter -- only a press eager to see a man of his wealth and influence slip up.

Above all, he dismisses the widespread belief that he heads the regional Dnipropetrovsk Clan -- one of Ukraine's most powerful and murkiest business networks -- and represents its interests as a member of parliament.

"I don't represent any clan," he said from his sprawling mahogany office in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

"Yes, I am the husband of the Ukrainian president's daughter, but that is my personal life. I have a wife whom I love ... How does that help me? All the time I think what I should do not to show him up."

It doesn't stop him being the constant focus of attention.

"The son of Prince Charles -- everyone knows when he has done something wrong ... of course my family members do not get quite the same attention ... but in some cases it is the same."

But he plays down his high-powered connection, perhaps keeping in mind that Ukraine, a former Soviet state of 48 million people, could be on the verge of huge change.

A presidential election in October is set to end Kuchma's reign, and so far there is no front-runner to succeed him.

From May, Ukraine will border an expanded European Union when its neighbors Poland, Hungary and Slovakia join.

The West wants to see a stable democracy, a revived reform program and an end to sporadic crackdowns on media freedom. It also wants action to stamp out the widespread corruption that has put big business under the microscope.

For Pinchuk, it could be a chance to establish himself as a credible businessman and distance himself from the dubious title of "oligarch," a term for those who grew rich and powerful in the chaotic sell-offs that followed the end of the Soviet Union.

Born to Jewish parents who moved to the industrial town of Dnipropetrovsk after being denied the right to study in Kiev, Pinchuk started out as a metallurgical engineer specializing in the production of pipes. He says he "quickly became a relatively rich man for Soviet times."

After independence, Pinchuk created Interpipe, one of Ukraine's main industrial enterprises, whose interests range from ferroalloy to tractor production.

He is also a big force in Ukraine's media, having helped to found its most popular tabloid, Fakty, and then invested in three successful television channels.

"Media is interesting for me only as a business and not as politics now," said Pinchuk, who shuns the limelight himself and is rarely seen on the social circuit with his blonde wife Olena. "When I started, I naively thought it would be an instrument for influence ... I quickly got off that road."

Poland's weekly Wprost ranked him Central and Eastern Europe's 12th richest man, with a fortune of $1.5 billion.

He is now looking to agriculture -- a possible boom industry. Under communism, Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, and some say its soil is the best in Europe.

Pinchuk boasts that his new acquisitions are made on the "open market," but does admit it was not always that way.

"Thirteen years ago property belonged to the state. Now almost all property is in private hands. Hundreds of thousands of people became capitalists almost overnight ... How do you think that this process could happen without mistakes?"

Pinchuk talks readily about "mistakes," but also about how much more Ukraine needs to achieve to produce a stable economy, democracy and political system.

He wants foreign investment to bring greater wealth to the overall economy and purchasing power to the population, a quarter of which lives in poverty, and says he can use his position as a member of parliament for the pro-Kuchma Labor Ukraine party to work for those ends.

"As a successful businessman, I understand what reforms need to be done for the economy," he said.