US lawyer Alex Frishberg: Ukraine has to go through so many different types of reforms
This week we’re offering you the latest news from Ukraine, some new music, and a discussion that our colleague Bohdan Nahaylo had with Alex Frishberg, a US lawyer based in Kyiv, author and observer of the Ukrainian scene
Welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. This week we’re offering you the latest news from Ukraine, some new music, and a discussion that our colleague Bohdan Nahaylo had with Alex Frishberg, a US lawyer based in Kyiv, author and observer of the Ukrainian scene. Why did he return to Ukraine, what has he experienced and recorded, and how does he see the present situation? Alex has plenty of insights to share with you. But first a round up of the news.
[Disclaimer from Hromadke Radio’s Editorial Board. Some of the opinions expressed in this interview do not reflect the views of the Ukraine Calling team or Hromadske Radio].
Nahaylo: I’m Bohdan Nahaylo and am delighted to have this week as our guest on Ukraine Calling’s in-depth discussion – Alex Frishberg. He is a well-known US lawyer practising in Kyiv for many years, the author of several books and numerous articles, a person well acquainted not only with the legal, business, and political scenes in Ukraine, but also with the social, and I would say even moral, environment in Kyiv and the larger cities. Welcome to the program, Alex!
Frishberg: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Nahaylo: I see from your very impressive credentials you are an American lawyer, but born in Kyiv.
Frishberg: Indeed. Yes.
Nahaylo: To a Jewish family that emigrated to the US during the Soviet period.
Frishberg: There are many of us “Russian” Jews living in America.
Nahaylo: Right. But you are not typical in the sense of a lawyer fully immersed into his work and making money. You have actually spent a lot of time writing, thinking about things. One of your first major works aside from your legal practice was a two-volume work retelling the trials and tribulations connected with emigration to a new land. I looked through it. It’s in Russian and deals with pressure [to leave], alienation, loss, challenges of adaptation and making a new start and, interestingly, through the correspondence of your family members over a 20 year period. Would you tell us about this two–volume work?
Frishberg: When we emigrated from Ukraine to St. Louis, Missouri, my parents promised their best friends that they would write to them for the entire duration of the emigration, which was exactly what they did. When I returned back to Kyiv in 1991 these friends gave me back my parents’ letters and mine too. They had kept them in chronological order. All of them. I had them all, edited them for small things, and I inserted black and white photographs throughout the entire two-volume set. So you see what we went and what everybody went through. It describes Soviet times and what was it like in Ukraine, why we left, why Jews left the Soviet Union’ and what we experienced during our immigration, not just [the initial] six months in Italy, but also what was it like to come to America and start from a scratch and become medical doctors. My parents are both psychiatrists, so they passed all the exams and they practiced medicine in America until my father passed away.
Nahaylo: Fascinating story. I do recommend it to our listeners, at least those who read Russian. Your family made it in the New World. You became a successful lawyer and you joined one of the largest practices in Washington DC. Yet in 1991 you came back here. Why the decision to return to a country your parents had left?
Frishberg: My parent actually said, “Alex, are you crazy to go back to the country we left specifically for you?” I wanted to come back for several reasons. One of them was that this is a land of opportunity. I came back in October 1991. Basically I was the only speaking lawyer for the entire country of Ukraine. For the next three-four years I had a monopoly. All foreign businesses had nowhere to go but to me. It was a beautiful opportunistic move. But secondly, I am from here, from Kyiv. I speak the language, love the country and love the city. So it was coming home, nostalgia, that brought me back. And for those two things I was willing to give up Washington DC and my lucrative carrier.
Nahaylo: You left during the Soviet period as a boy. You came back to an independent Ukraine that was just re-finding itself. Was it a huge difference, or was it the same with different flags?
Frishberg: It was completely different because when I arrived here the August coup [by Soviet hardliners in Moscow] was a couple of months behind us us. The country did not know where it was going. There was galloping hyperinflation. All the stores had were matches and lighters, sugar and salt. It was very uncertain times, which for me made it very exciting…
Nahaylo: And within several years you had written a very interesting book called The Steel Barons which appeared in 2008. It deals with what you saw around you those heydays of the 1990s. You exposed the reality of the business and criminal world overlapping in Ukraine. Obviously, I am tempted to ask you how much it’s based on your own experience. Or is it even autobiographical? You have a foreigner as the main character. Or how much is simply based on your observations?
Frishberg: When I came here, I began keeping a journal, notes of things that shocked me and my consciousness, about things that I have not seen before. The book is based on that journal. The Steel Barons is a book about how to become a billionaire in nine months, in less than one year. It’s all based on true stories. I just removed all the real names and put I fictional names instead, so I would not get killed. So far that has worked well. Otherwise, everything in it is pretty much true.
Nahaylo: You are a survivor! I am jumping ahead and should go more chronologically. But have things changed dramatically or is it still a question of more the same here?
Frishberg: Things here have changed dramatically. The book was written in the early 1990s. Then you had bandits here, you had “the Sаvlogov brigades”, you had all of kinds of people who offered protection at the end of the month. Fortunately at that time President Kuchma cleaned it all out. There was no more racket, there was no more daily banditism on the streets as it used to be. The situation changed like day and night, like in Chicago in the 1920s versus America in 2018.
Nahaylo: Well that is a different note you’re striking, because most people say: oh this corruption and everything that’s going on behind the scenes, it’s been here forever, and nothing has changed, it’s got worse. And you’re telling me that in fact, from your perception as a lawyer, the situation has improved remarkably.
Frishberg: No, I don’t think it has; it simply changed. Corruption has become more systematic, and it’s actually a lot worse. But, bandits don’t exist; there are no more thugs, no more banditry on that scale. That, at least that has improved.
Nahaylo: A similar experience to that of Belarus, where Lukashenko came to power, ostensibly on the ticket to crack down on the banditry. And he used quite ruthless methods; I’m sure such methods behind the scenes were used here, too.
Frishberg: Absolutely, I mean Kuchma went to them and [his people] said to all the [criminal] families, that either you stop your strong-arm activities, and keep all the money and remain in Ukraine, or leave the country. Because we’re moving the economy from this Sicilian path to a European path. And you know, the bandits, either remained here and were largely killed off, or they moved abroad and settled in Los Angeles, and Israel, somewhere else, where it’s safe.
Nahaylo: Alright, so moving on to yet another very enticing title: Foreigner’s Guide to Ukrainian Women, and Other Stories. Now I was struck by the fact that I thought it would just be about your observations about how foreigners meet Ukrainian women here, about the sex trade that has been booming, even more so in recent years. But then I found that you’ve got a story there about the Maidan, very analytical and stimulating, another about guys who want to sail back from Australia, across the ocean, in a type of Kon-Tiki experience. The imagination, and the time factor involved – writing must be a labour of love for you.
Frishberg: Well, absolutely. All the stories that I write, even in this latest book, Foreigner’s Guide to Ukrainian Women, and Other Stories, they’re basically all true stories that were told to me by somebody or other, or about things that I saw myself. And I just blow them up into fiction. So to me it’s just something that I’ve seen here that I want to share with everybody else, because a lot of people might not know much about Ukraine.
Nahaylo: Yes, there’s plenty of best practices, issues, and mistakes to avoid, and certainly a good guide for a new foreigner that’s coming here and wants to fall in love, or shall we say, spend some time with a Ukrainian woman. And thank you for doing that because though everybody talks about these subjects, there’s very little literature on them, and certainly with the sort of insight that you provide, and the wit and the humour.
Frishberg: Well thank you very much, but they’re all based on true stories, there’s not much imagination that I had to put in.
Nahaylo: Would you say, and this is a provocative question, that the women in Ukraine, because of the specific social-economic conditions, the conditioning from the Soviet period, differ much from Western European women or American women?
Frishberg: Oh, very much; it’s a sharp contrast, especially for Americans, and I’m one of them. You come here, and women here are very feminine, they’re beautiful, they are here to kind of complement a man. And this is very much a 1950’s mentality. A lot of them would prefer to stay at home and cook, and have children, and have a clean house for the husband. All those things that America had in the 1950’s. In America, in sharp contrast, women have become largely like men. They walk like men, they talk like men; equality has to be like for men. So all of a sudden through the years, from the Gloria Steinem movement onwards, they’ve lost that charm and femininity, [so much so] that American men sometimes don’t notice because they went through it rather slowly from the 70’s onwards. But as soon as you come to Ukraine you see the differences, it’s day and night.
Nahaylo: Yes, certainly we do. And this observation of yours is also made by Swedes, Norwegians, the Northern types, shall we say. Where women have got, not sounding derogatory, used to wearing the trousers.
Frishberg: Even the Beatles noticed that Ukrainian girls, they leave the world behind.
Nahaylo: Yes. Okay. The last story in that collection, Foreigner’s Guide to Ukrainian Women, and Other Stories, is a curious one. It’s about reflections and observations about the Maidan Revolution and those experiences. But it has something of an unexpected end, and there’s a moral in that story too, as well as the observations.
Frishberg: Actually I spent the year being a night-time photographer at the Maidan. So I would go out every second Friday of the month from midnight until about 8-9 in the morning, and take pictures. I talked to everybody who was there and fighting, and observed what was going on. And it was interesting to see why it happened, what actually happened, and then the aftermath – what were the consequences of what went on. And that is exactly what I describe in the story called ‘Maidan Revolution’, which is the last of the four stories in the book called Foreigner’s Guide to Ukrainian Women. I guess the final point is that after the Maidan and the death of the 100 people and the sacrifice, and the on-going war with Russia as an aggressor, nothing has really changed. Indeed, the Maidan second revolution didn’t really produce beneficial results that can be measured. And with each revolution things only get worse.
Nahaylo: That’s a pessimistic note. We have elections coming up, of course, though no great expectations because things haven’t changed that dramatically. But hopefully new faces will appear in next year’s elections, if not immediately, right? I’ll ask you about that later. Now about you publication Doing Business in Ukraine. You’ve got a very impressive company, that you represent – Frishberg and Partners, Attorneys at Law which is very well known in Kyiv and you produce a very useful handbook, guide, source, for all those interested in doing business, or investing, in this country. You provide the legal framework. I’ve just seen the 2018 edition, but I note form what you’ve brought here to the studio that there are even more substantial earlier ones.
Nahaylo: And the legal framework. Speaking now as a lawyer, has the legal framework, with all the talk about legal reform in recent years, especially after the Revolution of Dignity, has it actually changed for the better, or is it just a kind of rearrangement, a smoke and mirrors effect?
Frishberg: Nothing much substantive has changed to be honest, except for the simplification of the registration system. So it’s become more streamlined, and that has become a lot easier. Things are going more electronic now. You can register [online], removing some of the corruption. But largely not much has happened in terms of the reforms. For the country to become even Poland, as it was in the early 90’s, it has to go through fiscal reform, financial reform. It has to go through administrative reform, like firing 60 – 70 % of state employees. It has to go through so many different types of reforms, that it is simply impossible under the circumstances. Unfortunately, no, not much has changed, nor can I see much change in the near future.
Nahaylo: What do you see that is positive? There was a lot of talk three or four years ago about civil society becoming resurgent. But now it’s more fragmented and more jaded, I suppose, and frustrated. Do you see any positive currents and positive trends that could lead to a brighter future, let’s put it euphemistically?
Frishberg: I don’t think you can see anything that is positive or negative until the next president becomes the leader of Ukraine, which will be on the 31st of March, not too long away from now. So you will see who will be the President, what the direction of the country will be. Until now, it’s [a case of ]the status quo. It’s a swamp. There’s nothing moving because we don’t know the future and there’s no direction that can be taken at this stage.
Nahaylo: It’s very hard to know what might emerge from this swamp.
Frishberg: Exactly. I predict this country is going to remain a swamp for foreign investors until a year and a half from now. The reason because, on the 31st of March, there’ll be the first presidential run-off. Then there’ll be the second presidential run off. Whoever will be the president will take time to fire all the old “bad”” people in the government and put in the new “bad” people in the government. And that will take some time. Then, when that clears, it’ll be next August. You will have Ukrainian Parliament elections in the fall, and you don’t know who will be coming into those, which groups and who’ll win. And then it’ll be next Christmas time and no business gets started in Christmas time; everybody wants to have a good time. So the following February  is when business might start turning up in Ukraine and the economy might start moving forward, and politics as well. Depending on who will be the President. But timing is such, that for another year and a half, Ukraine will be in a status quo position.
Nahaylo: And then we have local elections coming up, wwwwa sphere in which reforms have at least been announced and been implemented to some degree.
Frishberg: And so we wait again.
Nahaylo: Not very encouraging. More lost time?
Nahaylo: Now beginning to conclude: looking back on these 27 years – the good, the bad, and the ugly?
Frishberg: I can’t believe that I’m that old! The good, the bad, and the ugly? Everybody in Ukraine now is taking a front seat to history. Because what’s happening here – one year is 10 or 20 years anywhere else in the world. Time here flies and is condensed. Much, much faster. We’re all very lucky to witness what we’re witnessing, from a historical viewpoint. But what we’re witnessing is not that great. We have corruption, systematic corruption. We have war with Russia, which is draining the resources. We have Ukrainian youth leaving Ukraine to emigrate abroad, because they don’t see much future here. The depletion of the population. The smart ones are leaving.
Nahaylo: And skilled labour.
Frishberg: Exactly. So what is really good that is happening here in Ukraine in the last 27 years? I would argue that life became harder and harder.
Nahaylo: But have you seen at least a crystallization of a political nation, of a getting away from the ethnographic basis? We have a Jewish Prime Minister. We have high-ranking officials with not simply purely Ukrainian – whatever that means – backgrounds. We have, I would say, probably on the surface, a much more tolerant society, a more inclusive one than 27 or 30 years ago.
Frishberg: Absolutely. I agree with this completely. Because all the people understand that they are really in deep trouble. So everyone’s sticking together. For that reason you have a cohesive society.
Nahaylo: And yet that was the problem in ’91, I mean the referendum. Why did the people vote for independence? Because they felt it would be better than the system that was bankrupt and sinking.
Frishberg: Absolutely. And if you look at it from the sidelines, you’ll see that Ukrainians are very tolerant people, a very tolerant community. Even when the laws don’t really work, or cannot be enforced, society still moves forward. There’s no conflicts here amongst people themselves. People get along.
Nahaylo: Before we ask you for your final thoughts… the calibre and the quality of the foreigners coming to Ukraine? I presume that in the early days when there was maybe a more Klondike-ish mentality, people were here for smash and grab, or to make money quickly. The people that now come here and stay, are they more serious, are they better prepared? Are they more open?
Frishberg: First, I’d like to make an observation, that very few women come and stay here. It’s mostly men that come to stay in Ukraine. It’s not a tourist destination. And the men that come to stay here divide themselves into two categories. Those who come here for business or diplomats, who come with families. Or those that come here by themselves. And those who come by themselves, like anywhere, they search for adventures. And a lot of them are very skilled people. They can afford to live here because they’re IT guys. They can work out of anywhere. That’s a big component of people here. They’re young. Some people just come here because they’re 55 years old and don’t want to live wherever they live, in Stockholm, say, because it’s cold and boring, and they buy an apartment here and they start dating girls. There’s that component of male society too. But very few women come here. It’s mostly guys.
Nahaylo: That’s a very interesting observation. Thanks. Finally, parting thoughts? What would you like to say to our audience: diaspora, diplomats, business community, those speaking in English all around the world?
Frishberg: I would say that you should come and visit Kyiv yourself, because nothing can be easily expressed. Everything is the opposite of what it seems. In fact, it is a very friendly country, with very friendly people. Surprisingly, there’s no tourism here. Nothing is as bad as people say. You should come and visit by yourselves and for yourselves. And that’s how most foreigners end up living here. Because they cannot leave the place after they’ve seen it.
Nahaylo: Alex Frishberg – US lawyer, practising here for donkeys years, as we say in England, since 1991. Someone who left Ukraine as a boy and then actually came back and has made it here and has made his mark on the country. I thank you very much for discussing these things with me.
Frishberg: Thank you very much.
Independence for Ukrainian Orthodox Church
This week the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, took an important step in recognizing the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Synod took a decision to proceed with granting the Tomos of Autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine. Also, a decision was passed to annul the documents of 1686 which put the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the control of the Russian Orthodox Church. This decision has met with harsh criticism from the Russian Orthodox Church with threatens to break off relations with the Ecumenical Partiarchate of Constantinople.The Synod appealed to all sides to avoid appropriation of church property as well as any acts of violence or retaliation.
Sanctions will continue
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has postponed the vote on changing the sanctions mechanism for Russia, which means that the latter will stay out of the Parliamentary Assembly until at least next January. In April 2014, Russia was stripped of its right to vote in the Parliamentary Assembly because of its annexation of Crimea, as well as its actions instigating war in Eastern Ukraine. Since 2017, Russia has stopped paying its contributions into PACE – about seven percent of the Council’s total. The country has, however, repeatedly lobbied for its full return to the organization.
Ukrainian political prisoner Oleg Sentsov, who is currently imprisoned in Russia on fabricated terrorism charges, has confirmed that he is ending his hunger strike. In a letter, he stated: “In connection with the critical state of my health, as well as complications with my internal organs starting to set in, I am scheduled to be force-fed in the near future. Allegedly, I am no longer able to adequately assess my level of health and the dangers threatening it.” Sentsov has been on hunger strike since 14 May demanding the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. In the letter, he also apologized for not having achieved his goal.
Ukraine should have its first domestic low-cost carrier flying domestic routes by the end of the year, the Minister for Infrastructure, Volodymyr Omelyan, has announced. A new airline called SkyUp will be allocated domestic routes. Ukraine is also putting a number of contracts to manage airports up for bid. Since 2016 passenger numbers in Ukraine have been growing at around 30 percent a year and Kyiv wants to quadruple the number of airports in the country over the next 12 years as part of a $60 billion infrastructure drive.
Arms Depot on Fire
Some 12,000 people were evacuated after a fire and a series of explosions at an arms depot containing thousands of tonnes of ammunition near the town of Ichnya, more than 170 kilometres from Kyiv. It was the sixth major fire in three years at an arms depot of the Ukrainian army, which has been fighting Russian-backed forces in the east of the country since 2014. Ukrainian authorities described that incident as an act of sabotage.
Clear Sky 2018
For the first time Ukraine has begun a series of large-scale air force exercises with the United States and other NATO countries. The Clear Sky 2018 exercises, which will run until October 19, are being held in Western Ukraine. Some 700 troops are taking part, half of them from NATO member countries including the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania.
Minister of Economic Development and Trade of Ukraine, Stepan Kubiv, has reported that Ukraine’s GDP has now been growing for 10 quarters in a row, showing that the economy has overcome the crisis that was due to Russia’s aggression and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The forecast remains positive, that by the end of the year GDP growth should be over 3%.
Some people believe in a creature called a Chupacabra, in Ukrainian you’d say Чубакабра. A band from Pavlohrad mentions them in a song called Mol’fary (Мольфари). These are people, who in Hutsul culture, are believed to have magical abilities. Enjoy! https://soundcloud.com/juamus/ep-2016-audilkacom-1
Join us again next week for Ukraine Calling on Hromadske when we’ll bring you another topical in depth interview, the news and some music. So tune in. And we would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected] This is Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko, Caitlin O’Hare, Oksana Smerechuk. News by Iryna Solomko. Music Section by Marta Dyczok. Sound Engineer – Andriy Izdryk. E-mail distribution by Ilona Sviezhentseva. Web support by Dmity Belobrov, Kyrylo Loukerenko.