Aug 8, 2008

Lifestyle - Can the rich buy respect ?

There comes a time in the life of an oligarch when spending money becomes more important than making it. And for Victor Pinchuk, who became a billionaire and the second richest man in Ukraine by cornering the market for steel pipes and cultivating ties with politicians, that time is now.
At his invitation, Paul McCartney recently played Kiev's independence square before 350,000 exultant Ukrainians in a thundering monsoon. "This is for Ukrainya," Pinchuk yelled after the June performance, his face dripping with sweat and rain.
For Ukraine it may well have been, but the concert, which cost him more than $5 million, also represents the latest, most lavish stage of Pinchuk's uneasy metamorphosis from a grasping, post-Soviet billionaire business executive to an international mover and shaker. His political and celebrity connections - he calls both the financier George Soros and former President Bill Clinton friends - seem to grow by the day.
The long boom in commodities - steel and minerals as well as oil - has created a growing number of billionaires in once destitute economics like Russia, India and Ukraine. Meanwhile, the global credit crunch has set back the ambitions of many of the wealthiest financiers of the West, opening the door to a new breed hungry for art, access and ultimately acceptance.
For Pinchuk, like many of his contemporaries in neighboring Russia, the prizes that they extracted from the ashes of the Soviet Union were a function of brute political calculation and ruthless business practice.
The son-in-law of Leonid Kuchma, the controversial former president, Pinchuk's wealth soared under the Kuchma regime. He has been accused of securing sweet deals on privatizations. It is a charge he hotly denies.
"My pipe business I created from scratch, my media assets and bank I bought from the secondary market," he said in his rough, Russian accented, English. "You count all my assets and you never see any gift from Kuchma. The only gift I get from Kuchma is my wife. I am trying to be transparent but nobody likes rich people."
In a truly global world, though, success for Pinchuk and others like him will be measured not as much by the raw size of their fortune but by their ability to use their billions to achieve recognition and sway far beyond the grimy precincts of their industrial triumphs.
In Russia, billionaire oligarchs like Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska have taken steps to present themselves as acceptable international figures. Abramovich has invested millions in art and soccer while Deripaska drew attention for a controversial meeting he had in 2006 with Senator John McCain, now the presumptive Republican presidential candidate.
But few, if any, have been as bluntly aggressive and openly public in using art, global philanthropy, public policy and even rock and roll to advance their agenda as Pinchuk.
"What I am doing is not about image," said Pinchuk, 48, as he sat on the porch of his dacha outside of Kiev. "I just want to participate in the building of my country."
Pinchuk's outreach campaign features substantial philanthropy mixed with supercharged celebrity hobnobbing. He is one of the larger non-American donors to the foundation established by Bill Clinton, and has bankrolled a substantial AIDS awareness initiative in Ukraine. He is equally at home enjoying a night out with Elton John or a private showing of Jeff Koons's latest sculptures.
To sustain his quixotic dream of securing Ukraine's entry into the European Union, he has funded programs at major Washington-based policy organizations, The Brookings Institution and the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He has also recruited former President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Karl Rove, Bush's former top adviser, to give speeches in Yalta to support this cause.
None of this comes cheap of course. Such pursuits, along with his frenetic art purchases, have cost Pinchuk an estimated $200 million over the past four years out of a fortune estimated between $5 billion to $10 billion. In Ukraine, that leaves him second only to Rinat Akhmetov, a banking magnate.
But the dividends are already apparent. A Pinchuk luncheon at Davos drew 400 luminaries; he has attended Bill Clinton's 60th and George H.W. Bush's 80th birthday parties; and he can now call upon Damien Hirst, known for his formaldehyde sharks and $100 million diamond-decorated skull, to propose a color scheme for his new private jet (the suggestion was blue.)
Pinchuk's lineup of heavy hitting endorsers includes Soros, Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general. Pinchuk identified Soros as an early mentor and he has become a large benefactor to foundations backed by Soros.
"He is behaving like an enlightened capitalist," Soros said, "and there are not many in that part of the world."
Pinchuk was raised in a two-room, 36-square-meter, or 390-square-foot, apartment in Dniepropetrovsk, an industrial town 370 kilometers, or 230 miles, south of Kiev.
An engineer out of college, he had modest goals - an apartment, a TV, and, with luck, a dacha. "This was my dream," he said.
"Then perestroika started," he added, using the term for economic reforms that began in 1987.
Armed with a patent for a specialized form of pipe production, Pinchuk persuaded his manager to let him market his services to pipe factories. Soon he had negotiated a profit cut and the rubles rolled in. In 1990 he formed Interpipe as an engineering consulting firm and positioned himself as a middleman ready to cash in.
"I wanted to be a rich guy," he said, recalling those early headlong days. And very soon he was. With companies cut off from Moscow's dictates and unschooled in the ways of marketing and entrepreneurship, Pinchuk created an industrial daisy chain, reconnecting coal to coke to pig iron to hot rolled coils and finally to steel pipes, taking his own cut at every stage.
When Ukraine began selling off its public assets in the early 1990s, Pinchuk built up stakes in two pipe companies for just a few million dollars that are now worth billions. He also got into real estate, television, banks and gas distribution.
Estimates of his net worth fluctuate: Forbes pegs him at $5 billion, a figure that Pinchuk says is low. He points to his newly formed holding company, called Eastone, (which he says he intends to take public soon) and claims that the value of its portfolio is $10 billion.
Whatever the size of his fortune, Pinchuk has attracted attention in the West and Bill Clinton in particular. Sharing a fondness for blending high policy with kitschier celebrity gambits, the two men have bonded. They connected most recently at a seminar in July at the Aspen Institute in Colorado.
"Viktor is motivated by the rare quality of inclusion and doing whatever he can to bring together those who can help with those in need," Clinton said in a statement responding to a request for comment.
Pinchuk makes scant effort to cloak his wealth - whether that be a $23 million purchase of a Koons sculpture or the $160 million he recently paid for a grand London estate. But such displays are not so easily digested in the Ukraine, a country ravaged by inflation, AIDS and an inchoate, rambunctiously democratic, political process.
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who, like Pinchuk, is young, glamorous and a native of Dniepropetrovsk, has advanced a populist, anti-oligarch platform that has focused squarely on Pinchuk and his ties to Kuchma.
It is clear that the attacks have hurt Pinchuk - though when asked about her, he declines comment.
"Politicians love power, I love freedom," he replies. "That is why I am not a politician."
Already one of his privatization deals has been revoked. And another, his purchase of Nikopol, one of the world's largest iron alloy producers, resulted in a lawsuit that accused Pinchuk of paying bribes to government officials, receiving kickbacks and siphoning off $41 million in profits.
The case was settled in 2006 and Pinchuk brushes off the allegations, calling them "black PR," and says he has reached an accommodation with his accuser.
But his critics are undaunted. "I wouldn't mind getting paid what his PR people are getting paid to clean up his image," said Bruce Marks, a lawyer who represented the rival Ukrainian businessman who filed the lawsuit against Pinchuk over the Nikopol sale.
For all the controversy, Pinchuk enjoys celebrating his success. The day after the Paul McCartney concert, Pinchuk invited select guests to his sprawling Japanese garden.
McCartney showed up with his new girlfriend. William Taylor, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was in attendance, as was President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine; President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia; and Hirst, the artist, accompanied by Jay Jopling, the influential London art dealer.
It is in many ways a coming out party, with each power guest representing a swatch of the gaudy tapestry of legitimacy that Pinchuk craves.
Yushchenko, whose face still bears the scars that made him a symbol of democratic hope during the Orange Revolution, takes it all in - the shimmering garden, the rock star and in the distance, a nine-hole golf course that Pinchuk is building.
"The world has given it all to Mr. Pinchuk," he said. "Now it is time to give it back."

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