Ukraine Tycoon Creating a Stir With Purchase Of U.S. Media

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 07, 2003, issue of November 07, 2003.
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Ukraine’s most prominent and controversial Jewish businessman, Vadim Rabinovich, said he has bought a “controlling stake” in America’s oldest Russian-language daily newspaper, Novoe Russkoe Slovo, and its sister radio station, Narodnya Volna.

Rabinovich, the first overseas owner of NRS, holds a number of Ukrainian media properties, which are known for journalistic standards that are “far from high,” in the words of one observer. His media holdings are one part of a business empire that has been investigated a number of times by American and Ukrainian authorities for alleged links to illegal arms trading and the Russian mafia.

Representatives of the New York-based NRS repeatedly hung up on a reporter seeking comment, but Rabinovich, in an e-mail to the Forward, confirmed reports that his Media International Group has purchased the paper.

“The main goal is to turn the Novoe Russkoe Slovo into the Financial Times of the Russian-speaking world,” Rabinovich wrote in the e-mail. “The paper will be sold in Moscow, Kiev, and all European capitals. At the moment there is no newspaper that can be named as a connecting bridge.”

NRS, which was founded in 1910 by anti-Bolshevik czarist émigrés, has become a strong American voice in support of the Kremlin since the end of the Soviet era. While it is a major source of news for Russian-Jewish immigrants, it has had relatively little coverage of Jewish issues.

Among Ukrainian and American media observers, most of whom were informed of the sale by the Forward, the purchase of the paper has generated concern about how Rabinovich, with his tangled political relationships, will alter its content.

Rabinovich’s editorial staff plans to take over the paper in January. The former owner and editor, Valery Weinberg, will reportedly continue to own a small stake in the paper and occupy one of four positions on the paper’s board of directors, but he will not retain editorial control.

The purchase is Rabinovich’s first business acquisition in the United States, where the State Department has banned him since 1995 because of links to a company suspected of illegal weapons trading with North Korea and Iran.

Before this deal, Rabinovich’s most notable appearance on the American media scene came in 1997, when he placed a full-page ad in The New York Times. The ad warned of a threat of antisemitism in Ukraine, but praised the Ukrainian administration and exhorted Jews to visit the country.

At the time, Jewish critics chastised Rabinovich for promoting a government that had taken few positive steps to support its Jewish population, recently estimated at more than 100,000.

Observers said that under Rabinovich’s leadership, NRS and Narodnya Volna are likely to be similarly used for the promotion of the Ukrainian government, because of Rabinovich’s close relationship with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

Natalia Ligachova, editor-in-chief of Telekritika, a Ukrainian media watchdog publication, said Rabinovich “is regarded as a person who is (and can be) used by the presidential administration, thanks to his not-quite-transparent businesses, arms sales and former links with the KGB in the Soviet time.”

Vladimir Katzman, editorial director of Rabinovich’s media holdings, did not deflect these concerns in a brief interview last Friday with the Ukrainian-based Jewish News, a subsidiary of Rabinovich’s Media International Group.

“In America their opinions about Ukraine are not based on real sources of information,” Katzman said in that interview. “Starting next year not only the concept of [NRS] will be changed, but also the strategy of development.”

The new editor, starting in January, will be Larrissa Mudrak, currently the editor of a weekly business newspaper in Ukraine that is a joint venture between Rabinovich’s Media International Group and the Financial Times. Ligachova called that project a “symbiosis of low-standard Ukrainian journalism and a quality British newspaper.”

According to the editor of a leading Jewish newspaper in Russia who spoke on condition of anonymity, a Mudrak-led NRS will be a vehicle for whitewashing Ukraine’s reputation in the United States.

But the editor also said the paper could be a way for Rabinovich, who is a dual citizen of Ukraine and Israel, to clean up his own image abroad in case he falls out of favor with his the Ukrainian government. That happened in 1999, when Rabinovich was temporarily declared persona non grata by the Ukrainian government, which led him to move his family to Israel.

Comparing the purchase of the NRS to the recent purchase of the Chelsea soccer team in England by Russian Jewish tycoon Roman Abramovich, the editor said, “In case anything happens in the Ukraine, the world will start yelling that there they are offending a Jew with an image; a righteous man with an image.”

Rabinovich describes the purchase in strictly business terms, as a part of a project to create a worldwide network of Russian-language papers, building on the papers he owns in Israel and Ukraine.

“This will not be the paper of a certain national group,” Rabinovich said. “This is a business project which will let us save significantly on operational costs by integrating different editions in various countries.”

In an apparently humorous aside, he added, “I would also like to buy [the] Forward.”

Juergen Roth, author of the German book “The Oligarch: Vadim Rabinovich Breaks the Silence,” said that from what he knows of Rabinovich he would not imagine this as anything other than a business deal.

But Roth went on to say that “when [Rabinovich’s] relationship with Kuchma goes bad, so do his business interests.” Roth added that “whether his newspapers are independent, I sincerely doubt.”

“The Oligarch,” which was written after months spent in Rabinovich’s company, paints a sympathetic picture of Rabinovich as being more honest than most of the tycoons who arose in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Roth said that Rabinovich “distances himself from the mafia, which other oligarchs don’t do.”

Ligachova also said that his TV network in the Ukraine, while not of the highest quality, “express the opinion of the opposition parties, and therefore the news is more balanced than on other TV channels.”

But this good behavior has not ended the accusations against Rabinovich. Earlier this year the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that Rabinovich and his son had sold a cache of guns and tanks to the Taliban, a report that complemented a media inquiry into suspected arms sales by Rabinovich to Liberian guerillas in 1999.

Rabinovich has denied the allegations of arms smuggling, telling a Kiev newspaper: “If something disappears in Ukraine, something is stolen or vanishes, Rabinovich is guilty. If there is no water in Ukraine, it is Rabinovich’s fault.”

Some of his least disputed works have been those he has done for Ukraine’s Jewish community. Though it came as a great surprise to many when he burst onto the Ukrainian Jewish scene in 1997, after being relatively uninvolved before, he quickly became a central figure. He founded the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, which was responsible for The New York Times ad, and became the head of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine and the National Israel Appeal.

The executive director of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, Eduard Dolinsky, said, “He is a Jew, and a devoted Jew.”

Among the projects Rabinovich has funded, Dolinsky said, were the purchase and refurbishing of Kiev’s central synagogue for a chasidic congregation and the construction of a center for Russian immigrants in Jerusalem.

Even here, though, there are doubters. A Ukrainian Jewish leader said that in his Jewish work, Rabinovich is “seen as trying to legitimize himself by using the communities.”

Whether Rabinovich will bring his Jewish interests to the paper is still up for debate. In response to inquires about his business plan, Rabinovich was coy: “Our know-how you will see in due course,” he said.

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