Former top Kuchma aide now managing Yanukovych, but has big ambitions of his own.
Serhiy Lyovochkin has juggled 11 visitors in half an hour, and is ready to settle down for a chat – as long as it’s not about policy and administration. As the president’s chief of staff, he is in charge of both, but prefers to keep quiet about the gritty details.
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“I try to keep my eye on reform.”
- Serhiy Lyovochkin, Yanukovych’s chief of staff.
“I try to keep my eye on reform,” he said, laconically, in a recent interview. But it’s clear he has fingers in many more pies.
His huge office desk had 17 folders carefully arranged on the surface, each one covered with stick-on notes with Lyovochkin’s neat, hand-written commentaries. The wide window sill is also used as workspace, with more folders and notes lying next to a framed photo of his wife and three children.
Lyovochkin’s four busy secretaries speak in hushed whispers, despite the fact that their working area is separated from his vast office by two massive doors with sound-proof padding. The landline phone rings occasionally. When they pick up, they say the good old Soviet “I’m listening” instead of “presidential chief of staff’s office.”
Lyovochkin runs a tight, well-drilled ship. “I think he managed to get the administrative part of work going without any trouble,” said Ihor Zhdanov, head of Open Politics think tank.
The presidents’ man
The chief of staff, who will turn 38 on July 17, is one of the president’s closest and most influential allies. He was appointed to the job by President Viktor Yanukovych’s first decree on Feb. 25, inauguration day.
But their joint history goes back to 1996, when Lyovochkin worked as advisor to Donetsk Governor Yanukovych, at the age of 24. Lyovochkin’s late father Volodymyr, who worked in Ukraine’s penitentiary system from 1969 well into 2000s, is believed to have known Yanukovych closely.
The authoritative weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnya wrote in 2004 that Volodymyr Lyovochkin was one of the few people who knew the details of Yanukovych’s convictions for assault and robbery in 1967 and 1970, which were later expunged from his record.
Now, Yanukovych’s smiling portrait hangs on the wall of Serhiy Lyovochkin’s office – an inherited Soviet tradition.
Lyovochkin likes to demonstrate his loyalty to the president. He said "there are no" circumstances that would cause him to leave his job. “And they cannot exist. This person will never say or do anything that would cause such a protest,” he says.
Some say it’s his ambition talking. “This man will go far,” says Mykhailo Brodsky, now head of the government’s Committee on Deregulation and Entrepreneurship. Brodsky lost a court case to Lyovochkin in 2006 for accusing him of involvement in corrupt schemes related to Ukrtelecom, the state-owned telephone monopoly that Lyovochkin had once supervised while working in President Leonid Kuchma’s administration. They are now in the same team.
Aged 25, he was appointed advisor to President Leonid Kuchma and became his personal assistant five years later. The influential yet controversial Viktor Medvedchuk at that time prowled the corridors of Bankova Street, where the presidential office is located, as chief of staff.
Medvedchuk was dubbed the “grey cardinal” of Ukrainian politics and feared by many for his ruthlessness and scheming. The lesser known Lyovochkin at the time was, in contrast, perceived as a major power balancing element in Kuchma’s staff.
“It was an important stage in his development,” said Zhdanov, of Open Politics. Zhdanov also says Kuchma was very meticulous about the work of his apparatus, and it was a good school for Lyovochkin.
Lyovochkin, one of a few top officials who speaks English fluently, calls himself “an amalgamator by nature.” Analysts say this quality shone during the Orange Revolution, when he was the chief negotiator between Kuchma’s camp and the opposition that challenged the results of the 2004 presidential election fixed in favor of Yanukovych.
Conflicts of interest
In a government of millionaires and billionaires, Lyovochkin is no exception. He declared almost Hr 12 million of income last year – a sharp contrast with his childhood, which he spent together with five other family members in a tiny apartment on the left bank of Kyiv.
“It would be in the public's interest to declare the sources of income. There needs to be a public inquiry, and Lyovochkin can help by being transparent.”
- Tom Mayne, a Campaigner at Global Witness, a London-based corruption watchdog.
“It builds character,” he smiled sadly.
His official 2009 declaration states that he received the money from “other sources” – a line that was not originally in the form and had to be hand-written.
“It would be in the public's interest to declare the sources of income. There needs to be a public inquiry, and Lyovochkin can help by being transparent,” said Tom Mayne, a Campaigner at Global Witness, a London-based corruption watchdog.
Mayne said he had written to Lyovochkin and his colleague Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko, who is affiliated with RosUkrEnergo, a controversial energy trading company half-owned by Russia’s Gazprom, asking for a more detailed account of their business interests and incomes, but is still waiting for a reply.
Opposition leader Yulia Tymsohenko has repeatedly described Lyovochkin as one of the “Godfathers” of Swiss-registered RosUkrEnergo. The company was brought into the lucrative yet shadowy business of supplying Ukraine and Europe with natural gas from Russia and Central Asia when Lyovochkin was in a position of power, within Kuchma’s administration.
Lyovochkin has, however, denied wrongdoing. Along with Gazprom, the shareholders of RosUkrEnergo include Ukrainian billionaire Dmytro Firtash, and Ivan Fursin, whom Lyovochkin has publicly referred to as friends.
He carefully admits having a personal conflict of interests, however. “I had one, but I have now unpicked it. There is not such a striking conflict now. I am finishing business with people who made me look not terribly appropriate and effective,” he said.
He refused to elaborate when asked whether he meant his alleged business ties to Firtash and Fursin.
Conflicts of interest are “all around” in Ukraine, he said. “It’s impossible to switch it off at once, like a plug. It has to be done little by little.”
He says he believes in gradual transformation in every aspect of life in Ukraine. “The bigger the country, the longer it takes,” he said.
He said he’s trying to carry his load, both in the office and by setting a personal example. “None of my cars have flashing lights or sirens, for example. This is the kind of a country I want to leave to my kids,” Lyovochkin says.
Three bursting folders are stacked on the corner of his desk, waiting to be read. Another one of those plump blue folders was perched on the tall reception of one of his secretaries. Lyovochkin still has plenty of work to do.
Kyiv Post Opinion Editor Katya Gorchinskaya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.