At the drinks reception after the inaugural Straight Talk event in Kyiv on April 20, one group of spectators could be heard discussing how organizing a panel debate like the one they had just witnessed (and participated in) would likely not have been possible in the years before the EuroMaidan Revolution that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.
That they felt that way is a compliment to an event which, from the very beginning, had set out to distinguish itself from the seemingly endless stream of conferences today in the Ukrainian capital.
The mission was ambitious but, more or less, accomplished.
At the outset, the host, Redcliffe Partners lawyer Dmytro Fedoruk, a sponsor of the Kyiv Post-organized event, made clear the format.
“You’re all tired of boring speakers and boring presentations,” he told the audience of about 60 people. “That’s why we came up with this idea. It’s going to be like Hardtalk on the BBC. Quick questions, quick answers. Our panel of speakers may not like it but I hope they’ll enjoy it in the end.”
Fedoruk was, by and large, true to his word.
The theme, “Pressure on Business,” kicked off with a straightforward question to Englishman and Cambridge graduate Jonathan Popper, the vice president of Ukrnafta, about how corruption in Ukraine differs from corruption in other countries. Popper answered well enough, but then it got interesting.
Fedoruk turned to Yuriy Terentyev, chairman of the Antimonopoly Committee of Ukraine. He asked Terentyev, repeatedly, if he thought the Antimonopoly Committee did its job properly in the past. Terentyev tried to avoid answering but the host kept interrupting and putting him on the spot in increasingly personal and direct ways. To his credit, the state official keeps his cool, at one point describing a question from Fedoruk as “infantile.”
For the audience, it was all entertaining and engaging. But before the banter between the two men turned too ugly, someone in the crowd shouted out, “let’s hear from the others, you’re ping-ponging!”
It was a timely intervention, Fedoruk and Terentyev having stretched out their frank exchange of views for a good 15 minutes as the five other panelists looked on.
The rest of the evening passed in a similar vein, although never became quite so lively again. Fedoruk remained dogged, pushing speakers for concrete details and shutting down their attempts at obfuscation wherever he could.
It was a tough act to keep up for 90 minutes though, especially in Ukraine, where participants in public discussions are used to being given time and space to air their views with little interference.
But that’s why this event was special.
At its best it was confrontational, at its worst, long-winded.
But it was always open and still just a work in progress.
Kyiv Post CEO Luc Chenier said the event was just a pilot program and that a series of Straight Talk events is in the works from the newspaper’s events division.
The quote of the night went to panelist Yulia Marushevska, the former chief of Odesa customs and now an activist. She said the best strategy for doing business in Ukraine is “to pay lawyers, not bribes.”
That assessment was met with widespread agreement, especially from moderator Fedoruk, who co-founded a legal firm in 2015.
Kyiv Post ‘Straight Talk’ with Redcliffe Partners
Sergey Vovchenko, head of the Milk Alliance Supervisory Board
Yulia Marushevska, Ukrainian activist and former chief of Odesa Customs
Mikhail Merkulov, CEO of Arricano Real Estate Plc
Yuriy Terentyev, chairman of the Antimonopoly Committee of Ukraine
Iaroslav Gregirchak, FCArb, deputy business ombudsman of Ukraine
Jonathan Popper, executive vice president, corporate strategy & development at Ukrnafta
What: Straight Talk
Where: Fedoriv Hub, Kyiv, Velyka Vasylkivs’ka Street, 5
When: April 20
Why: Tough talk about the hard issue of “Pressure on Business”