Sunday

18th Nov 2018

Opinion

Ukraine: the book scandal that never was

  • Yanukovych. Did you read the one about the President who became a millionaire by writing nothing? (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

There are politicians whose memoirs are such guaranteed bestsellers that publishers will happily make deals in advance.

In advance, that is, of the book being finished. Not of a book perhaps being written or perhaps not.

Read and decide

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For the second year in a row, President Viktor Yanukovych has declared mega-earnings in royalties – for 2012, his "royalties" for books not written came to a hefty 15.5 million UAH (nearly €1.5 million).

Over the last two years he says he has earned 32 million UAH for his writing, without publishing a word.

Nothing else in his income declaration - submitted in accordance with the law and, so he says, in compliance with international standards - elicited more than fleeting comment.

Eyebrows were raised back in April 2012 over the staggering royalties paid to Yanukovych by the Donetsk-based firm Novy Svit for 2011.

The payment was "for the copyright passed to this publisher on the books from 2005-2010," namely: A Year in Opposition, In Politics There are No Final Victories or Defeats, A Year in Office and How Ukraine Should Live Further.

It also paid for "literary works written in the future by Viktor Yanukovych."

The money, the President said, was to be given to charity.

Eyebrows are normally raised just once, not fleetingly, on an annual basis with attention soon safely diverted elsewhere.

The questions over such extraordinary earnings were already more muted in early April this year, although still heard.

After all, the explanation last year had been that the fee was for life-long rights. Now it transpires that this was something of a retainer fee, albeit on a scale which would bankrupt many publishing firms.

The few remaining media publications and television channels in Ukraine prepared to touch the prickly subject learned from writers that royalties on such a scale, even for books that are actually published, are unheard of in this country.

Olexander Afronin, President of the Ukrainian Publishers and Booksellers Association, told Ukrainsky Tyzhden that in his view such royalties could be viewed as a political bribe.

Then on 12 April an article appeared in the authoritative weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnya entitled "Unprinted Yanukovych."

In the piece, Viktor Trehubov describes Viktor Yanukovych’s literary career and outlines the royalties which popular writers in Ukraine and abroad can hope for.

He points out one other crucial detail. The Donetsk-based firm is not, in fact, a publishing company, but a limited liability printing firm (drukarnia).

It appears to print packaging, advertising material, newspapers and journals, but not books.

Dzerkalo Tyzhnya says the firm told it to speak to its deputy director, Edward Vakulenko, regarding the President’s oeuvre, but Vakulenko’s phone was permanently off.

In normal countries, this is the kind of stuff that scandal is made of - but not in Ukraine.

One problem is the lack of opportunity to raise such questions.

The President’s carefully prepared television spot - "Dialogue with the Nation" - and a press conference for journalists at the end of February this year came 15 months after his previous press conference.

The events were organised to keep awkward questions to a minimum.

Even at the joint press conference with EU leaders held in Brussels on 25 February, the President’s press secretary Darya Chepak abruptly changed a prior arrangement and gave the floor to a trusted journalist from the Presidential journalist pool (who asked about visa liberalisation).

But a deeper problem in Ukraine is lack of faith that a scandal would change anything.

There have been plenty of shocking articles explaining how, for example, the former state residence of Mezhyhirya has been turned into Yanukovych's private property.

No heads rolled, no changes were made and certainly no answers were given.

Much was made of the Public Information Act which came into effect in May 2011 - it was hailed as an opportunity for officials and public spending to be put under public scrutiny.

Scrutiny there is - in certain journalists' investigations, on Internet forums, on social networks.

There have also been a considerable number of court cases, with at least one European Court of Human Rights case pending over refusals, often on far-fetched grounds, to give substance to the information supposedly guaranteed by this and other laws.

There are also income declarations which - on occasion, dramatically - do not add up.

But despite it all, it is business as usual for Ukraine's scandal-proof, non-writing writer-President.

The writer is an activist in the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group in Ukraine

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