Kiev: On September 19 next week, the Kyiv Post will complete 20 years of existence, 20 years in which this tenacious newsweekly with a print circulation of little more than 15,000 has consistently scrapped and punched above its weight.
This is in part because it publishes in English, making it the source of first resort for news on Ukraine for embassies in Kiev and chanceries around the world, as well as for any expat doing business in this country of simpatico citizens and venal officialdom.
The other element of its success has been its consistent, and cussed, independence. The paper tells it arrow-straight in a part of the world where much of the media twists the news to suit the interests of oligarch owners and corrupt politicians.
By contrast, the record shows that the Kyiv Post gets the story right most of the time; and apart from a few instances of turbulence between owner and editors, the quality of its journalism is not inferior to any reputable publication in the West. Staid it may be on occasion, but it’s never dodgy or unreliable.
I am in Koncha-Zaspa, a zippy 30-minute drive south of Kiev in a daredevil local journalist’s car. This is a wooded suburb of the capital, dotted with mansions of questionable taste, some grotesque.
By the standards of the zip code, Mohammad Zahoor’s pile is restrained, though it could hardly be called understated. The security is relaxed — one man at the gate who waves us through, another who ushers us to a parking spot; and as we descend from our car, a tall Pakistani man, about 6-foot-2, approaches us. It’s Zahoor, Ukraine’s richest expat, a “minigarch” worth about $1 billion (some say), and the owner of the Kyiv Post.
Zahoor is 60 years old, though his jet-black hair isn’t a day older than 30. His physique suggests regular trips to the gym. He is a virile chap, with two little toddlers to prove it. They’re twins — Arabella and Mirabella — his daughters with his wife Kamaliya, a bombshell blonde who was Mrs. World in 2008, and is today a singer of some repute not just in Ukraine but in those parts of Europe where the pop culture is unfussy.
We banter with Zahoor’s twins for a while before they’re whisked off by a posse of nannies (I count four). A housekeeper brings us chai made in the way of the Indian subcontinent, strong brick-red tea with lots of milk and sugar. After a few sips — the tea is hot, and we slurp noisily — Zahoor starts to reminisce. His speech is languid, his accent a mix of Pakistan and Britain. “You want to know my story?” he asks.
Men of steel
The owner of the Kyiv Post arrived in Moscow in 1974 on an engineering scholarship. He’d been at college in Karachi, and when he learned of his selection by the Soviet education ministry his parents were on a pilgrimage to Mecca, so he left without telling them. He was one of 42 students flown in from Pakistan: 14 stayed in Moscow, 14 went to St. Petersburg, and 14 unlucky ones — among them Zahoor — were put on a train to Donetsk, a shabby, polluted industrial backwater in then-eastern Soviet Ukraine. Showing early acumen, he changed $40 on the black market before embarking on the 32-hour journey. “I’m from Pakistan. I wouldn’t sell my dollars at the official rate!”
Zahoor studied engineering and steel-making at Donetsk, turning in a thesis on the rolling plant at the Donetsk Steel Mill in 1980. “Sixteen years later I bought that mill,” he says, with obvious — but not off-putting — satisfaction. He returned to Pakistan shortly after with a Russian wife, and worked for Pakistan Steel. “I was a safety engineer. We translated Russian safety manuals into English.”
This was the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Zahoor’s Russian wife excited the suspicion of Pakistani intelligence. “‘Why are you getting letters from Russia at your home?’ they asked me. ‘Because my wife is Russian!’ I said!” The spooks, unimpressed, made it clear that Zahoor’s professional prospects were limited if he were to remain married to a Russian. So he left for Moscow in 1987, to work for a Pakistani trading company, helping his employers make a fortune buying Russian steel at $100 a ton and selling it abroad for $250. “We bought 10,000 tons in all — $1.5 million in profit!”
It wasn’t long before Zahoor started his own business, in partnership with a Thai steelmaker. By the early 1990s, “we were making $40-50 million profit per annum.” In 1996, he bought the Donetsk mill he’d studied as a student, turning a shambolic post-Soviet plant into “a state-of-the-art steel mill.” Those were lawless days, however. “It was President [Leonid] Kuchma’s time. Dinosaurs could just roll up and take your business away.” One of those, the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, tried to do just that. Zahoor fought back, and he recalls “the Kiev Post took up my case.” Bowing to reality, Zahoor made a pact with another oligarch, Viktor Nusenkis, which kept Akhmetov at bay. But Zahoor’s victory was Pyrrhic: He had to cede 90 percent of the plant to Nusenkis.
“I continued in steel until 2008, buying mills in the U.S., the U.K., and Serbia, and building a mill in Dubai. We had two piers in Odessa port.” Presciently, he got out of the steel business in 2008 — just before the recession — selling his whole caboodle for $1 billion to Vadim Varshavsky, an oligarch who went bankrupt not long after. It was at this point, having rid himself of the steel that had brought him so much joy and so much pain, that Zahoor bought the Kyiv Post from Jed Sunden, its American founder-owner, for $1.1 million. (Born the Kiev Post, the paper later changed its name to Kyiv, adopting an alternative English-language spelling for the capital that many here say better reflects the way it is pronounced in the Ukrainian language.)
“I invested in real estate, hospitality, trading, and media,” says Zahoor. “In my portfolio, the Kyiv Post is at the top. Not financially, of course, as it loses me $20,000 a month. But it has pride of place. It carries a message to the government: ‘This is your country, and you have to be good to it and your countrymen.’”
“When they’re kicked in their asses, they make a big show of doing something. But it’s like they’re pretending.”
Six years after he bought the Post, Zahoor is still enamored of his purchase — and proud of it. “It has never been considered to be a neutral newspaper by the governments of the day, although it clearly is. Because we tell the truth, governments have considered us to be the ‘opposition.’ But [current President Petro] Poroshenko knows me well and knows I’m non-partisan.”
Zahoor can be uncomplimentary about the Poroshenko government. “They talk too much but they do too little. When they’re kicked in their asses, they make a big show of doing something. But it’s like they’re pretending.” I press him on Poroshenko, and, in particular, on his campaign promise to divest himself of his chocolate assets if elected president. (Poroshenko is the Chocolate King of Ukraine, holding a majority stake in the Roshen Confectionary Corp., Ukraine’s premier sweets business.) “Poroshenko,” says Zahoor, “promised to sell his business once he came to power but he never did. In fact, he’s the only person in the country whose worth has actually increased in the current economic depression.”
“I’d say all this to him if he were sitting at the table with us right now. I’d remind him of all his promises.”
Romantic holiday in Pakistan
The Kyiv Post isn’t Zahoor’s only romantic attachment. The very mention of Kamaliya, his wife, is enough to make him beam like a beacon. It’s an unlikely pairing, that of the Pakistani tycoon and the brassy provincial crooner, and I ask him how it all came about. The answer is unexpected.
“VAT,” he says. “VAT brought us together.” Value-added tax, I exclaim, wondering whether the abbreviation meant something else in Ukraine — Very Alluring Talent, perhaps? “Yes. VAT is a big issue here in this country. Everybody tries to get it back. You try to use whatever connection you’ve got. In 2003, I had a meeting with the deputy director of the tax authority. He was a family friend of Kamaliya, and he brought her with him to the meeting.”
“They have to let Donetsk go — they should let it go.”
“I thought she was beautiful. He told me she was a singer. I said, ‘Let her sing something.’ So she sang a Ukrainian folk song a capella. I was a fan of Sarah Brightman all my life, and she was much better than Sarah Brightman!” Zahoor asked her for her phone number, and got it. The next week, he was marking Metallurgists’ Day — a vestige from the Soviet cultural calendar — at his Donetsk mill, and he asked Kamaliya if she’d come sing for the workers. She came.
They met a few more times in Kiev, and then Zahoor took her on holiday to Dubai, and then Pakistan. “There, I bought her a red sari, and told her we were going to a friend’s wedding. She protested, saying, ‘But in Indian movies the bride wears the red sari.’ But she wore it. I took her to a friend’s house where there were flowers, and a mullah. And there I asked her to marry me.”
“She said yes. This was two months after we’d first met.”
I ask Zahoor about Donetsk, the place — currently in the hands of Russian rebels — where he first studied and learned Russian, and for which he still retains great affection. “They never thought they were Russian,” he says. “They considered themselves Ukrainian, but of Russian origin, and with Russian language. But they’re afraid of being considered third-class citizens, which is why they’ve opted to fight. I’m against their fighting like that, but I think the moment has passed at which this can be resolved on an amicable basis.”
So what’s next in the conflict? “Somebody has to be more generous. I don’t think Russia and Donetsk will be more generous. Ukraine’s economy is down. Its back is to the wall. They have to let Donetsk go — they should let it go. Because this is bringing disaster to the Ukrainian economy. Let them go.”
What about Crimea? I ask. Here Zahoor draws on his own personal history as a Pakistani. “I have told the government so many times that this is like Kashmir. Kashmir is a disputed territory and Pakistan can never take it back from India. Crimea is now a part of Russia, and a part of Russia it will remain.”
“So let us remember … Crimea is Kashmir on the Black Sea.”
This article originally appeared on Politico.