Ukraine has recruited the country’s business leaders and oligarchs to join the fight against coronavirus. On 16 March, President Zelenskyy brought together many of Ukraine’s richest men and asked them to support efforts to combat the pandemic, with each individual assigned a particular region of the country. DCH Group president Oleksandr Yaroslavsky was asked to help coordinate coronavirus crisis measures in his native Kharkiv region. Yaroslavsky spoke to Current Time TV about the pandemic situation in the country and his role in efforts to counter the virus.
You brought the first coronavirus tests to Ukraine. How come the state did not do this?
I don’t know why the authorities didn’t do this. You would need to ask them. The first 50,000 PCR tests were not delivered by me personally, but came from (Chinese billionaire tech entrepreneur) Jack Ma at my request.
That was a very friendly gesture on his part.
We have known each other for a long time. I have visited him and he visited me in Kharkiv last October. In times of trouble, it is important to be able to rely on friendship.
How would you describe the role of Ukrainian big business and oligarchs in the fight against the virus?
As for oligarchs, I don’t know.
Yes, I remember that you prefer to call yourself an "ordinary farmer."
I never call myself an oligarch because an oligarch is someone who influences the political decision-making process. I have no influence in that regard. I do not have mass media or a faction in parliament. I’ve been working in the private sector for 30 years. I am a citizen of Ukraine and I help my country. Like anybody else, I do what I can. Big, medium-sized, and small businesses can all help in their own way.
In mid-March as the scale of the coronavirus crisis was beginning to dawn on people around the world, President Zelenskyy brought Ukraine’s business leaders and oligarchs together and assigned you different regions of the country to look after. You were allocated Kharkiv. Does this mean that the government was unable to cope with the crisis?
I don’t dwell on whether the authorities are coping or not. I live in the Kharkiv region and my whole family is here, including my mother and brother as well as all of my friends. I have long been associated with Kharkiv, dating back to my time as president of Metalist Kharkiv Football Club. Why shouldn’t I help my region?
What did President Zelenskyy say during the March meeting? Did he call for specific action or request specific donations to fund the fight against the virus?
We are all Ukrainians. All the big businessmen that I know made their fortunes in Ukraine. Why shouldn’t we help out our country during difficult times? And who should the president turn to if not to us? He mobilized all the available resources, both in government and in the business sector.
In terms of financial contributions, what kind of amounts are we talking about?
I personally allocated more than USD 10 million for the fight against coronavirus. So far, I have spent around USD 3-4 million, but I am not sure of the exact figure. I have bought 50,000 PCR tests, while Jack Ma donated a further 100,000. I have also purchased other supplies from China via Jack’s contacts that would otherwise have been very difficult to access. I have delivered two million masks to Kharkiv. In addition to these initiatives, we also brought together many of the most prominent members of the Kharkiv community to pool our efforts. This included businessmen, industrial plant directors, and university rectors. This allowed to us to raise an additional USD 3 million and pay for more supplies including ventilators, tests, and protective clothing for healthcare workers, along with 150,000 food packages for pensioners and local residents living close to the poverty line. Together with Kharkiv Mayor Kernes, we also distributed packages of groceries.
These packages reportedly featured your photo. This immediately made Ukrainian journalists think that you are preparing to enter politics.
There was no photograph, only my surname. I left politics in 2004 after a stint as a member of parliament. At the time, I said that I would never participate in politics again. For the past 16 years, I have kept my word.
Can you give us an estimate of how much money big business across the country is allocating to fight the virus?
I heard that (Ukraine’s richest man) Rinat Akhmetov allocated about UAH 300 million hryvnias (slightly more than USD 11 million). I know that of those who attended the meeting with President Zelenskyy, almost all sent at least USD 2 million.
Who offered the most?
I don’t know. It is important for us to overcome this misfortune. It is not the time to count up who gave more or who gave less.
What does the government promise in return for the support you are providing?
I follow the media and have seen that (Portuguese footballer) Ronaldo offered EUR 1 million, but I did not hear about any famous people providing more than this anywhere else in the world. So in that sense, I think Ukraine is leading the way.
So what does the government offer in return?
Personally, I have received no promises and expect nothing. The biggest reward for me will be if we are able to keep the number of deaths and infections as low as possible.
So you provided USD 10 million just like that?
I’m am not simply handing the money over, don’t forget. I am using it to purchase the necessary medical equipment and supplies. I spent almost USD 850,000 on PCR tests alone.
So you’re not planning on entering politics and yet you don’t expect any concessions from the authorities for your businesses?
I have heard rumors that I will try and convert this help into votes. I can declare to you with absolute certainty that I won’t be going into politics, so I don’t need any votes.
Ukraine has imposed quite tough coronavirus lockdown restrictions. As a result, many small businesses are slowly dying. At the same time, some larger enterprises have not stopped operations. Have any of your assets ceased working?
Some of them, yes. For example, Kharkiv International Airport.
Because air travel has completely stopped.
Yes, exactly. This was the government’s decision. The Kharkiv Palace Hotel, where I currently am, is also virtually empty. It serves as the regional headquarters for the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Our shopping and entertainment centers are also closed, but everything else works, including my metallurgical and mining assets.
Maybe this says a lot about the relationship of the authorities. For example, in the Czech Republic, the Skoda plant has temporarily ceased operations despite being the largest taxpayer in the country.
If I were in the Czech Republic, Skoda would work.
Have you already calculated the losses of those enterprises that were forced to cease operations?
Personally, I haven’t. I live in the future. My focus is on plans rather than losses. That is something for my economists to concern themselves with.
Many representatives of small business say they will not survive this crisis. What about big business?
Small businesses will not survive? They will survive! Anyone who is faster and smarter than the competition will survive.
And how will big business emerge from the current situation?
I'm not currently too upset about the situation. Such is life. There will always be new challenges. We have survived previous crises and continued to develop. I have the Kharkiv Tractor Plant and am planning to develop the Ecopolis project there, with 500,000 square meters of housing, business park facilities and a regional tech hub. I don’t have time to stop, 24 hours a day. I am constantly in contact with people and we are always working.
President Zelenskyy promised USD 1 million to any Ukrainian scientists who develop a coronavirus vaccine. In an interview with Radio Liberty, you added that you are prepared to pay the same amount minus one dollar. Has anyone responded? Are there any developments?
I do not have any news yet. I made a promise, that's all. I do not intend to invent a vaccine. But anyone who does will be guaranteed almost two million dollars.
In the same interview with Radio Liberty, you said that you intend to build a large virology center in Kharkiv. How much will it cost?
I think the overall investment will be tens of millions of dollars. I do not know exactly. A similar center in Wuhan cost USD 44 million. I am not sure if what we plan will be even better, but it will certainly be no worse.
When do you expect the virology center to be ready?
We are already working on plans for the launch. Today we held a big meeting with the mayor. I hope the opening will be as soon as possible.
But you cannot share a timeline or state the overall cost?
I’m being honest. If I give you an exact date, you’ll sue me if we open later. We will definitely invite you to the opening.
How much are you currently worth? I tried to find specific figures, but they were rather hard to come by.
My worth can be assessed in terms of my beautiful wife, my five beautiful children, my mother, my brother, my friends. I don’t need anything else. Money is a material thing without intrinsic value.
The last figure I saw was around USD 900 million.
I will say this much - I have enough.
Is that figure close to reality?
Who knows? Today it could be 900 million, tomorrow 900 billion. That is not the point. What’s important is to be happy and enjoy life. This is true worth. I am inspired by life.