On a charter flight from Kiev to Simferopol, before our two-hour drive here, I’m asked by the earnest reporter seated next to me whether I know what Victor Pinchuk looks like. I give a vague description—tired from having traveled nearly 24 hours. “Isn’t he short and a little bald?” I say.
“Yes,” she agrees and adds: He’s the one with the “hooked nose.”
Clearly, the reporter’s got a firm grasp of her subject, which makes sense since she’s working on an upcoming profile of the Ukrainian moneyman for a financial magazine, and they appear to have some sort of working relationship.
Pinchuk is the primary funder and organizer of the conference we’re attending—he’s a powerful, rich Ukrainian who, we’re led to believe, is bringing together powerful political-types “to contribute to the effective integration of Ukraine into key international systems.” And he’s a Jew, in a country once known for pogroms and attempts to purge the Jewish people, which itself might be the greatest sign that Ukraine is more integrated than ever before.
It’s called the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference, and it’s primarily being held in the beautiful White Hall at the Livadia Palace, where Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill met to divvy up Europe toward the end of World War II. The big round table they gathered around is in the foyer—freeing up space in the White Hall for the global elites, wannabes, and press—far more numerous today than in 1945.
The palace is filled with Davos-level stars. We in the press are not the only ones he’s paying to be here (just trip expenses in my case). They arrive in Mercedes and BMWs, with posses of handlers not far behind.
There’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who seems to be on every other panel over the two-day event, and is accompanied by a youthful looking French woman, who sports thigh-high leather boots that match her (also leather) miniskirt perfectly. DSK’s date is not being paid by the hour, another conference attendee confides, she’s a high-level French TV executive.
He speaks in a gentle, almost incomprehensible voice and calls upon political leaders to show some courage to reform governmental institutions. When one attendee asks which world politician might be able to do that, DSK looks around the room and shrugs his shoulders. It’s not attainable, he admits, but it doesn’t stop him from repeating that tired line and others.
“Globalization is a war,” says the man who would now be president of France, if not for allegations that he attempted to rape a New York City hotel maid. “A new kind of war. One that very few parties, especially in the EU, are prepared to fight.” He’s a man of many deep thoughts.
There’s also Gen. David Petraeus, the war hero and former CIA director, who tells me to bug off when I ask for an interview, and at a more gentle moment admits that he’s suffering from a hamstring injury that’s keeping him from running his morning miles. He, too, is hoping to say nothing worthy of being quoted. And he succeeds.
Larry Summers is here, too, in his first public appearance since withdrawing from being considered by President Barack Obama to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. I move in to ask about his withdrawal—was he pushed out by Obama, or did he willingly remove himself from consideration for a job he badly wanted? “I said no,” he screams at the reporter beside me who beats me to the Fed question. “I said no. I said no. I said no. No.”
No, he wants to talk about “infrastructure growth” and how JFK Airport in New York City is so run down compared with other big international airports across the world. But on that too, he won’t get into details. “I’m not going to get in a political argument with you,” he sternly says when I ask whether he’s critical of his former boss’s effort, or lack thereof, at rebuilding America’s infrastructure.
With such candor, it’s no surprise the entire conference is on the record. Except for a single event: a private morning breakfast for Shimon Peres, the president of the state of Israel. And that’s only private because it’s on Saturday, or the Sabbath, and Peres’s office doesn’t feel it’s appropriate for him to speak on the record on the day of rest. Fine, there wasn’t anything newsworthy there, either.
But while his guests might not appreciate the press, Pinchuk certainly does. After all, if a bunch of global elites meet in the middle of nowhere, and there is no one there to witness the gathering, did it really happen?