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?
No conference organizer wants to say how much these bigwigs are pulling in for their 48 hours on the Black Sea. Some even play dumb and suggest that folks like the Clintons—Bill and Hillary are both here—have just shown up because they’re such good friends with Pinchuk. But that isn’t true.
The top billing for the confab is a moderated discussion between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. It’s the most interesting event with the most prestigious speakers. So it’s moderated by Pinchuk himself.
“I think you all feel how historical this moment is,” he says with glee, in his thick Ukrainian accent. Cameras flash and the crowd claps. “Today I’m making something new in my life. For the first time in my life I will try to have a discussion with the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, and the prime minister, Tony Blair.”
He notes it’s the first time a British prime minister and American president have been in the White Hall since 1945—when it was Churchill and FDR, respectively. He thinks about it and realizes that would then make him the updated Joseph Stalin, or something like that. He laughs along with his gathering.
That evening Pinchuk will introduce us “to one of the most premium politician of our race.” He is, of course, speaking of Hillary Clinton.
“A role model for hundreds of million of women in all the world. And have a great honor to give floor to Hillary Rodham Clinton. I want to give a Wow! Wow! Wow!”
The crowd obliges, and gives it up for Hillary, who under the radar has shown up here 5,000 miles from New York City, where she’s due in just a couple days for the annual Clinton Global Initiative gala.
“As we meet this year here in Yalta, Ukraine is at another crossroads, a time for big decisions and bold actions,” Hillary says, really getting to the heart of the matter. “A time that will determine whether Ukraine keeps moving forward toward a future enriched by European integration, or passively fails to do so, or, by other forces working on behalf of their own definition of change, is changed in a different direction toward a different future. This is the decision of the citizens and leaders of this country.”
It’s the kind of speech she could have given in almost any country in the world, with a slight variation or two. At least Pinchuk got his photo-op with her. And at least Macy Gray, the surprise pop singer who comes on after the former secretary of state, is entertaining. She’s got some pipes, and makes it through a brief set without incident.
In reality, the most interesting panels aren’t the high-paid speakers but the guys who actually care about Ukraine—the locals.
Like Viktor Yanukovych, the thuggish Ukrainian president who berates his brave opponents who dare ask him to release the political prisoners he’s keeping behind bars. One who just recently got released asks when the president will also release the former prime minister that he imprisoned, Yulia Tymoshenko. “I’m glad to see you here,” Yanukovych sneers as he evades the question.
And there’s Petro Poroshenko, owner of the chocolate company Roshen, which has been banned in Russia. Poroshenko uses his panel to rip into the lone official from the Kremlin for hurting his business. The whole debate illustrates the larger issue at play: whether Ukraine will move toward the European Union or Russia. It can’t do both, and it’s increasingly clear that the current attempt to straddle can’t last. (Hillary’s right! The former Soviet province really is at a crossroads!)
At the gala dinner where Hillary Clinton spoke, Pinchuk furiously waves his hand to call over the reporter who had sat next to me on the charter flight in. She eagerly skips across the room and huddles with our billionaire host. He’s called her over to personally introduce her to his guest of honor.
Pinchuk wants her to know, in case she didn’t already, that he’s a powerful man. So he interrupts Bill Clinton, who’s deep in a private conversation with Elena Pinchuk, Victor’s blonde-haired, beautiful wife.
After a quick handshake and a minute or two of chitchat, it’s over. But it’s a moment she’ll remember forever. She skips back to her seat with the widest grin across her face and a whole new respect for Victor Pinchuk.
Daniel Halper is online editor of The Weekly Standard.