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Wednesday, December 30

Gov’t Sells $3.5 billion of Bonds in 3 Weeks…GDP Shrinkage Stabilized in H2…Bucking Recession, Lviv IT Grows 7%...Ukraine to Start Negotiating Free Trade With China, Vietnam…Kolomoisky Liquidating US Investments Before Biden Presidency?...Antonov Starts Building Jets Again…Dnipro’s Future: Ice Free?
James Brooke
by James Brooke
UBN Morning News is reported and written by James Brooke, a former New York Times foreign correspondent and Bloomberg Moscow Bureau Chief

The Finance Ministry made another high volume government bond sale yesterday — $874 million in equivalent. With this auction, the Ministry has raised nearly $3.5 billion in the last three weeks – more than the $2.9 billion in the first 11 months of this year.

For the eight different hryvnia bonds offered, yields have changed little since last week, ranging from 10% for 3-month bonds, to 12.25% for 5-year bonds. With 3-month bonds in dollars offering a 2.9% yield, investors snapped up $323 million worth – 37% of yesterday’s total sale.

Interpipe, Ukraine’s top producer of steel pipes and railroad wheels, is buying back $75 million worth of its 2024 Eurobonds, the company reported. CEO Fadi Hraibe told investors “Various instruments are also being considered for attracting financing for Capex: issuing Eurobonds, attracting project financing and attracting bank financing.” He later clarified that Interpipe does not have immediate plans to issue a new Eurobond. Located in Dnepropetrovsk, the mines-to-metals company employs about 11,000 workers.

Ukraine’s international reserves are “over $28.5 billion,” the highest level in eight years, Bohdan Danylyshyn, head of the Council of the National Bank of Ukraine, wrote on his Facebook page. This would be $3.2 billion higher than at the start of 2020, or a 13% increase. He wrote that during this year of the Covid shock, Ukraine’s Central Bank spent up a net $1.1 billion to defend the hryvnia.

In a televised briefing, the Economy Minister Petrashko said that Ukraine’s GDP probably shrank in the fourth quarter by 3% yoy. This represents a stabilization from the cataclysmic 11.4% yoy drop in the second quarter. The third quarter drop was 3.5% yoy, says the State Statistics Service. For all of 2020, Petrashko predicts a GDP shrinkage of 4.8%. Looking ahead, he predicts this will be largely cancelled out by 4.6% growth in 2021. He said this is the consensus of five forecasts for 2021 – from the IMF predicting 3.4% growth to the EBRD predicting 5.6%.

Bucking the Covid recession, the number of IT companies and IT workers in Lviv increased by 7% in 2020, compared to the previous year, according IT Research 5.0, a study conducted by Fama research agency for Lviv’s IT Cluster. There are now 492 IT companies in Lviv, employing 26,500 people. The average monthly salary of an IT specialist in Lviv is $2,080, about four times Ukraine’s average salary for all sectors. During last spring’s lockdown, all IT companies surveyed switched to remote work — 22% partially and 78% fully.

Ukraine is preparing to negotiate Free Trade Agreements in 2021 with China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Egypt and Jordan, said Ihor Petrashko, Minister of Economic Development and Trade.  “These are important markets for Ukrainian products as part of expanding our export opportunities.”

Tripling Vietnam-Ukraine trade to $1 billion by 2023 and forging a bilateral free trade pact were two goals set at a meeting Monday in Kviv between Nguyen Hong Thach, Vietnam’s ambassador to Ukraine, and Taras Kachka, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister for Economic Development and Trade. Both officials agreed to expand air links and to speed up establishment of a Vietnam House in Kyiv and of a Ukraine House in Hanoi, reports Vietnam News Agency. By contrast, China-Ukraine trade is believed to have hit $14 billion this year.

A recently agreed $1 billion “linked loan” from China “is not a victory,” Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s former Finance Minister and future Ambassador to the US, wrote in her blog for Ekonomichna Pravda. Noting that the money will be used to fund the Kyiv Ring Road and for Kremenchuk’s new bridge over the Dnipro.  She says this kind of loan may require Chinese workers, materials, technology and construction companies. Markarova warned, “The process and results of Ukraine’s use of the tied loan from China are expected to be in line with the creditor’s vision and the approaches of China and the Chinese Communist Party.”

In advance of the January 20, 2021 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, Washington-based Radio Svoboda continues to investigate Ihor Kolomoisky’s investments in the US with a story headlined: “Ukrainian Tycoons Selling U.S. Property Amid Foreclosure Proceedings, Court Documents Show.” According to court documents filed Christmas eve, Optima Ventures, the U.S. real-estate holding company owned by Kolomoisky and Hennadiy Boholyubov wants to sell an office building and a stake in a hotel in Cleveland. Reporter Todd Prince writes: “Separately, the Justice Department is seeking the forfeiture of two commercial buildings owned by Optima Ventures in Louisville, Kentucky, and Dallas, Texas.”

President Zelenskiy yesterday suspended the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court through February after he failed to appear Monday at police inquiry into a bribery charge. The Justice, Oleksandr Tupytsky, is seen as the organizer of court decisions two months ago to dismantle anti-corruption agencies in Ukraine.

Concorde Capital’s Zenon Zawada writes: “On the surface, it’s impressive that the Prosecutor General’s Office is pursuing this criminal case against Tupitskiy…We are confident that Tupitskiy won’t be prosecuted for any alleged crimes because of the “krysha” [political cover] that he enjoys, which likely extends into the Prosecutor General’s Office. Any measures it takes against him are merely for show.”

Signaling a revival of Ukraine’s aircraft building industry, the Defense Ministry has ordered three An-178-100R military transport jets from Antonov, the first such order since Independence in 1991. Powered by two domestic turbojet engines, this version of the An-178 can carry 18 tons of cargo, cruise at 825 km/h, and fly a maximum of 5,000 km. For comparison, the flight distance between Uzhgorod and Kharkiv is about 1,000 km.

Next year, Ukraine will establish a state airline based on a fleet of Antonov regional jets, President Zelenskiy promised yesterday at the military cargo jet signing ceremony. Yuri Guzev, the new general director of UkrOboronProm said: “We expect to sign new government contracts for the manufacture of An-178 aircraft from 2021.” Last month, the Cabinet of Ministers signed off on a 10-year, $1.4 billion program to develop and modernize Ukraine’s aviation industry.

The Dnipro shipping season is being extended to Jan. 15, an unprecedented extension into mid-winter. Studying long term weather forecasts, the Maritime and River Transport Service on Monday made its third shipping season extension since November 11. With the latest extension, shippers will get two extra months of use of the river’s six locks. Closing the river involves pulling out hundreds of buoys.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to global warming, will the Dnipro soon be navigable year round? Maybe not this year, but ice free may be in the cards for Ukraine’s mighty river. Twenty years ago, when I covered Canada and the Arctic for The New York Times, I saw the trend at the Port of Churchill, on the west coast of the Hudson Bay. At the wind battered office of the harbor master, a bronze plaque records every year ‘The First Ship.’ Dates trend earlier and earlier for arrivals of ice class bulk wheat carriers from such distant, exotic ports as Gdansk, Poland. Fast forward to last week. The same New York Times ran a thought-provoking piece: “How Russia Wins the Climate Crisis.” With Best Regards, Jim Brooke

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Thursday, December 17

$100 Million Venture Fund Hunts Ukrainian IT Startups…Silicon Valley, NASA and Turkey Invest in Ukraine Tech…American University in Kyiv Aims for 3,900 Students by 2026…$75 Million Plan for a New River Port for Kyiv…EBA Survey: Ukraine’s Courts Scare Away Foreign Investors
James Brooke
by James Brooke
UBN Morning News is reported and written by James Brooke, a former New York Times foreign correspondent and Bloomberg Moscow Bureau Chief

Investment company Quarter Partners has launched an IT venture fund, promising to invest $100 million in Ukrainian startups or international ones with Ukrainian ties. Acting as an ‘angel investor,’ the fund provides funding from the pre-seed round to Round B, when a company expands its market “with maximum value and a sustainable business model,” Denis Valvachev, CEO and Managing Partner of the fund, QPDigital, said in a press release. Focusing on IT-logistics, digital healthcare, game development, blockchain and artificial intelligence, QPDigital already has invested $2.6 millions into six startups.

Kyiv deepfake startup RefaceAI has raised $5.5 million from Silicon Valley investors, Roman Mogylnyi, a co-founder, wrote on Facebook. Since launch last January, the face-swapping app has been downloaded 70 million times. Entertaining for the coronavirus shut in generation, Reface now ranks among the top apps on the AppStore and Google Play. Mogylnyi believes the technology will open up a new era of ‘gamification’ of movies and sports.

NASA has signed a $9.8 million contract with a Ukrainian-American aerospace company to launch small satellites for space research, reports the U.S. space agency. Firefly Black, a unit of Max Polyakov’s Firefly Aerospace, would launch the miniature satellites into low earth orbits for research.  With its workforce of 310 divided between Texas and Polyakov’s native Dnipro, Firefly Aerospace is also developing a robotic moon lander for NASA’s Moon Payload Program. Next year, Firefly plans to test launch from California its Alpha rocket, a two-stage missile capable of placing a 1-ton payload into low earth orbit.

Antonov Airlines has carried its largest satellite to date – a 55-ton Space X communications satellite — from Toulouse, France to Titusville, Florida, home of the commercial airport serving the Kennedy Space Center. Ukraine’s preeminent air cargo company used an An-124 Ruslan to fly the satellite 7,300 km, near the upper flight range for that size payload.

Forty Belarusian tech companies and 2,000 IT workers have moved to Ukraine in the four months since protests erupted after Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have won the Presidential Election. The Belarusian service of Radio Svoboda reports from Kyiv on Ukraine’s effort to recruit Belarusian IT workers and companies, detailing salaries, taxes and work permits.

Turkey’s top military procurement official Ismail Demir has signed agreements in Kyiv for the technology transfer and joint production of attack drones and corvette warships, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry announced Monday. The small warships would be used by both countries for coastal patrols in the Black Sea. Following Demir’s visit, Serdar Huseyin Yildirim, Head of the Turkish Space Agency, announced a Turkey-Ukraine agreement for joint production of satellites and rockets, reported DefenseNews, a Washington-based news site.

Separately, Al-Monitor, another US-based new site, reported that in the second half of November Ukrainian forces tested Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 combat drones over the Sea of Azov and around Kramatorsk, Donetsk region. Last month, Ruslan Khomchak, Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, announced that Kyiv is considering buying five of the drones. At the same time, UkrOboronProm and Turkey’s Baykar Makina, manufacturer of the Bayraktar drones, decided to form a joint venture for Ukraine to domestically produce 48 TB2 drones. Military analysts say these drones helped Azerbaijan win last month’s war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The new UK-Ukraine trade agreement has been ratified by both countries’ parliaments and will take effect on January 1, 2021 Taras Kachka, Ukraine’s Trade Representative, wrote on Facebook. The new pact allows for free trade in farm products not subject to quotas. Seen as a stopgap measure to put in place before Brexit takes effect two weeks from now, the new deal is already slated for renegotiation in 2021.

Former US Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker is spearheading an ambitious project to open next September at the American University in Kyiv. Announced this week, the new University aims to enroll 3,900 students and bring in $26 million in tuition fees by 2026. Offering US-standard education in Ukraine, the new university is being developed with Arizona State University and Cintana Education, a public benefit corporation that works with ASU on international education. According to a recent survey by Ernst & Young, 87% of Ukraine’s employers do not believe that higher education meets current needs, and 91% of Ukrainian students said they would study in English at a Ukrainian-American university in Ukraine.

Betting on the revival of river cargo, the KPS Group is drawing up plans for a 5-year, $75 million project to build a multimodal port capable of doubling Kyiv’s river cargo volumes by 2027. With rail and highway access, the site would be on 16 hectares of industrial land in Telychka, immediately south of Pivdennyi Bridge, Kyiv’s southernmost bridge. KPS Group has a lease on the land, is drawing up feasibility studies and is talking with potential foreign investors, Serhiy Ovchinnikov, the company project manager, told the Center for Transportation Studies.

“Only 1 in 10 CEOs expect the investment climate to improve in 2021,” is the bleak headline on a survey of 101 managers in Ukraine conducted for European Business Association by Vasil Kisil & Partners law firm. Ukraine’s ‘investment attractiveness index’ has fallen to 2.4 points out of a possible five, the lowest level since 2013, reported the EBA. Two thirds of executives polled said Ukraine’s investment climate worsened in the second half of 2020, compared to the first half. Looking ahead, 45% predicted the climate will get worse in 2021, 45% said it will not change, and 10% said it will get better.

A dysfunctional judicial system and government corruption were cited as the top two investor turnoffs. “94% of respondents believe that a weak judicial system is one of the reasons for Ukraine′s low investment attractiveness,” said Andriy Stelmashchuk, managing partner of Vasil Kisil. Anna Derevyanko, the EBA’s executive director since 2003, said: “Enough time has been wasted, so now the country needs proper decisive actions to improve the business climate and economic development.”

Editor’s Note: In the 1980s, when I worked in West Africa, I wrote a story for The New York Times on how entrepreneurs used tribal connections to get small business loans in a country where trust was rock bottom in the Western-style courts. (Read: “Informal Capitalism Grows in Cameroon.”) That path only works in a low level economy where kinship ties are strong. If Ukraine wants to have a modern economy, attractive to foreign investors, it will have to bite the bullet and build a modern, EU-standard judiciary. Otherwise, crippled by a lack of capital, Kyiv could be left behind, lampooned as ‘Douala-on-the-Dnipro.’ With Best Regards, Jim Brooke

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Monday, September 7

Ukraine Beckons Belarus IT...China’s Skyrizon Moves to Arbitration with Ukraine over Motor Sich...Middle East Becomes Ukraine’s Top Poultry Export Market...Real Wages up 5%...Corona Spreads: Ukraine Now Has Europe’s Third Fastest Rate of New Infections...
James Brooke
by James Brooke
UBN Morning News is reported and written by James Brooke, a former New York Times foreign correspondent and Bloomberg Moscow Bureau Chief

Recruiting Belarus IT workers – Ukraine’s Digital Transformation Ministry has opened a special web portal for Belarusian IT specialists who want to move to Ukraine and has hired Denis Aleinikov, a Belarusian lawyer who developed a special, low tax IT zone in Minsk. “About our initiative to support IT professionals living in Belarus…there is technical support, which works 24 hours a day and already helps specialists from Belarus,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, said Friday while introducing Aleinikov to reporters. Of the 4,500 Belarusians who have fled to Ukraine to escape the police violence in Belarus, more than 300 are IT workers, Fedorov said.

Aleinikov is to help the Rada draw up a low tax, liberal labor law IT park similar to the Hi-Tech Park he helped build near Minsk. The park now has 880 registered companies. Last week, President Zelenskiy signed a decree giving the Rada 90 days to draw up legislation. “The Presidential Decree is public support, the political will for this project to move forward faster,” Fedorov said Friday. “We will create the world’s most comfortable economic zone with low taxes, legal employment, high wages. Favorable conditions for startups and entrepreneurs.”

With this investment regime, Fedorov aims to create an additional 450,000 IT jobs in Ukraine by 2025, generating $12 billion in economic activity. Last year, Ukraine’s IT exports grew 30% yoy, to $4.2 billion. Currently, Ukraine’s 4,000 IT companies employ 200,000 specialists. Short of staff, Ukrainian companies look north to Belarus where 60,000 IT specialists work in Minsk alone.

“Belarusian tech companies leave their country amid protests, move to Ukraine” headlines a Kyiv Post article featuring interviews with Belarusian IT workers who are moving or considering moving south. After the largely discredited Presidential vote of August 9, 168 IT workers were arrested in protests. Since then, the internet has been repeatedly turned on and off. Over 2,500 IT executives and workers signed an open protest letter to President Lukashenko. “People can’t focus on work because of the constant stress,” George Kachanouski, founder of Scootapi, says from Minsk. “Many companies plan to relocate temporarily now, but if the dictatorship wins, then for good.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is signaling that the poisoning of Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, could imperil the Nord Stream 2, the Russia-Germany Baltic pipeline. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, told Bild am Sonntag newspaper said he hopes that Russian non-cooperation in the investigation would not force Berlin to “change our stance” on the pipeline. With the exception of the far right, political parties across the spectrum have called on Merkel to freeze Germany’s participation. The Financial Times reports from Berlin that the 1,230 km pipeline is 88% complete. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, chairman of the Nord Stream shareholders’ committee, told a Bundestag committee in June that the pipeline total cost will be €12 billion.

China’s Skyrizon company has notified Ukraine’s Justice Ministry that it intends to start international arbitration against Ukraine over access to the Motor Sich aircraft engine factory, reports UNIAN. Noting that it bought 56% of Motor Sich shares in 2016, Skyrizon is demanding $3.5 billion in damages for being unable to enter the factory complex for the last four years. Skyrizon argues that moves by Ukraine’s State Security office and Anti-Monopoly Committee violate the China-Ukraine investment protection treaty adopted by both countries in 1992.

During the first half of this year, Ukraine’s poultry exports were virtually constant in volume – 212,300 tons – but down 12% in monetary terms, to $271 million, reports Poultry World. At a press conference in Kyiv, Sergey Karpenko, executive director of the Union of Poultry Breeders, warns  that a government plan to create a new agency to replace Gosprodpotrebzlyuzba, the state food safety regulator, could disrupt exports as new certificates will have to be negotiated with the veterinary agencies of importing countries.

The Middle East has displaced the EU as the top destination for Ukrainian chicken meat, reports The Poultry Site. The change is due partly because of new EU quotas and an avian flu outbreak in Vinnytia in January. In the first half of this year, the biggest markets were Saudi Arabia – 18%; the Netherlands – 17%; and UAE – 12%. For MHP, Ukraine’s largest producer, poultry exports were down by 10% during the first half, to 170,553 tons. Last year, MHP’s exports were up 25% yoy, to 357,400 tons. 

The number of new filings for unemployment aid have dropped steadily: from 149,000 in April to 68,000 in July, reports the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Agriculture. Since the government adopted corona quarantine measures in mid-March, the government has paid $272 million in benefits to 432,000 people, about $630 per person.

Real wages were up 5% in July yoy, reports the State Statistics Service. The biggest growth sectors, in nominal terms, were: medicine and social services – +18% yoy; and IT and telecom – +14.4% yoy.

ICU writes: “The recovery of wages confirms a quite rapid exit of the labor market from the coronavirus-induced recession. The rebound of workers’ income is also evidenced by the high growth rates of retail trade and production of consumer goods.”

After a record week of coronavirus infections, Prime Minister Shmygal vowed that there will be no repeat of last spring’s lockdown. “We understand, both the government and the state leadership, there can be no second lockdown in Ukraine — most countries realize this,” he told a business forum Friday evening at Kyiv’s UNIT.City. “Closing down the country over the quarantine as it was in the spring, is impossible.”

Even with Sunday’s dip to 2,107 new cases, Ukraine’s ranks third in Europe for new cases, behind only France at 7,071, and UK at 2,988, according to Worldometer’s Coronavirus tracker. Worldwide, Ukraine ranks in 9th place for new infections. Despite this surge, schools last week opened across Ukraine, with the exceptions of 5% of the nation, which is classified ‘red.’

Starting today, two regional capitals, Ivano Frankivsk and Ternopil, are classified red. In advance, the mayors of both cities sued the Cabinet of Ministers in Kyiv District Administrative Court. The list published by the Cabinet of Ministers shows that most orange and red areas are in Western Ukraine. Although Kyiv city registers about 300 new cases a day, it is classified yellow, largely due to the large population.

One upside of Ukraine’s increasing infection rate: the Health Ministry has reduced its list of ‘red’ zone countries to 35. Red zone countries – those with recent infection rates above Ukraine’s 80/100,000 – include the US, Israel, France, Spain, Croatia, Moldova, and Romania. Travelers from these countries have to self-isolate until they test negative for Covid-19. Ukraine’s borders are largely closed to foreign travelers until the end of the month. Due to Ukraine’s high infection rate, foreign travel and foreign flights from Ukraine are restricted.

The new spread of the virus has hit home for many Ukrainians with the news of the hospitalizations in Kyiv of two well-known figures. Filaret, the 91-year-old Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate was in stable condition Friday at a Kyiv hospital. Yulia Tymoshenko, the 59-year-old leader of the Fatherland political party, emerged last week from intensive care. “Fighting off a serious disease for almost two weeks alters the perception of reality,” she wrote on Facebook from a Kyiv hospital. “Although recovery is still a distant prospect, now there is an opportunity to return to normal life, step by step.” She signs off: “Thank you and hug you tight. Everything will be fine!”

From the Editor: Belarus’ strongman Lukashenko may have soured on the IT industry after they became a pillar in the national awakening against his 24-year rule. Now, he may provide the world a reminder of how mobile IT can be. A few years ago, when I was getting consular work done at Ukraine’s Embassy in Bangkok, I chatted with a Kyiv programmer who was happily working for a Kyiv company – and living on an island in the Gulf of Thailand. One of my sons, William, has an IT startup in Brooklyn, NY. He employs two programmers in Ukraine, one in Lviv and one in Dnipro. His business partner is a Belarusian living in Sofia, Bulgaria. Many IT workers live by the motto: have modem, will travel. With Best Regards Jim Brooke