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Black Earth and the Struggle for Ukraine’s Future

By Andrey Panevin | Slavyangrad | June 25, 2015

The Ukrainian crisis can be viewed as being composed of several interconnected factors, from the civil war to rampant corruption, and the wider geopolitical ramifications of American confrontation with Russia. Another—relatively overlooked—factor is the ongoing conflict over Ukraine’s natural resources. Of particular interest to transnational corporations and their puppet local oligarchs is the ‘black earth’ of Ukraine. Black earth or ‘Chernozem’ is found in two major zones on earth, one of which encompasses sections of Moldova, Russia and Ukraine. Black earth is characterized by its very high fertility and, consequently, its capacity for producing a high agricultural output.

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A scientist examines ‘chernozerm’ in Nikolaev, Ukraine.
(image: Saghnol, wikimedia commons)

International corporations have long been utilizing loopholes and political lobbying in order to overturn a Ukrainian moratorium on land sales to foreigners. By leasing numerous parcels of land these companies anticipate both the Ukrainian government’s desperation for money and the EU obligations to force open a goldmine of agricultural exploitation. The role of the ‘big players’—Monsanto, Cargill and Dupont—has been explored previously. The focus now is on agro-holding companies and individual oligarchs who seek to buy up and sell out Ukrainian land and livelihood.

One of the largest agro-holding companies operating in Ukraine is AgroGeneration. AgroGeneration seeks to “transform the land it works and today outperforms Ukrainian average yields. The company follows a traditional crop rotation and puts money into first-class fertilizers, seeds, and agricultural chemicals for the purpose of achieving profitability per crop.” The company has amassed 120,000 hectares of arable land, with 70,000 hectares being located in Kharkov oblast, whose eponymous capital is a city of great political and military importance in Ukraine. Kharkov has a large ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population that has been actively repressed by the Kiev authorities, and it remains a region of dissent against the Kiev regime.

Michael Bleyzer, the Kharkov-born chairman of AgroGeneration, and founder of its sibling companies Sigma-Bleyzer and the Bleyzer Foundation, recognizes the importance of the city and has actively spoken about the need to maintain political and military order within it. In an op-ed for the KyivPost, Bleyzer writes of Kharkov as the most critical region, in need of being made “a very high priority. A large segment of the population in Kharkiv oblast is so discouraged by events and by the constant bombardment of Russian propaganda that they could be supportive of a Russian invasion or an attempt to establish a so-called People’s Republic.” Bleyzer further advocates a ‘Social Stabilization Fund’ for Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhia, Kherson, Nikolaev and Odessa. It is worth noting that these regions all contain either chernozerm or, as in the case of Odessa, ports through with which agricultural products transit.

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The vast tracts of agricultural land controlled by AgroGeneration alone. (www.agrogeneration.com)

Michael Bleyzer’s role as a mouthpiece for the Kiev regime’s ‘war’ against Russia extends past his personal business interests and falls in line with the broader neoliberal, capitalist takeover of Ukraine. AgroGeneration and Sigma-Bleyzer (a private equity firm also owned by Bleyzer) seek to take advantage of the current regime’s plea to the West to ‘buy Ukraine’. These corporations and others are not only taking control of Ukraine’s farm land, they are doing it with European and American government assistance. In 2005, Sigma-Bleyzer received financing for a project worth up to 250 million euros from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). In 2011, the EBRD gave AgroGeneration ten million dollars to double its ownership of Ukrainian land. In 2012 the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC)—an American government financial institution—gave Sigma-Bleyzer fifty million dollars for its ‘Eastern Europe fund.’

While these international corporations receive vast sums of money for their expansion in Ukraine, ‘access to credit remains a major problem for Ukraine’s small and medium farmers’. This interconnected system of funding from government finance institutions to private corporations has spelled doom for Ukraine’s agricultural sector, opening it up to exploitation and eventual ruin from the inside out.

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Bleyzer (left) with US presidential candidate Ted Cruz on Maidan Square in Kiev. (Source: Secure America Now)

Connections between government and private corporations are at the core of this exploitation, with both entities seeking to employ what Bleyzer himself refers to as a system of “quasi-private equity funds managed by money managers from the private sector whenever possible.” Bleyzer’s attitude to the financial invasion of countries was well honed during the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, where he actively encouraged the US government to “create and implement the policy measures that will make an attractive investment climate in Iraq. This public-private partnership could play a critical role in making possible dramatic social and economic changes in Iraq and other countries in the region.” The goal of the corporate annexation of sovereign policy-reform has served Bleyzer and countless other oligarchs well from Iraq to Ukraine. In the context of this corrupt, financially imperialist environment it is no wonder that in a May 2015 economic report by Sigma-Bleyzer, it is casually written (in reference to the Ukrainian civil war) that “a frozen conflict could still provide the opportunity for the rest of the country to restart investments and economic growth.”

Ukraine’s precious black earth is being steadily annexed by international corporations and joins the list of resources and national sectors being outsourced to private investors. Agricultural corporations such as AgroGeneration find great corporate solidarity on the board of members of the US-Ukraine Business Council, which includes (among others) Sigma-Bleyzer, Monsanto, Dupont, Cargill, Exxon, Raytheon and the Bleyzer Foundation. These corporations share the common goal of pressuring the Ukrainian government to institute political ‘reforms’ in their favour. For agricultural corporations in particular, the goal is to pressure the government to “think about privatization. They need to prepare everything to allow for farmland sales (to foreign and domestic investors) in three to four years,” as stated by Heinz Strubenhoff, the agribusiness investment manager for the World Bank in Ukraine.

Ukraine is at a national crossroads and if the example of its increasing corporate annexation is anything to go by, it will have neither the money nor the resources to rebuild itself in the face of its political and cultural self-destruction. The West-supported preoccupation with ‘Russian invaders’ has left the oligarchy free to sell Ukraine’s political processes and natural resources to the highest bidder.

June 25, 2015 Posted by | Corruption, Economics | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Who Owns Agricultural Land in Ukraine?

By Elizabeth Fraser | Oakland Institute | May 8, 2015

The fate of Ukraine’s agricultural sector is on shaky ground. Last year, the Oakland Institute reported that over 1.6 million hectares (ha) of land in Ukraine are now under the control of foreign-based corporations. Further research has allowed for the identification of additional foreign investments. Some estimates now bring the total of Ukrainian farmland controlled by foreign companies to over 2.2 million ha;1 however, research has also identified important grey areas around land tenure in the country, and who actually controls land in Ukraine today is difficult to ascertain.

The companies and shareholders behind foreign land acquisitions in Ukraine span many different parts of the world. The Danish “Trigon Agri,” for example, holds over 52,000 ha. Trigon was established in 2006 using start-up capital from Finnish “high net worth individuals.” The company is traded in Stockholm (NASDAQ), and its largest shareholders include: JPM Chase (UK, 9.5 percent); Swedbank (Sweden, 9.4 percent); UB Securities (Finland, 7.9 percent); Euroclear Bank (Belgium, 6.6 percent); and JP Morgan Clearing Corp (USA, 6.2 percent).

The United Farmers Holding Company, which is owned by a group of Saudi Arabian investors, controls some 33,000 ha of Ukrainian farmland through Continental Farmers Group PLC.

AgroGeneration, which holds 120,000 ha of Ukrainian farmland, is incorporated in France, with over 62 percent of its shares managed by SigmaBleyzer, a Texas-based investment company.

US pension fund NCH Capital holds 450,000 ha. The company began in 1993 and boasts being some of the earliest western investors in Ukraine after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Over the past decade, the company has systematically leased out small parcels of agricultural land (around two to six hectares in size) across Ukraine, aggregating these into large-scale farms that now operate industrially. According to NCH Capital’s General Partner, George Rohr, the leases give the company the right to buy the currently-leased farmland once the moratorium on the sale of land in Ukraine is lifted.

Another subset of companies have Ukrainian leadership, often a mix of domestic and foreign investment, and may be incorporated in tax havens like Cyprus, Austria, and Luxembourg. Some of them are also led by Ukrainian oligarchs. For instance, UkrLandFarming controls the country’s largest land-bank, totalling 654,000 ha of land. 95 percent of the shares of UkrLandFarming are owned by multi-millionaire Oleg Bakhmatyuk with the remaining five percent having been recently sold to Cargill.  Similarly, Yuriy Kosiuk, Ukraine’s fifth richest man, is the CEO of MHP, one of the country’s largest agricultural companies, which holds over 360,000 ha of farmland.

With the onset of the political crisis, several of these mostly Ukrainian-based companies have descended into crisis themselves. One example is Cyprus-incorporated Mriya Agro Holding, which holds a land-bank of close to 300,000 ha. In 2014, the company’s website (which is no longer available online) indicated that 80 percent of the shares of Mriya Agro Holding are/were owned by the Guta family (Ukrainian), who hold primary leadership positions in the company. The remaining 20 percent are/were listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.

According to news sources, in summer 2014 the company defaulted on its payments for two large Eurobonds, putting its future into question. The company first enlisted the support of US-based Blackstone Group and Ukrainian-based Dragon Capital, both of whom withdrew support after only one month; and later, the international auditing and financial service firm, Deloitte. An international bondholder committee was struck, comprised of several US and UK-based investment groups (including CarVal Investors – Cargill’s investment arm), which together own over 50 percent of the debt owed on Mriya’s 2018 Eurobonds and 15 percent of the 2016 Eurobonds. The future of this firm is unclear with some sources suggesting a risk of bankruptcy.

Other Ukrainian-owned companies incorporated in tax havens are also experiencing difficulties. Sintal Agriculture Public Ltd (based in Cyprus, traded on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange as of 2008, and holding almost 150,000 ha of land) ceased trading in shares on January 29, 2014 “until further notice” after bankruptcy proceedings were initiated against the company. In 2013, its website (now also defunct) indicated that 36.3 percent of the company was free floating shares.

The potential bankruptcy of these corporations, and the involvement of Western investors in the crisis management, raises questions about the fate of the agricultural land they hold. At this time, it is not clear how control over the agricultural lands in question will be addressed and what the role of foreign companies and funds who have invested in these companies will be. However, if things progress in a similar way to neighboring Romania, foreign control of this land could transpire.

Romania has a similar story of dissolving collectivized farms, giving land titles to collective farm workers, and imposing a moratorium on the sale of agricultural land. Loopholes in the country’s national legislation have created opportunities for foreign control of land via bankruptcy proceedings. As documented by Judith Bouniol, the bankruptcy of national agribusinesses has provided a gateway for foreign control of Romania’s farmland.

It is far from clear if the same scenario could take place in Ukraine. However, this lesson from Romania emphasizes the importance of keeping close watch on these agricultural land deals. In addition, the murky situation around land ownership in Ukraine raises many questions. Perhaps the most important is whether the growing concentration of Ukrainian land in the hands of a few oligarchs and foreign corporations can benefit the country, its people, and its economy.

1 Two land investment databases were accessed over the past year: the Land Matrix accessed in July 2014 and April 2015, and GRAIN’s 2012 data set on land investments worldwide. Taken individually, these databases suggest foreign land acquisitions of between 997,000 ha to 1.7M ha. When consolidated, individual deals reported by these databases represent over 2.2M ha of land in Ukraine.

May 12, 2015 Posted by | Economics | , , , | Leave a comment

The Corporate Takeover of Ukrainian Agriculture

By Frédéric Mousseau | IPS | January 27, 2015

OAKLAND, CA – At the same time as the United States, Canada and the European Union announced a set of new sanctions against Russia in mid-December last year, Ukraine received 350 million dollars in U.S. military aid, coming on top of a one billion dollar aid package approved by the U.S. Congress in March 2014. 

Western governments’ further involvement in the Ukraine conflict signals their confidence in the cabinet appointed by the new government earlier in December 2014. This new government is unique given that three of its most important ministries were granted to foreign-born individuals who received Ukrainian citizenship just hours before their appointment.

The Ministry of Finance went to Natalie Jaresko, a U.S.-born and educated businesswoman who has been working in Ukraine since the mid-1990s, overseeing a private equity fund established by the U.S. government to invest in the country. Jaresko is also the CEO of Horizon Capital, an investment firm that administers various Western investments in the country.

As unusual as it may seem, this appointment is consistent with what looks more like a takeover of the Ukrainian economy by Western interests. In two reports – The Corporate Takeover of Ukrainian Agriculture and Walking on the West Side: The World Bank and the IMF in the Ukraine Conflict – the Oakland Institute has documented this takeover, particularly in the agricultural sector.

A major factor in the crisis that led to deadly protests and eventually to president Viktor Yanukovych’s removal from office in February 2014 was his rejection of a European Union (EU) Association agreement aimed at expanding trade and integrating Ukraine with the EU – an agreement that was tied to a 17 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

After the president’s departure and the installation of a pro-Western government, the IMF initiated a reform programme that was a condition of its loan with the goal of increasing private investment in the country.

The package of measures includes reforming the public provision of water and energy, and, more important, attempts to address what the World Bank identified as the “structural roots” of the current economic crisis in Ukraine, notably the high cost of doing business in the country.

The Ukrainian agricultural sector has been a prime target for foreign private investment and is logically seen by the IMF and World Bank as a priority sector for reform. Both institutions praise the new government’s readiness to follow their advice.

For example, the foreign-driven agricultural reform roadmap provided to Ukraine includes facilitating the acquisition of agricultural land, cutting food and plant regulations and controls, and reducing corporate taxes and custom duties.

The stakes around Ukraine’s vast agricultural sector – the world’s third largest exporter of corn and fifth largest exporter of wheat – could not be higher. Ukraine is known for its ample fields of rich black soil, and the country boasts more than 32 million hectares of fertile, arable land – the equivalent of one-third of the entire arable land in the European Union.

The manoeuvring for control over the country’s agricultural system is a pivotal factor in the struggle that has been taking place over the last year in the greatest East-West confrontation since the Cold War.

The presence of foreign corporations in Ukrainian agriculture is growing quickly, with more than 1.6 million hectares signed over to foreign companies for agricultural purposes in recent years. While Monsanto, Cargill, and DuPont have been in Ukraine for quite some time, their investments in the country have grown significantly over the past few years.

Cargill is involved in the sale of pesticides, seeds and fertilisers and has recently expanded its agricultural investments to include grain storage, animal nutrition and a stake in UkrLandFarming, the largest agribusiness in the country.

Similarly, Monsanto has been in Ukraine for years but has doubled the size of its team over the last three years. In March 2014, just weeks after Yanukovych was deposed, the company invested 140 million dollars in building a new seed plant in Ukraine.

DuPont has also expanded its investments and announced in June 2013 that it too would be investing in a new seed plant in the country.

Western corporations have not just taken control of certain profitable agribusinesses and agricultural activities, they have now initiated a vertical integration of the agricultural sector and extended their grip on infrastructure and shipping.

For instance, Cargill now owns at least four grain elevators and two sunflower seed processing plants used for the production of sunflower oil. In December 2013, the company bought a “25% +1 share” in a grain terminal at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk with a capacity of 3.5 million tons of grain per year.

All aspects of Ukraine’s agricultural supply chain – from the production of seeds and other agricultural inputs to the actual shipment of commodities out of the country – are thus increasingly controlled by Western firms.

European institutions and the U.S. government have actively promoted this expansion. It started with the push for a change of government at a time when president Yanukovych was seen as pro-Russian interests. This was further pushed, starting in February 2014, through the promotion of a “pro-business” reform agenda, as described by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker when she met with Prime Minister Arsenly Yatsenyuk in October 2014.

The European Union and the United States are working hand in hand in the takeover of Ukrainian agriculture. Although Ukraine does not allow the production of genetically modified (GM) crops, the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, which ignited the conflict that ousted Yanukovych, includes a clause (Article 404) that commits both parties to cooperate to “extend the use of biotechnologies” within the country.

This clause is surprising given that most European consumers reject GM crops. However, it creates an opening to bring GM products into Europe, an opportunity sought after by large agro-seed companies such as Monsanto.

Opening up Ukraine to the cultivation of GM crops would go against the will of European citizens, and it is unclear how the change would benefit Ukrainians.

It is similarly unclear how Ukrainians will benefit from this wave of foreign investment in their agriculture, and what impact these investments will have on the seven million local farmers.

Once they eventually look away from the conflict in the Eastern “pro-Russian” part of the country, Ukrainians may wonder what remains of their country’s ability to control its food supply and manage the economy to their own benefit.

As for U.S. and European citizens, will they eventually awaken from the headlines and grand rhetoric about Russian aggression and human rights abuses and question their governments’ involvement in the Ukraine conflict?

Frédéric Mousseau is the Policy Director at the Oakland Institute.

February 7, 2015 Posted by | Economics | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments