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4 April, 2022updated 12 Aug 2022 15:58

In conversation with: Daniel Bilak, founder and former head of UkraineInvest

Daniel Bilak, former chief investment adviser to the prime minister of Ukraine and head of UkraineInvest, tells Sebastian Shehadi about his new role in Kyiv’s Territorial Defence Forces.

By Sebastian Shehadi

A lot can happen over the course of a 30-year career, especially for Daniel Bilak, a Canadian lawyer who has worked in Ukraine for the better part of three decades. As Bilak helps resist the destruction of Ukraine today, he reflects on the important part he has played in creating the modern country, quite literally. 

“I first came to Ukraine in 1991, just after the end of the Soviet Union, to help the Ukrainian government print its new currency,” says Bilak. “It was very exciting because this was nation-building. There was nothing here and I saw that there was so much more work to be done.”

With this in mind, Bilak started a legal foundation with the help of investor and philanthropist George Soros. “We started drafting a new constitution and a new civil code,” he says. “Then the guy who I started the foundation with became minister of justice and asked me to help him. I told him I didn’t know how and he said: does anyone? And so, completely unencumbered by any experience, I took the job. Had I already worked in a government, I would have thought it was impossible.”

Since then, Bilak has been in government four times. He was twice chief of staff to the Ministry of Justice and, between 2016 to 2019, was asked by then Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman to become his advisor on investment, during which he created UkraineInvest, the government’s investment promotion agency. After that, Bilak took a position as senior counsel at international law firm Kinstellar, where (to this day) he helps oversee its strategic expansion across eastern Europe.

Planning for Ukraine’s reconstruction 

Bilak was working at Kinstellar when the war broke out and he has remained in Kyiv ever since. 

“I had to wait for the war to be able to drive around the city without traffic – and I am at the stage where I kind of miss sitting in the jams,” he quips. “But yes, back during the first two weeks of the invasion we were focused on moving our people out, that is, those who wanted to leave. Many hesitated at first.”

While organising their evacuation, Kisteller still managed to take care of its clients. “Today, we continue to do business,” says Bilak. “Obviously, we are not doing much M&A, but we are already planning for future reconstruction, especially in the infrastructure sector, which was something that I had promoted really heavily while at UkraineInvest.” 

Back then Bilak was working on major highway connections between Ukraine’s cities. There will be a lot more roads to repair once the war is over, and bridges and everything else, he adds, ruefully.

From sourcing investors to sourcing helmets

Like many in Ukraine, Bilak saw the war coming long before it happened, which is why he joined his district’s Territorial Defence Forces – informal military groups composed of citizen soldiers. 

“People signed up during peacetime to be part of these battalions in their area, where they got training every weekend or month. They have played a very important role in slowing down the enemy,” explains Bilak. “Although I know how to shoot, my unit realised I could be more useful in helping them acquire things they need but don’t have, such as helmets, body armour, medical kits, thermal vision cameras and that kind of stuff.” 

This is exactly what Bilak has been doing: kitting out his battalions (and others), as well as some special forces units. 

Throughout the war, the Territorial Defence Forces have played a key role in undertaking local patrols. “So we actually help the army and police by taking up that very granular activity, such as checkpoints, so that everybody higher up the food chain can do more important things,” says Bilak. 

Businesses need to pressure their government 

Kinsteller has very much witnessed the wave of international support and crowdfunding that has rained down on Ukraine since the start of the invasion. 

“So many of our foreign clients donated to the organisation that I am working with the Ukrainian Freedom Fund,” explains Bulak. “We are talking mostly European and North American clients but also some Arab and Turkish. Somebody just made a donation today, a one-off $25,000 for helmets and body armour, for example. 

“Others prefer to support humanitarian and medical efforts. Plus a lot of them have pulled out of Russia, including most law firms. It is just too toxic to be associated with a terrorist state. Vladimir Putin is out to exterminate an entire people.”

However, Bilak would like to see international business, especially those in Nato countries (and especially in the US), putting more pressure on their governments. 

“That is really what we need. There is lots of humanitarian aid coming in, but they need to pressure governments to give us more tanks, to give us the aeroplanes they don’t want to give us, like the old Migs in the eastern European Nato countries,” pleas Bilak. “We need to stop the wholesale slaughter of innocent women and children. If governments don’t, it is just going to continue – and you know, at some point, you lose your moral clarity and you acquire moral culpability. The only thing that democracies listen to are their electorates and influential business people.”

Staying in Russia means supporting mass murder

Bilak has even harsher words for companies that sit on the fence or take half measures with regards to their Russian operations. “How can a business like Credit Suisse say they are not going to do any more new business in Russia?” he asks. “You should be doing no business in Russia while crimes against humanity take place. They need to do the right thing and take a hit. I can’t imagine it is a massive amount of their business in Russia.”

In short, Bilak contends that if a company does not leave Russia they are complicit in financing state terrorism by paying taxes to the Russian state – adding that it should become a compliance issue for companies. 

Bilak vociferously disagrees with the idea that some companies are staying in Russia because they feel ethically drawn to not letting go of hundreds or thousands of employees. 

“That is highly cynical,” he says. “They haven’t left because Russia represents a high degree of their market, so they are worried about losing their profits. They are not worried about their employees. They hire and fire people all the time, but they should think about their employees getting killed in Ukraine, or the children getting bombed in their sleep. Are they trying to make an ethical comparison with that? That is just pathetic. It is inhuman. You are just enabling a mass murderer because you don’t have moral clarity or the courage of your convictions.”

It is certainly easier for companies to do the right thing, so to speak, if the Russian market means very little to their margins, which is why Bilak has so much respect for those companies that exit Russia (fully) despite their deep penetration in its market. 

“Generally, I have been quite impressed by the tsunami of corporate decisions that happened so quickly, since board decision-making doesn’t usually happen speedily, but rather on a quarterly basis for the big decisions,” he adds. 

Indeed, hundreds of companies have taken some sort of action in withdrawing from Ukraine, but as shown in a recent piece from Investment Monitor, many businesses continue to take half measures. History will not remember them kindly. Nor will Bilak. 

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