The Latvian media abounds in various analysts and experts’ opinions on Vladimir Antonov’s banks in Lithuania and Latvia. As a rule, they are usually based on information circulating around in the public space. BNN is, however, publishing an interview with a person who has actually taken part in one of Antonov’s projects – Janis Jurkans, who is reflecting about much more than just the sad chain of events within Krajbanka.
You are one of the few people in Latvia who have been in business relationship with Vladimir Antonov. How was it?
I was Board Chairman at AS News Media Group, which also includes the newspaper Telegraf, when I learnt that we were going to have a new owner. Initially, his name was not disclosed – not in a rude way, though. The attempts were rather clumsy. Later on I met Antonov.
You have such great experience in communicating with people. The first impression does say a lot. What did you think of Antonov?
Well, also an experienced man can make mistakes. Antonov was rather convincing. His manner of communication as well as the way how he behaved and assessed the situation fully corresponded to his rank in big business. The first impression was good indeed. I believed his words, moreover, because no dark clouds had yet gathered above his grand European projects. I guess you do agree that if someone is thought to be a deceiver, he would barely be able to work on an international level. Besides, his deals in the West looked promising.
But the name of Telegraf’s true owner has not yet been announced officially, has it?
Well, if you have some kind of an experience behind you, you can already expect certain things. You do not have to wait for the moment they are published on Latvijas Vēstnesis [public journal of Latvia). It was absolutely clear to me who owned Telegraf. Neither did Antonov hide it in the meetings when he told us about his vision on the product as well as what he expected from it and News Media Group board.
What was that he expected?
He wanted a modern, contemporary, civilized and democratic product, but he failed.
Because people, who did not know a thing in the field, came to run the newspaper. I think that very few people are interested in the product today. It turned out Telegraf was just a toy.
But some people do need toys, don't they?
This is what I do not now. Maybe they need them to provide "a special vision" on what happened with banks in Lithuania and Latvia. Or maybe they are needed to promote some grand projects.
Such toys cost a lot of money after all. Don't serious businessmen count it carefully?
Sometimes, you know, they actually spend little money to create a good impression for big money calculation. It was not Antonov who came up with "making this impression" in order to paint his activities in brighter colours. It is the same also with Lembergs and Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze. It is a "loudspeaker" system.
It is clear about the "loudspeaker", but what is not clear is the asset called Telegraf. Nowadays, a decent media product can exist only when it does not depend on business. And it is far from small sums that Antonov has invested in this "non-business" with zero efficiency. Don't you agree?
Practice shows that such toys can indeed exist, but they do not have money enough. Telegraf employees were paid irregularly and sometimes only partially. Illogical staff turnovers took place very often. All this made me realize that the grand idea about the very best newspaper in Latvia with its own radio station and magazines was nothing but words. The situation was growing even worse.
What did you do?
I sent a letter to Antonov, grounding why I did not agree with the policy and why I was leaving.
What was his response?
He urged me not to rush things and to wait until he comes to Riga to discuss the situation and my proposals. He sent Oleg Suhorukov, practically his only representative and member of Krajbanka Supervisory Board, to meet me. After the meeting, I realized that Antonov's attitude towards his own media product was actually quite chilly and nothing was going to change. So I quit.
Usually, if you want to launch a good product, you attract professionals that cost a lot. Isn't that so?
It was on the contrary for Telegraf. When I was introduced to the managers, I told the new owners that it would not work. It turned out that I was right. They hired Nikolaj Meinart from Estonia. He is an excellent publicist but managing is something completely different. I had met him before. Everything was ok with the grandiosity of his projects and self-confidence. However, Antonov knew my standpoint - Nikolaj was a good man but another person should be hired instead of him. Meinart suffered for half a year until he left.
Do you as the former News Media Group board chairman still read Telegraf?
I do sometimes read it, but just the sports section. I don't read any other stories. I know that the staff is in a continuous fight for their salaries that have already been cut.
How did you feel working in Antonov's team?
Like if I were in a basement. It was clean as if, but still you could feel the dampness and smell mold. You see, talks did not leave room for any fresh air. It felt like these were not the right persons. Back then, I could not say anything about their tricks, but I did notice some directed towards Telegraf employees. Therefore, I am not surprised by what has happened with Snoras and Krajbanka. The Latvian saying goes - similarity attracts.
What do you mean?
What I am saying is that top managers under Antonov were just like him. Let's take Maestro Raimonds Pauls' [Raimonds Pauls - one of the all time favorite Latvian composers] phone call to Krajbanka President Prieditis [Ivars Prieditis] as an example. Prieditis assured that there were no problems and Pauls could sleep tight. The bank crashed a couple of days later and Raimonds was left with nothing. This means that a decent person would never do what Prieditis did. Secondly, those who hired him knew that he would fit in that basement mood. They knew Preditis would do what they told him to do.
Does the same apply also to Telegraf?
I can tell you the results. None of my intelligent acquaintances reads the newspaper any longer.
When did it all start off? Was it after the editor-in-chief Alexander Krasnitski was dismissed for publishing a news story about a pupil, who had asked an inappropriate question about Riga Mayor Nils Ushakov?
Krasnitski turned out not to fit for the basement climate. Therefore, he was not good enough in the eyes of the new management.
Returning to Meinert, how come he was good initially but fired afterwards?
Meinert’s case was just another mistake in selecting the staff if it is done by Antonov’s people. They know nothing about publishing a newspaper or a magazine, because they are not professionals in the field. This is the key issue of theirs. However, they find it absolutely easy to throw people under the bus. It is indeed so easy! It does not matter where the person comes from Finland, Estonia or Latvia. It is just the way they treat the staff that is dependent on them.
It turns out it is all the same for Antonov whether he throws under the bus the editorial staff or the bank’s clients?
Yes, the overall impression is that it is easy for Antonov’s team. Of course, back when I communicated with Telegraf’s team I could not even imagine what they would do with Krajbanka. And it was not me alone. It’s the same with the Finance and Capital Market Commission. What I am blaming more is the country, not those that “set up” Lithuanian and Latvian banks.
BNN will publish the continuation of the interview with Janis Jurkans tomorrow.