Since itʼs you who initiated this interview, I canʼt help but ask, what is the purpose of it for you?
When something is published about any individual or organization, there should be two sides presented. When they [other media] were preparing articles about us, they either didn’t approach us at all or did so formally, just for the record. It’s important for me to state my position ― that’s freedom of speech.
We’ve been observing your Institute for a while and have considered writing an article about it a few times, but various unforeseen events got in the way. Let’s start with a popular topic – Spartak Subbota. You introduced him to the general public, he held an official position within your Institute, and even the Institute’s name suggests that Subbota was somewhere at the center of the structure. How and when did you become acquainted with him?
Sometime in the spring of 2019. Whether it was on Hromadske [online media] or elsewhere, I don’t quite remember, but I read an article by the psychologist and psychiatrist Spartak Subbota. He was such an intriguing character ― provocative, tattooed, bald, outwardly more resembling a hooligan. I decided to find him and get to know him. I took the initiative, reached out to him, had a conversation, and proposed collaboration.
Was he one of the co-founders of the Institute?
No, our legal structure is multi-leveled. The owners of all intellectual property rights for the Institute, trademarks, and so on, are Viktor Berezenko and Dmytro Tsarenko, no one else. The Institute of Cognitive Modeling was founded in the spring of 2019 by me and Dmytro, and we had another partner at the beginning who left a few weeks after the founding.
Yes, those were our personal moments that were unrelated to the Institute or work. So, only Dmytro and I remained. Later we realized that we needed to create a public organization to work on various social projects and initiatives. We proposed Spartak to become a founder of this public organization. We worked on different projects with him, for example against domestic violence. He was a speaker, a public figure, the face of certain projects.
When you hired him, did you check his diplomas?
Yes, we checked his diplomas, he provided them. We didn’t have any doubts then.
What kind of diplomas those were?
Those are his personal data. I don’t want to disclose them without permission.
Did you know that Spartak is actually Oleksandr?
No, I didn’t.
How could you not know if you saw his diplomas?
The diplomas I saw had the name “Spartak Subbota” on them.
Do you have any connection to the sociological company Seetarget?
We co-founded the company Seetarget with Dmytro Tsarenko. Spartak participated in it as a speaker in some public presentations.
You’re saying that Spartak participated in the company’s public events, which means in 2018, but earlier you mentioned that you first saw his texts in 2019. There’s a discrepancy here.
I might be mistaken and I’m not trying to confuse things. It was either the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019. Spartak didn’t participate in Seetarget from the very beginning. My point is that this chronology isn’t crucial to me; the facts are more important.
So, you initially invited Spartak to Seetarget, and after working with him there, you invited him to the ICM?
Those processes were happening simultaneously.
The main issue with Spartak is that he lacked medical education and wasn’t a psychiatrist, as he positioned himself and as Seetarget positioned him, by the way. If you didn’t verify this, it’s your mistake.
During his work at the Institute, his qualification as a psychotherapist or psychiatrist wasn’t used. Regarding psychotherapy, he worked with his clients, which was his personal matter. The Institute didn’t provide such services. As a psychologist, he gave lectures and interviews.
One of the reasons his qualification didn’t raise suspicions was that when he came to the Institute, he immediately brought the UACBT [Ukrainian Association for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy] with him to collaborate on certain projects. We signed a memorandum with them and provided them with space where they could work. Later, there was the Ukrainian Catholic University, and someone else. There were things that confirmed [Spartakʼs qualification].
Wait, the Ukrainian Catholic University cooperated with Spartak?
We signed a memorandum of cooperation with them regarding mental health.
Did Spartak introduce them?
He had some contacts there. I mean, he brought in reputable organizations, which gave the impression that he wasn’t just a random person.
Did you provide political services through him, like consulting politicians or conducting training for them?
In 99% of cases, those were the same lectures he gave publicly, but with a focus on politicians. They were about manipulation, provocations, public behavior. Popular psychology, let’s say.
Can you specify which clients these were?
He provided lectures to Sluha Narodu party and basically, probably that’s all.
Interestingly that apart from what became publicly known, Spartak didn’t offer other services to politicians.
Services related to psychology and psychotherapy are a personal matter for each individual. Our main expertise isn’t psychotherapy, it’s something slightly different.
After the scandal with Spartak, his friend [and former co-host of their highly popular show] Yevhen Yanovych publicly apologized. Have you ever felt like you legitimized a charlatan and that you needed to communicate this somehow?
That’s a question for those who wrote the articles [about this situation]. They didn’t ask us. Why didn’t they ask? It’s not that hard.
Well, I’m asking you now, do you consider Spartak your big mistake?
Are you looking for a headline? Life is such a thing that you never know what will happen next. Back then, we couldn’t foresee the future.
I see, there won’t be a straightforward answer. How did you part ways with Spartak?
In a professional way. It happened in late fall of 2021, and the process of dismissal had taken about a month.
For what reason? He was one of the foundations of your Institute, after all.
He wasn’t a foundation, he was a face, a public speaker. Our policy is to part ways professionally, within the bounds of business ethics. There were internal reasons, which are our commercial secrets. Everyone has their own path ― he went his way, we went ours.
Social technologies and fees
Okay, letʼs move from Spartacus to your main examination. By the way, what is she like?
Okay, let’s move from Spartak to your main expertise. By the way, what is it?
Social technologies ― it’s a bit broader concept than just political technologies. Our expertise is often narrowed down to political consultants, political technologists, but we implement many projects not related to politics. For example, the project with the European Commission EU Supports Ukraine, the psychological support platform Rozkazhy Meni (Tell Me), communities Psykholohichna Pidtrymka (Psychological Support) and Shkola_info (School_Info) on Viber, online platform for domestic violence victims Meni Zdaietsia (It Seems to Me), and a series of projects with European and American institutions to counter Russian disinformation and propaganda, which I can talk about when it will be allowed by the NDA. All of this pertains to society ― large groups of people, interacting with them. That’s what social technologies are. In essence, we understand how people think, how to study their opinions properly. In general, over the last ten years, we’ve been trying to move away from political consulting, but it hasn’t worked out so far.
It’s not working out because it’s the most profitable aspect of your business? According to our information, during pre-election campaigns, your services to the top politicians cost $50 000 per month.
God willing, as they say. In reality, no. Every person goes through certain stages in life, phases, and reaches a point where they want to develop and move forward. It’s the same for us ― we ventured into international activities in 2021, opened an office in Brussels, and it wasn’t because we wanted to engage in political projects. In May, we organized a summit in Brussels, which also revolved around social technologies, but in a slightly different context ― societal transformation, philosophy of human interaction with new technologies. Shifting from competitive models to cooperative ones. So, we are interested in developing.
So many complex constructs, but if we return to the question – did you primarily make or to some point made most of your money from political consulting?
There were different stages in our journey. There were times when we earned from political consulting. Lately, it wasnʼt like that. In fact, for the past year and a half, we haven’t been involved in any political processes. We have commercial projects that we are focused on.
For the past year and a half, no one in Ukraine has been involved in political projects, including the politicians themselves.
Well, yes. And there’s logic in that. In general, there’s no market for political consulting in Ukraine. Here’s how it goes in Ukraine: some guys gather and say, “Let’s have elections! Let’s do it! Hey guys, join us.” People join, quickly start forming teams, headquarters, take on some projects, and start running around and working. The elections end, everyone sits around and wonders what to do next.
Our vision, mine and Dmytro’s, was to create an open, transparent market for political consulting in Ukraine. That’s why we established an organization, started signing memorandums with everyone we collaborated with, went public, put all the logos on our website, and talked about it in interviews.
You’re avoiding the question about the money, but I’ll ask again about your average honorarium during a pre-election campaign before the full-scale invasion?
As I mentioned, there’s no market as such. There are distinct groups of people, individual specialists; it depends on the project, the chances of success, and the personality of the person you’re dealing with. If someone is an unpleasant person, we won’t work with them. We can now afford to choose who we work with based on their personality.
One of your clients was the member of Parliament Vadym Stolar, whose background raises many questions, but we’ll come back to that later. And I’m asking again about money, what is the minimum amount you would take on for providing political campaign support?
If we were hypothetically discussing now, for some future scenario where elections would be happening and someone came to us to discuss cooperation, we wouldn’t take on a campaign anymore. We would provide consultation, and I believe we would take on the smallest amount of work to share high-level strategic expertise. In that case, we would be talking about $500+ per hour.
Seetarget, pseudo-sociologists, Boykoʼs ratings and a lot of Tkachenko
Let’s return to Seetarget. In the media, it was reported that the company was involved in pseudo-sociology.
In reality, initially, a negative review about the company was written by one author. Later, claims of it being a pseudo-company surfaced, but they failed to mention that Seetarget was a member of the Sociological Association of Ukraine, which includes all sociological companies. The Head of Seetarget was Associate Professor at the Sociology Department of Taras Shevchenko University [Oleksii Borovskyi], a public figure who officially participated in press conferences and public events. It was also claimed that the company was created for the elections, but that’s also not true, as it had previously conducted research on various important issues such as the Ukrainian society’s attitudes towards the LGBT community, legalization of marijuana, and weapons. There were press conferences involving Spartak, well-known lawyers, but for some reason, nobody talked about that, which is an important background. And there was no politics involved here at all.
But pseudo-sociologists work according to such a scheme as well. They start by creating a company, conducting certain non-political research, building their brand, and then selling their services to politicians and conducting commissioned research for them. You can’t just come off the street and conduct a rating study, for example, of [pro-Russian politician] Yurii Boiko. Well, technically you can, but no one will believe you. In fact, there are accusations of Seetarget you of inflating Boiko’s ratings in the presidential elections of 2019 and the ratings of Oleksandr Tkachenko, who was planning to run for mayor of Kyiv the same year. Did you work for presidential candidate Boiko?
No, we didn’t. Somehow, they [crities] forget to add Petro Poroshenko to this list of politicians. All these materials only mention the research the company conducted in the south and east [of Ukraine]. Of course, Boiko was leading there, furthermore, if you look at the election results in those regions, the “blue-and-white” [pro-Russian political powers] gained an even higher percentage than what was in those data. And when the company conducted research in Lviv region, which none of the authors [of critical publications] mentioned, of course, the winner was Poroshenko.
Another point is [former Minister of Culture and member of parliament Oleksandr] Tkachenko. We conducted the research and presented it. In reality, during an electoral process, people’s opinions can change rapidly. A race’s favorite can end up the last or, conversely, surge ahead. So, comparing data that Seetarget collected over a month or during an electoral campaign isn’t entirely accurate, as the margin of error can be quite large. And it seems there was a similar situation in the KIIS [Kyiv International Institute of Sociology] ― Tkachenko held the second or third place there. In fact, it wasn’t Tkachenko’s own rating, but mainly the “Sluhy Narodu” party brand’s rating [to which he belongs].
According to the KIIS data, Klitschko was leading Tkachenko by 18%, while according to your numbers, it was by 2%. In reality, such dramatic gaps don’t occur if the surveys are conducted a month apart, unless something extraordinary happens between the surveys. To suggest that the inflated ratings are not coincidental, journalists were prompted by the friendship between Tkachenko and Seetarget co-founder Dmytro Tsarenko. Is it true that they are friends?
No, it isn’t. They are not friends. They are acquaintances, as they previously had worked in the television business.
Some time after this survey, Tkachenko’s wife became one of the top managers in the media holding owned by Vadym Stolar, which you were managing at that time. How did she come to work for you?
Actually, it’s a very interesting topic. Between the sociological research and his wife joining the holding, a year or a year and a half had passed, if not two. I wasn’t even acquainted with her before that. We were looking for a Head of the digital direction, someone recommended her, we reviewed resumes, invited people for interviews. She left an impression of a professional, a specialist, especially considering her 1+1 TV channel background.
Let’s clarify about the “someone recommended.” At that time, the CEO of the Institute was Svitlana Paveletska — a close friend of the Tkachenko family and his business partner. Probably, this “someone” was Paveletska.
Possibly, yes, at that time many people from the “pluses” (i.e. 1+1 TV channel) worked at the [Stolarʼs] channel, in the holding, and those who knew each other would recommend others.
There are two other events that happened within a shorter timeframe. Your work with the Ministry of Culture, led by Tkachenko, and the arrival of his wife in the holding. This was in the fall of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. What exactly did you do for the Ministry of Culture?
We participated in a tender, won it, conducted research, and developed a communication strategy. At that time, the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading, and our research prompted the Ministry of Culture to focus on internal tourism. The research provided answers to questions about how Ukrainians perceive culture and what the Minister should be involved in. Because politicians have their own understanding of what ministries should do, which might differ from people’s perceptions. We formulated a communication strategy.
Did the Ministry of Culture implement it?
No, it didn’t.
It’s just interesting: you do some work, and then you see that it wasn’t used. Don’t you find out why?
In most cases, we understand the reasons ourselves. Some parts of the work might be taken and used by others, someone comes and offers a different perspective; there’s a part of political decisions.
For me as a taxpayer, it’s a pity for the money that the state spent in vain. How much did this strategy cost?
A little over 800 000 UAH.
Work with Sluha Narodu
If we’re talking about political history, you received a significant order worth five million UAH from the Sluha Narodu party at the beginning of 2020. What exactly were you paid for?
There was a substantial amount of work involved, numerous research projects: social and political, identifying trigger points in society that concern people. We conducted several lectures on manipulation and provocations, public speaking, and we did a lot related to communication strategies, messaging, and developing action plans.
Did Spartak give the lectures?
Yes, Spartak gave the lectures.
How did you manage to get such a substantial order from the new ruling party? Perhaps, also thanks to Tkachenko, with whom you collaborated in the parliamentary elections for the “Sluha Narodu” in Kyiv?
There have never been this much of Tkachenko in my life. In reality, we’ve been operating in the market for many years, we are professionals, and many people of different levels know us. They are decision-makers, so to think that during those years only Tkachenko was lobbying for us everywhere...
That’s why I’m asking, who among your clients recommended you?
Honestly, we had extensive interactions with everyone, had assisted “Sluha Narodu” a bit during the elections, and there wasn’t just one individual involved.
During that same period, the daughter of the current Head of the “Sluha Narodu” party, Olena Shuliak, had been working for you. Why did you bring her into the Institute?
Indeed, Dariia Shuliak had interned with us. In some reports, there was a surprise about her low salary ― it was precisely because it was an internship. She is a very talented and skilled individual. We’ve always aimed to motivate young people.
You’re saying that many people knew you from the “Sluha Narodu”, so why not mention that Dariia Shuliak was brought in for an internship at the request of her mother, Olena Shuliak? It seems like an obvious thing.
The thing is, it wasn’t her mother who requested it, but one of our colleagues. In reality, in most cases, employment within our company happens through referrals from current employees, especially when people communicate and have friendships among themselves.
So, you found out afterwards that she was the daughter of a deputy?
No, during the process. We had a conversation.
Coronavirus_info and Ukraine NOW
Let’s talk about your most well-known project – Coronavirus_info channels on Viber and Telegram, managed by the ICM and, according to your words, verified by the Ministry of Health of Ukraine. How did you manage to establish communication with officials so quickly at the beginning of the pandemic?
We transitioned to this project organically after providing communication support for Prime Minister Oleksii Honcharuk and his Cabinet of Ministers. We had started communicating about the Coronavirus even during the tenure of the Head of the Ministry of Health Ilia Yemets.
Did you have a contract with Honcharuk?
There was no formal contract; we simply provided consultations on a voluntary basis and awaited a grant from donors for the Cabinet of Ministers communication campaign. However, the grant didn’t materialize as the Cabinet of Ministers was dismissed.
At that time, there was significant panic. We saw the challenge and decided to create a strong communication campaign, a compelling social story, and capitalize on it. We then thought about how to monetize it. People were saying various things at the time, so we approached the Minister and proposed creating clear communication channels with information from official sources.
You approached the Minister and offered to do it, under what conditions? Managing these channels required a significant team that needed the salary for their work.
We had started working under Yemets and continued during the tenure of his successor, Maksym Stepanov. There were no specific arrangements with one person. Around five to eight people worked on the channels, and we didn’t receive any payment for it. We aimed to create a project that would enhance our image and show our expertise.
Did you make any profit from this project?
No, we didn’t. We spent a significant amount of money on it.
You mentioned that this channel was verified by the Ministry of Health. Can you explain what this wording means?
In my philosophical world, there are two levels of verification for this channel. The official verification checkmarks from Telegram and Viber, which they legally refer to as such.
But that’s not from the Ministry of Health.
The second level is our agreement with the Ministry of Health that we would publish only their official information and nothing else. They understood that we were a reliable public and communication partner for them.
Did the Ministry of Health verify the channel’s operation in any way?
We collaborated very closely with their press service, all the deputies, the Minister, so there was nothing unofficial coming from our side.
What happened with the channel afterward?
We managed the channel until the pandemic was ongoing. The subscribers number fell, and then it increased again due to the Omicron. However, it was operating with less strength; we had only two moderators, and we no longer interacted with the Ministry of Health. We simply took their official information and posted it.
When the full-scale invasion has begun, we renamed these channels to Ukraine NOW and started posting 24/7. We even had secretaries who had no media-related background taking shifts to help verify information. Our goal was to prevent the penetration of Russian propaganda and misinformation into the information space. We certainly managed to hold our own share well. By the way, the Ukrainian Media and Communication Institute recognized Ukraine NOW as the only non-institutionalized Telegram channel that adheres to professional standards and does not share Russian fakes.
At some point, you collaborated with the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, and as far as I know, you developed a strategy for them. And then you jointly managed Ukraine NOW.
We worked on strategic communications, studying public opinion. Nowadays, it’s clear that digitalization is a great thing, but when we started working with the Ministry of Digital Transformation, people didn’t understand it. They thought, “They’re going to take my passport away.” It scared them.
Here, the fact that the Ministry itself was creating a fantastic product played a role. There were surveys where digitalization ranked 12th or 13th among President Zelenskyy’s achievements. Within a year, precisely when we were setting up the work, it had rissen to the 1st or 2nd place.
When did you start cooperating with the Ministry of Digital Transformation?
I believe it was in 2020.
Was this cooperation funded by the Government or grants?
There were no government funds involved. We really wanted to create an impressive case.
So, as far as I understand, for some time you managed Ukraine NOW together with the Ministry of Digital Transformation, and then they exited the project?
We synchronized our efforts during the first few months, during the most active phase of the conflict. Now, our team exclusively manages it. We have people who curate its content with news updates. It’s quite challenging to sustain, so occasional advertisements appear there, in line with the content. It’s safe to say there’s no significant profit there.
In the channel description thereʼs written: “The main verified source of information about events in Ukraine”. That’s quite ambitious.
I agree, sometimes things happen quite simply: an editor is asked to write something in the description, they write it, and then people start looking for conspiracy theories.
Stolar’s Media Holding and Work in Europe
By the way, there’s a question about the word “verified,” but we’ve already discussed its meaning, so let’s move on to the last topic — your work with Vadym Stolar. You’ve talked a lot about it publicly, and I won’t ask questions that you’ve answered before. Did you understand that Stolar needed the media solely as a tool for influence? Because, in fact, nothing in his background indicated a desire to build independent media.
We do understand that this thesis can be applied to anyone, right?
To many. For instance, it’s a bit more challenging to apply it to someone like Tomas Fiala, but easier for individuals like Kolomoyskyi or Akhmetov.
We entered this project on terms that suited us. And what was happening on Live also suited us. We stated that we were ready to handle this block, ready to create a news and entertainment channel, ready to establish an international division, which we did by making an agreement with Voice of America. Representatives of all political forces were present on the channel, everything was within the framework of the law. Our agreements with the channel’s owner were about creating a good and high-quality product, promoting Ukrainian content.
At the start, you announced that you would compete with large media holdings, you hunted well-known individuals, and often offered non-market high salaries. But by the fall of 2021, you were gone. Why didn’t it work out?
The plans were ambitious. We had agreements to create an information and entertainment channel. Our reference was 1+1 TV channel.
That’s why you appointed Svitlana Paveletska, the former Head of the PR department of “pluses,” as the Head of the channel?
She had experience. In response to the question of why it didn’t work out, when the first part of the contract was coming to an end and we met with the owner to review the results and decide what to do next, he informed us that his plans had changed — he wanted a news format. We agreed that we had created the product we had agreed upon, but at this stage, we were parting ways.
Did he have any complaints about the channel not meeting its KPIs?
The channel achieved its KPIs. We understood that it takes three-four years to see a good, systematic result. We were just getting organized, outlining marketing and technical strategies, and starting to purchase products, and etc. Therefore, the internal KPIs we set were achieved. The work we planned was designed for four-five years.
I don’t expect you to disclose your honorariums, but was managing Stolar’s holding your biggest contract in recent years?
No, it wasn’t.
So, did political deals bring in more money?
Not even political ones, no. It was just regular work.
As far as we know, before working with Stolar, you had also worked with Serhiy Lyovochkin from the OPzZh party. These two politicians, to put it mildly, don’t have a fondness for each other. Firstly, is it true that you worked with Lyovochkin, and if so, how did you manage to combine these clients?
Yes, we worked with Lyovochkin, and yes, we later worked with Stolar. Your question is actually important because in Ukraine, people are accustomed to thinking that when you work with someone, you’re automatically “their person.” But we position ourselves as professionals, as individuals who shape the market and can work with various clients within the framework of agreements.
Currently, are you ready to work with figures like Boiko, Lyovochkin, Vadym Novynskyi, former members of the “Partiia Rehioniv” (“The Party of Regions”) who may have ideological or financial ties to Russia?
With individuals associated with Russia, no. We are not currently involved in the political process and are solely focused on counter-propaganda while observing the situation.
Finally, what are you currently doing in Brussels?
Dmytro, my partner, has been living in Europe with his family for seven years. He regularly flew to Ukraine for work. Due to family circumstances, I started the process of moving to Europe with my family in August 2021. This was synchronized with our work, as in the fall of 2021, we opened an office in Brussels. Our entire communication activity now is aimed at assisting Ukraine, primarily countering Russian disinformation and propaganda with the support of Western donors.
Is your team based in Ukraine or the EU?
Our team is spread out ― part of it is in Europe, part is in Ukraine, and part is in Brussels. We organized the European Web3 Summit, which is not related to politics, but it involved, among others, politicians. It concerns the technological development of humanity, let’s say.
On what grounds did you leave the country?
We had left before the borders were closed.
Do you have any plans to return and develop something in Ukraine?
We didnʼt move to Europe due to the war. We were developing a systematic business direction in advance, starting from the summer of 2021. It was our vector of development and our vision. Currently, everything we do involves accumulating resources from Western partners and directing them to Ukraine. We don’t have income or work in Ukraine, so we’re accumulating funds in the West.
Translated by Iryna Sheiko.