May 14, 2014 7:31 pm

Billionaire Rinat Akhmetov seeks more power for Ukraine regions

Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov©EPA

Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov

Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, has called for changes to the country’s constitution to give much more power to its regions.

It was the multibillionaire’s most forceful intervention in a crisis that threatens to tear Ukraine apart.

Mr Akhmetov, who sits atop an industrial empire of coal mines, steel works and power stations, rejected attempts by separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine, known as Donbass, to break away and either become independent entities or join Russia. “I strongly believe that Donbass can be happy only in [a] united Ukraine,” he said.

His comments, made in a televised address, were his most detailed yet on the conflict gripping eastern Ukraine and suggest that the country’s elite could be inching towards a settlement that could de-escalate the crisis.

They came just hours after Sergei Naryshkin, the Speaker of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, backed the idea of holding presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25 – an idea the rebels in the east reject.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, reiterated on Wednesday that Moscow had “no intention” of sending its troops into eastern Ukraine.

The conciliatory words came just a day after seven Ukrainian servicemen were killed in an ambush by pro-Russian separatist forces near Slovyansk, a town in the Donetsk region that has become a rebel stronghold.

Eastern Ukraine has been engulfed by unrest ever since the country’s former president Viktor Yanukovich, who is from the Donetsk region, was toppled from power in February.

In the weeks that followed, insurgents opposed to the government that replaced him seized government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and other towns, in a campaign that western governments said was orchestrated by Moscow.

Ukraine’s two easternmost regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, held referendums on self-rule at the weekend. The polls were condemned in the west as illegal but organisers said they delivered big majorities in favour of independence.

The separatist leadership of Donetsk on Monday declared the region a sovereign state and asked to become part of Russia.

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Mr Akhmetov said Ukraine faced four options: the first would leave everything as it is, with Kiev in charge – a model he said had “run out of steam and is not right for the future”.

The second was for Donetsk to become independent, which he also rejected. “Nobody in the world will recognise it,” he said, adding that the region, one of the most heavily industrialised in Ukraine, would be slapped with huge sanctions and “will not be able to sell or produce”.

A similar fate would await the region if it was annexed by Russia, he said.

Under the fourth scenario – which he described as “the only right way, in my view” – Ukraine would amend its constitution and decentralise its government. Regional governments would, according to this model, be elected and not appointed, and local authorities would be “responsible to the people for the present and future”.

His call comes at a time when much of Ukraine’s political elite is coming around to the idea that decentralisation could help end the country’s political crisis. Ministers are already in the process of drawing up proposals to increase the power of the regions.

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