April 15, 2014 6:09 pm

Ukraine’s oligarchs accused of double dealing over separatism

Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov©AFP

As pro-Russian separatists seized state buildings in eastern Ukraine this weekend, pro-European activists in Kiev sought out an unusual target for retribution.

They descended on the Systems Capital Management building that is the headquarters of the country’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov and spray-painted slogans across its façade. They accused him of inaction – or complicity – in the face of the separatist threat.

“Rinat is a separatist” and “Get out of Kiev” read some samples of their work.

The slogans were painted over within a day. But that has not silenced a debate raging in political circles, on television talkshows and on social media over whether Mr Akhmetov and other politically connected oligarchs from Ukraine’s industrial eastern heartland have been playing a double game in the crisis.

A handful of oligarchs initially won praise after former president Viktor Yanukovich was toppled in February and Russia threatened military action to “restore order”. Several accepted the new government’s hasty offer of regional governorships in central and eastern Ukraine, pledging to hold the country together.

But critics charge that some of Ukraine’s richest businessmen may now be using the threat of separatism as a negotiating chip with Kiev’s new pro-western leadership. Their aim: to preserve their clout after the new government was brought to power by mass protests against a corrupt and oligarch-dominated political and economic system.

Andriy Senchenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, on Monday charged that oligarchs were seeking to maintain dominance so they could “further rob” eastern Ukraine and “continue exploiting millions of people” as inexpensive labour.

The almost kinglike status such men enjoy in eastern Ukraine is feeding such beliefs. Mr Akhmetov’s diversified holding company controls nearly half the country’s vast mining, steel and electricity sectors.

Andy Hunder, a Briton with Ukrainian roots who has worked in Ukraine in government relations for more than a decade, said Mr Akhmetov and other tycoons had the “clout to quash any separatist movement”.

“They seem reluctant to do so as they are bargaining with both the Kremlin and the new Ukrainian authorities to agree a status quo where their businesses and assets will be protected and allowed to prosper in a post-Yanukovich Ukraine.”

Mr Akhmetov steadfastly denies such claims. In a statement on Tuesday, the businessman called for an end to violence, and for negotiations to resolve the stand-off.

“Together we must stop and think how to glue the country together. Not to split it, but glue it together,” he said.

People close to the businessman claim any crackdown on separatism is the government’s responsibility. They add that many people imagine Mr Akhmetov wields more influence than he really does.

They also point to Mr Akhmetov’s move to join negotiations last week with separatists in Donetsk. Presenting himself as a peacemaker, he promised to help them secure more autonomy from Kiev and rights for the Russian language – spoken by the majority of eastern Ukrainians – while insisting that territorial integrity must be preserved.

Together we must stop and think how to glue the country together. Not to split it, but glue it together

- Rinat Akhmetov, on Tuesday

Like many other oligarchs, Mr Akhmetov rose to power and wealth by surviving bloody gangland battles over lucrative assets in the 1990s in a tumultuous post-Soviet Ukraine.

Their wealth increased further under Mr Yanukovich, whom they long backed but ultimately disowned. Indeed, losing the oligarchs appears to have been a factor prompting the former president to flee to Russia in late February.

Still, many Ukrainians accuse Mr Akhmetov and others of abandoning Mr Yanukovich only after government-ordered snipers gunned down 100 pro-EU protesters in Kiev. That provoked national fury and made the president’s position untenable.

In Lugansk, northeast of Donetsk, another influential politician-businessman, Oleksandr Yefremov, faces similar criticisms of not doing enough to counter separatism in his native region. Separatists 10 days ago seized a regional state security building in the city.

Mr Yefremov, a former regional governor, is the leader in parliament for Mr Yanukovich’s Regions party. Although the party’s influence has waned at national level since the president’s ousting, it still dominates regional and local politics in the east. Mr Akhmetov is also a backer.

“There is lots of supporting evidence backing the view that Akhmetov and Yefremov are playing a double game in the battle against separatism in eastern Ukraine,” said Taras Berezovets, a political analyst. He suggested they were using the separatism threat “either . . . as a card in negotiations with Kiev’s new authorities aimed at preserving their influence going forward, or playing into Russia’s interest in case the region gets taken over by Russia.”

Boris Kolesnikov, a close associate of Mr Akhmetov as well as a businessman and influential Regions party MP, brushed aside such claims. Kiev could readily defuse the separatist threat, Mr Kolesnikov argued. All it had to do was delegate more authority and control over finances to regional governments.

“What do people in the east want? They don’t want to see armed neo-fascists from western Ukraine and Kiev in their region,” he said. “They don’t want all of their taxes going to Kiev. And they don’t want to be told what language to speak.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.


Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in