News / Europe

Ukraine's Richest Man Gambles on Peacemaker Role

FILE - Rinat Akhmetov is seen flanked at a soccer match by Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (L) and Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski (R) Nov. 23, 2011, in Donetsk, Ukraine.
FILE - Rinat Akhmetov is seen flanked at a soccer match by Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (L) and Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski (R) Nov. 23, 2011, in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Reuters
Ukraine's richest man has seized on the stand-off between the Kyiv authorities and pro-Russia separatists to help forge new political alliances following the overthrow of his former ally, president Viktor Yanukovych.
 
Steel and mining magnate Rinat Akhmetov is drawing on his local clout in Donetsk to negotiate with separatist protesters to end their occupation of state buildings in the eastern city, his industrial fiefdom where Yanukovych was once the governor.
 
Since Monday, sources close to him say, Akhmetov has been actively involved in talking to the rebels - even sympathizing with some of their demands - while urging law-enforcement agencies to stay their hand in using force to end the stand-off.
 
The move is not without its risks. If he miscues, those close to him say, he could be accused of toeing Moscow's line and will find himself at odds with Ukraine's new leaders. That might put in jeopardy the very businesses he aims to protect.
 
Commentators say the 47-year-old Akhmetov, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine at $11.4 billion, is trying to use the crisis in eastern Ukraine to re-position himself and protect his huge business concerns in the post-Yanukovych landscape.
 
But equally, the new leadership needs him and his clout, especially in a region where much of Ukraine's population and industrial capacity are concentrated and whose ties to Russia make it crucial to relations with the Kremlin.
 
A local Donetsk boy, son of a miner from the ethnic Tatar minority, Akhmetov's business interests reach deep into traditional mining areas of the Russian-speaking Donbass region. He has about 300,000 people on his payroll.
 
That can translate into useful support for the new leaders in a part of the country where people are strongly influenced by Russian cross-border propaganda and look askance at the pro-Western “Euromaidan” uprising in Kyiv that toppled Yanukovych.
 
Sweets and schoolbooks
 
Akhmetov emerged into the public consciousness out of bloody regional gang wars in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union as head of a private business empire that now reaches into steel, mining, energy and the media.
 
Soccer-mad, he owns the FC Shakhtar club, its flying saucer-like stadium and star-studded multinational squad. Along with the kind of wealth that made headlines when he bought a $200-million London apartment, Shakhtar has brought him international celebrity. Yet despite sitting in parliament for several years, he is rarely spotted in public - at least, outside of a stadium.
 
In Donetsk, a steel and mining hub with a population of a million, he has a stock of popular appeal, conducting himself often with the panache and patronage of a generous feudal lord.
 
He has been known to send sweets to Donetsk's schoolchildren on Valentine's Day or textbooks at the start of the school year.
 
Western governments also recognize him as a major player.
 
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier flew to meet Akhmetov in Donetsk last month, calling him a man “whose word counts round here” and expressing confidence that he and other “oligarchs” were ready to resist any move by Russia to hive off the Russian-speaking east as it did Crimea.
 
Akhmetov's System Capital Management, the corporate hub of his various businesses and holdings, has offices in the capital Kyiv. He bought up and is re-fitting the old Soviet-era TsUM department store right by the Euromaidan protest area.
 
But his close identification with the deposed Yanukovych, whose election campaign he backed in 2009-10, means he is far from popular in the capital. He stayed well clear of protests during the three months of turmoil leading up to Yanukovych's flight to Russia, though he and fellow oligarchs did rush out appeals for restraint during the final, bloody denouement.
 
In his much publicized contacts with pro-Russian activists who took over the regional administration building in Donetsk on Sunday, he has sympathized with their calls for upgrading the status of the Russian language in Ukraine and came out strongly against any use of force by authorities to end their sit-in.
 
If security forces stormed the building, he “would be with the people,” Ukrainska Pravda news site quoted him as saying.
 
At the same time he urged the separatists to tone down some of their demands, such as an independent “Donetsk Republic,” and to hold constructive negotiations with the government.
 
He favors decentralization of power - along lines already being drawn up by the new leadership - but is at pains to differentiate this from Moscow's call for “federalism,” which Kyiv says would be a precursor to the break-up of the country.
 
Though he insists he backs only a united Ukraine, his aides acknowledge that he runs the risk of Russia's propaganda machine exploiting his sympathy for some of the separatists' demands, particularly on language rights.
 
“He is trying to achieve a solution in such a way that it will not be used for propaganda by Moscow,” said a source close to Akhmetov.
 
Breaking with Viktor
 
Akhmetov has stayed well clear of contacts with Yanukovych since the deposed leader fled to Russia in late February, aides said.
 
“He has not met Viktor Yanukovych, or any members of his family, since February 22, when he spoke to him in Donetsk and encouraged him to resign,” said Jock Mendoza-Wilson, director of international and investor relations at SCM.
 
His denunciation of the bloodshed in late February, when police opened fire and more than 100 people were killed, played a part in resolving the crisis. But he will have to work hard all the same to rid himself of the association with Yanukovych and forge new alliances.
 
Aides say his relations are good with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko, who is likely to remain a political force even though he has bowed out of the presidential race.
 
In the run-up to a presidential election on May 25, however, commentators say Akhmetov's support for one or other of the political factions and leaders could become crucial.
 
The frontrunners in this race are the flamboyant former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and confectionery tycoon Petro Poroshenko. Akhmetov's relations with Tymoshenko have long been strained as the two belong to competing business clans. However, “they managed to co-exist,” said a source close to Akhmetov.
 
Some commentators say Akhmetov may choose to back an outside candidate, Mykhailo Dobkin, a former governor of Kharkiv region who represents Yanukovych's now rudderless Party of Regions and is personally close to the Donetsk billionaire.
 
Akhmetov, however, may feel such an alliance could backfire on him as he studies his options for fostering a political environment that can secure his businesses and help them thrive.

You May Like

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More