Ukraine crisis: All eyes on the oligarchs as political sands shift

The unrest is stretching some highly profitable allegiances

In Ukraine, the collapse of the Soviet Union saw business and politics become intertwined: the country’s oligarchs were clear beneficiaries. Today, there are scores of super-rich MPs who wield power as the owners of several television stations, all the while keeping close ties to the political elite.

But some of these allegiances are being severely tested. Until now Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, an ally of President Viktor Yanukovych, was better known in Britain for his extravagant purchase of the penthouse at One Hyde Park, one of London’s most exclusive addresses, for £136m, rather than for his work on political reconciliation.

This week the 47-year-old denounced the bloodshed in Kiev, issuing a statement that said: “Rinat Akhmetov urges an end to the bloodshed in the streets of Kiev and calls on all the opposing parties to return to the negotiation process immediately and continue to work without any delay until a solution is found that would take Ukraine out of this deep political crisis.”

That did not wash with a lone protester mounting a vigil outside Mr Akhmetov’s London address today. Draped in a Ukrainian flag and holding a banner reading “Ukraine – it’s on fire”, Andriy Alexsyeyev, a 43-year-old designer who lives in London, was hoping to catch a glimpse of the oligarch. It is understood that Mr Akhmetov flew to Britain this evening.

“I think he has influence on the president and the members of the Parliament,” Mr Alexsyeyev said. “Yesterday was the worst day in the history of Ukraine. It’s time to think about the situation from outside, not inside the fight. People think for Ukraine it’s a choice between Russia and Europe, but that’s not true, it’s about corruption and all the wrong decisions that the Ukrainian government has made for the last 20 years.”

 

Victor Pinchuk is married to the only daughter of the controversial former president Leonid Kuchma. He counts Tony Blair as a friend and has hosted Bill Clinton and the businessman George Soros in Ukraine.

Unlike Mr Akhmetov, however, he is not considered a loyalist to President Yanukovych. His stance has been more muted. “It is time for all sides to take courageous steps towards compromise that they may not yet have been ready to take even this morning,” he has said. “Ukraine since its independence has avoided bloodshed. We must return to this tradition immediately.”

There has been no statement so far from Petro Poroshenko, the wealthiest oligarch openly backing the anti-government protests. Once dubbed a “cross between Willy Wonka and Che Guevara”, Mr Poroshenko, a confectionary billionaire, has reportedly been seen handing out chocolate on Independence Square and at the occupied trade union building where the opposition has established its headquarters.

But he also has experience of working with both sides of Ukraine’s political divide, having served as foreign minister under Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, and more recently as trade and economic development minister for Mr Yanukovych.

Other powerful business moguls include Vadim Novinsky, the third-richest man in Ukraine, and Serhiy Tigipko, a former presidential candidate and minister of labour. As the violence took a new turn this week, Mr Tigipko called for a new technocratic government to manoeuvre Ukraine away from the abyss.

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