Ukraine crisis: Country's richest man steps into the breach to help calm Donbas region

Employees of Rinat Akhmetov have joined police on patrol in Mariupol and have begun to clear up the mess left by the clashes

Mariupol

This time last week Nicolai Vorodinov was part of a large and angry crowd confronting troops and armour on one of the bloodiest of days in this violent region. Today he was on patrol with police officers removing the last of the barricades from the streets while fellow steelworkers and miners were helping to restore power and water, repair looted shops.

Mariupol, which for a while had looked like having the ominous distinction of being the place where the vicious strife in eastern Ukraine would slide into civil war, has begun to offer flickering hopes of stability and even possible peace in the future. Other cities across the region, including even Donetsk, the capital of the Peoples' Republic, are now tentatively taking the lead from this port on the Azov Sea.

Behind this 'third way', trying to find an equilibrium between nationalists and separatists, is the richest man in Ukraine and the biggest employer in the area with 300,000 on his payroll. Rinat Akhmetov, 47, has an estimated fortune of $11.7 billion and also owns the local football club FC Shakhtar.

The Oligarch is also someone with significant political clout in this region. He has, it is said by some, played both sides in this confrontation. Pavel Gubarev, the self-styled 'Peoples Governor' recently freed by the Kiev authorities claimed that Mr Akhmatov bankrolled part of the separatist movement - a charge he vehemently denies. At the same time, when Arsenyi Yatsenuik, the interim prime minister paid a visit to Donetsk, a scurrying one for security reasons, he made sure he met the billionaire to ask for his help in the deteriorating crisis.

 

Mr Akhmetov, who has a reputation for avoiding publicity, has been declaring in the last few days that independence for the east, supposedly voted for in a deeply flawed referendum last week, would be an economic disaster. The next step envisaged by the separatists, rule by the Kremlin, would be even more so. Russia, he has pointed out, does not need more coal and steel and is hardly likely to keep these industries in the region going with heavy subsidies required.

It is vital, Mr Akhmetov holds, for the Donbass to stay in a united Ukraine, albeit one with much more autonomy. Ukraine's presidential elections, banned by the Peoples' Republic, should also be held in the region, he has stressed, to stop it being disenfranchised.

The employees from Metinvest and DTEK out on the streets of Mariupol on a sunny morning insisted that their action was primarily to prevent the scenes from last week, - police headquarters burning, dead bodies in the streets, armoured personnel carriers (APCs) smashing away cars - from recurring.

Pro-Russian militants take their positions using an armored personnel carrier preparing to fight against Ukrainian government troops outside Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine Pro-Russian militants take their positions using an armored personnel carrier preparing to fight against Ukrainian government troops outside Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine (AP)
"The day these things came into our city, the day the soldiers were shooting at people, we decided that the people in Kiev had declared war on us. We will defend ourselves if necessary, but we have thought about this, we discussed this among ourselves, we do not want war, we want the Donbass to be normal again", said Mr Vorodinov.

He waved at two APCs on the side of the road. One was from a looted military base, the other, abandoned by the troops, reduced to a hulk after a drunken militant threw in a Molotov Cocktail, setting off the ammunition inside. "Look at these, we can't leave these lying here, they have to be taken to a secure place, we have people treating these as toys."

But commercial concerns, these volunteers acknowledge, were also a key driving force. "There are people in these parts who think joining Russia will make them rich. Older people will tell you that they get three times higher pension across the border. But all that will be no good if the mines and factories are closed down," Leonid Victorovich, from the steelworks at Azovstal, was keen to stress. "Look, a lot of people in the masks who were causing trouble don't work, they do not care; why else would they just destroy things, property?"

Across the road stood City Hall, which had changed hands among separatists and nationalists through several days of fighting before being finally set alight, contents of value inside stolen, the rest used for barricades. Mr Akhmnetov's workers and local people were clearing the remaining debris from outside the charred building, a few teenagers who had taken upon themselves in the last few days to act as 'militia guards' with home-made balaclavas had followed instructions to clear off.

At a playground, in the front of the building, Anya Rukosova watched the work with her two young daughters: "Of course these guys will get the support of the people, the situation was getting worse and worse, we worried about our families." Was she among the tens of thousands who had tuned up to vote in Mariupol in the referendum, one which the separatists claim gave an overwhelming mandate for secession and joining Russia?

"I wanted autonomy, not independence, but the question [on the ballot paper] wasn't clear. Most of us don't want to join Russia, what we want is the money from the Donbass to stay here and not all go to Kiev", responded the 38-year-old office manager; the upholstery business where she works has been shut for the last week due to the violence. "What is happening here, with the blockposts [barricades] cleared is a good start. Did Mr Akhmetov organise it? Well he should be more involved in this area."

Whether the start will bring real changes remains to be seen. Both the nationalists and the separatists are wary of what is being done.

Yuri Ryzhenkov, the chief executive of Metinvest, described how 'officials' of the Peoples' Republic had paid a visit to one of the factories. "They were suspicious at first, a bit aggressive. But they knew they were dealing with steelworkers and miners, people who don't like being bullied. But most importantly, the people of the city support this, and they will not accept the work being stopped."

There may also be problems from the other side, especially a private force supposedly linked to another oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky. Many of the attacks in Mariupol were carried out by these "Men in Black", the Donbass Battalion. I had witnessed meting out unprovoked beatings to demonstrators, while residents accuse them of indiscriminate shooting.

Mr Kolomoisky has praised Mr Akhmetov's efforts to keep Donbass in the Ukraine. But the unit's commander, Semyon Semenchenko, was unconcerned about civilian casualties, many of whom, he claimed, were "pigs" who had been paid to attack terrorists.

Mr Semenchneko, who has a degree in film studies and claims to have military experience, was also unrepentant about bloodshed taking place on 9 May, a revered anniversary in these parts, commemorating victory against Nazi Germany. Those who had turned up to celebrate were, he declared, "grandchildren of traitors, secret policemen and collaborators, as real heroes could not produce such grandchildren."

Hearing about the comments, Nicolai Vorodinov, the steelworker, said after a pause: "Many of us have elderly relations who fought against the Nazis, some of them died; that is the reason we turn up for Victory Day. This is obviously going to be a big problem with achieving peace; we are trying to calm things here, but Kiev just keeps sending us fascists."

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