Ukraine’s richest billionaire and Donbas native Rinat Akhmetov made a rare public appearance on April 7 by meeting with the pro-Russian separatists who took over the Donetsk Oblast State Administration building and declared a separate republic the day before.
While offering to act as an intermediary between the separatists and the government in Kyiv during an expletive-laden discussion, Akhmetov admitted he was in favor of the Russian language as an official regional language, as well as decentralization of power from the central government in Ukraine.
However, he emphasized: “Donbas is Ukraine.” His endorsement is key, because Akhmetov is by far Ukraine’s wealthiest citizen with an estimated net worth of $18 billion and because of his deep ties to Donetsk Oblast, which has nearly 10 percent of Ukraine’s population of 45 million people.
Akhmetov, 47, advised the separatists to negotiate with the government – not issue outrageous demands or ultimatums.
“If we take 50 bullet points, we will resolve nothing. Let’s be realists and take points A, B, C, D. Look, guys, if you start demanding this, this, and so on, no one will give them to you. Then what? Fight? There is no way out from that. We say that the Donbas must be heard. So, let us speak,” Akhmetov said.
However, the billionaire told the rebels that if the government does storm the building, then he will be “with the people. But I will say again, we have to speak up to make a difference.”
Akhmetov continued: “We should discuss all problems, and I understand that we must make ourselves heard. Secession is not a goal but a means, and the goal is a better life. I understand that your hearts ache – anyone whose soul aches for Donbas is my brother. Donbas will always be a part of me. I live and breathe here.”
He suggested that the separatists select three to five people and together they would negotiate with the central government. Akhmetov then left for a meeting with First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema, who had arrived in Donetsk to deal with the situation.
The rebels complained that they had no one to vote for in the upcoming presidential election. In tacit approval of presidential candidate Mikhail Dobkin, Akhmetov suggested voting for the candidate of the Party of Regions, of which he was still a member. The party, however, is disgraced by its ties to its former leader, ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, and other former top officials who are now fugitives living abroad and evading mass murder and other charges.
In his interview with Hromadske television station political anchor Mustafa Nayyem, Akhmetov repeated much of the exchange between him and the separatists, but he wanted to ensure that his call “for a united Ukraine” would make it on air.
He also said that, after speaking with Yarema, the interior forces would not storm the Donetsk Oblast State Administration Building. “I came to them [separatists] because they asked for me. I went with [Party of Regions pro-Russian politician] Mykola Levchenko,” Akhmetov told Nayyem.
Akhmetov grew angry with the separatists when they offered for him to lead a Donbas committee and to close the airport, thereby essentially assuming authority in the region. “What? Do you think I have the f… keys or something!” he shouted.
As of noon on April 8, a pro-Russian band of separatists remain in control of the Donetsk Oblast State Administration.
Denial of meeting with Putin
Akhmetov’s appearance comes amid local media reports, most notably by Ukrainska Pravda investigative journalist Serhiy Leshchenko, that Akhmetov had traveled to Moscow over the past two months to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Jock Mendoza-Wilson, director of international and investor relations at Akhmetov’s SCM conglomerate, told the Kyiv Post that his superior has “had no contact with Putin over the past few months,” adding that Akhmetov’s gesture to meet with the separatists was “a personal initiative to foster a peaceful resolution of the tense situation.”
Akhmetov tends to avoid the media spotlight. However, as the mover and shaker in eastern Ukraine, he has been compelled to make periodic appearances on the streets of Donetsk and meet with select press representatives. Previously various journalists and activists called on Akhmetov through social media to voice his position on separatist movements in eastern Ukraine.
Since the start of the EuroMaidan political crisis, the normally reticent billionaire raised eyebrows on Dec. 30 when he spoke candidly with protestors on the streets of Donetsk unarmed and wearing a simple track suit. Then, after two months of silence, he gave a televised interview to the UK’s ITV in London on March 6, where he reiterated his dedication to a united Ukraine.
Akhmetov’s fortune is estimated at $18.3 billion by Korrespondent weekly magazine. His SCM runs businesses in energy, finance, metallurgy and media sectors, contributing almost 4 percent to Ukraine’s gross domestic product. As a Party of Regions member, Akhmetov served in parliament from 2006 to 2012, and still reportedly keeps a lobby in the legislature.
Kyiv Post business journalist Evan Ostryzniuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.