Ukraine’s richest man breaks silence to call for talks
Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov on Friday made his first public comments on the more than three weeks of protests that have rocked the country, calling for talks and condemning violence.
The influential mining magnate and owner of the Shakhtar Donetsk football team released a statement through his SCM holding company which was carefully-worded but nonetheless represented a crucial intervention in the crisis.
Just four hours after SCM released his statement, Ukraine’s three main protest leaders sat down for talks with President Viktor Yanukovych, after days of insisting no meeting was possible unless their preconditions are met.
The tycoon, who for years bankrolled the Regions Party of President Viktor Yanukovych and once sat for it in parliament as an MP, appeared in his statement at pains not to take sides in the crisis.
But he said people had taken to the streets to “look for answers” after Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union.
“The fact that peaceful people took to the streets for peaceful demonstrations means that Ukraine is a free, democratic country. Ukraine will not turn off this road. This is very good,” Akhmetov said.
He condemned the violent clashes at some of the protests, without singling out either protesters or security forces. “The fact that people suffered is unacceptable,” the tycoon said.
Akhmetov — who according to the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine is the country’s richest man with a $14.9 billion fortune — said it was important now to have a “balanced approach” and for all sides to sit down for negotiations.
“Politicians, government officials, the opposition, and moral leaders of the country must sit down at the negotiating table and make a decision we will be proud of,” he said.
Encouraging Ukraine’s leaders to take brave and potentially unpopular decisions, he said: “While politicians may lose their ratings at the negotiating table, the most important thing is to ensure that the rating of Ukraine goes up.”
‘He can influence Yanukovych’
The importance of Akhmetov’s statement was immediately noticed, with US ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt tweeting that “I welcome the wise advice of Rinat Akhmetov on the current crisis.”
Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta research centre, said that there was a direct link between Akhmetov’s comments and the holding of the talks between the opposition and Yanukovych.
“It is important as he is the only oligarch who can influence Yanukovych and the Regions Party. The others do not have this influence.”
The online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda reported that Akhmetov had held a private and undisclosed meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland when she was in Kiev earlier this week.
It said that Nuland had warned him that the United States was prepared to impose sanctions not just against Regions Party leaders but also their financial backers if the protesters were dispersed by force.
Akhmetov’s firms and championship-winning football side are based in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, the political stronghold of Yanukovych.
He has usually been seen as the president’s top business ally.
However some analysts have suggested he may have bristled recently at the rise of younger oligarchs within the president’s circle — notably Sergiy Kurchenko, 28 — in a rival group known as the “Family”.
Ukrainian media commentators have noted also that Akhmetov’s Ukraine channel has given full and balanced coverage of the protests, prompting some to see signs of discontent with the president.
Another oligarch normally seen as loyal to Yanukovych, the chemicals tycoon Dmytro Firtash, has allowed similar coverage of the protests on his Inter channel.
Meanwhile Ukraine’ second richest man Viktor Pinchuk praised the protests, in a comment to the Financial Times this week, saying they showed the strength of civil society.