Kolomoisky, the ruthless oligarch key to peace in Ukraine

25th March 2015, Comments 0 comments

Sacked regional governor Igor Kolomoisky is one of Ukraine's richest men with a sprawling business empire whose ruthless methods are admired, feared and denounced in equal measures, making him one of the war-hit country's key players.

Nicknamed "Benya" after the hero in Soviet writer Isaac Babel's novels on the Jewish underworld of Odessa (southern Ukraine), Kolomoisky has established himself as one of the strongest defenders of a united Ukraine.

The 52-year-old became governor of his native Dnipropetrovsk region, which borders the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, in March 2014 after the fall of the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.

There, he founded and financed powerful battalions of volunteers who fought alongside Ukrainian troops against pro-Russian rebels and gained a new-found popularity for his role in halting the spread of separatism to his central region, an industrial hub.

As the conflict became increasingly bloody in June 2014, he even suggested the construction of a 2,000-kilometre barbed wire fence along the Russian border at a cost of $100 million.

The oligarch had previously kept out of front-line politics, including during the Orange Revolution of 2004, but raised his profile by calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a "schizophrenic of short stature".

Putin responded that the businessman was a "rogue".

- 'Fraud and intimidation' -

Behind the patriotic image lies a formidable businessman, whose fortune in 2015 is estimated at $1.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

His cutthroat instinct came to the fore when fighting to maintain control over the country's leading oil extraction company, a battle that ultimately led to his dismissal as governor.

Born in a modest Jewish home in Dnipropetrovsk on February 13, 1963, Kolomoisky followed the family tradition by studying at the city's National Metallurgical Academy.

According to the Ukrainian edition of Forbes, he then set up a business importing Russian goods such as phones and computers.

His Privat Group now controls several major steel mills, oil and aviation firms, the country's leading commercial bank and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk football club.

He is accused of creating his empire with the support of corrupt officials and threats of violence.

Fellow oligarch Viktor Pinchuk has even accused him of arranging gangland murders.

He is widely believed to have been behind a raid last week by masked gunmen on the offices of two public oil companies, which he claimed to control.

"Igor Kolomoisky is a typical post-Soviet oligarch, who built his business and his fortune on fraud, conflict, intimidation and blackmail," expert Vadim Karasev told AFP.

"He's smart, cynical, shrewd, able to bluff and loves power," he added.

These qualities gained him a toxic reputation, but the arrival of war shone a new light on his talents.

Lawmaker and interior ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko credits Kolomoisky's legendary intimidation tactics with halting the rebel push into Dnipropetrovsk, saying he had taken separatist leaders "for a walk in the woods" to remind them of their patriotic loyalties.

"And the separatist threat just vanished," he added.

Kolomoisky, who also has a house in Switzerland, is a prominent supporter of Ukraine's Jewish community and is often seen in public wearing the yarmulke skull cap.

Despite pledging allegiance to a united Ukraine, Kolomoisky has three nationalities -- Israeli, Ukrainian and Cypriot.

"In the constitution, it is written that dual nationality is prohibited but having three is not prohibited," he says when confronted on the issue.

© 2015 AFP

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