Battle of the oligarchs
As Ukrainians prepare to vote in next week’s presidential elections, the region’s richest people are fighting to keep power and influence
Presidential candidate: Petro Poroshenko greets supporters at a rally. Photograph: Mykola Lazarenko/Reuters
Like so many settlements around Donetsk, Oktyabrsky sits next to a coal mine, its lift tower jutting like an old tooth from the dark earth. But two buildings distinguish this otherwise typically gritty district of eastern Ukraine. One is the shiny blue Dolphin sports centre, with its Olympic-size swimming pool; the other is the Akhat-Jami mosque, named in memory of its chief patron, Akhat Bragin.
Bragin was an ethnic Tatar from hard-scrabble Oktyabrsky who rose to become chief of one of the most powerful business clans in post-Soviet Donetsk. Alik the Greek, as he was known, survived several assassination attempts, including one by gunmen who strafed the pigeon coop of his house near Oktyabrsky when he was visiting his birds.
His enemies eventually killed him, and several associates, with a bomb planted in the stadium of Shakhtar Donetsk, the football club that Bragin owned. It is not clear who ordered the murder, and it is just one episode in the lurid history of 1990s Donetsk, which was a bloody place to do business even by the startlingly violent standards of the time across the former Soviet Union.
One of Bragin’s most promising deputies was delayed by traffic on the way to that fateful match and escaped the explosion. Rinat Akhmetov, another Tatar, who was born into a mining family near Oktyabrsky, would go on to take over Shakhtar, complete construction of Bragin’s mosque and help build the Dolphin sports centre on his way to becoming Ukraine’s richest man.
Now the 47-year-old controls a vast empire based on the metal works and mines of Donetsk, and his property portfolio includes London’s most expensive flat, One Hyde Park, in Knightsbridge, which he bought for a reported €167 million.
But these are tough times for Akhmetov, perhaps the hardest since the 1990s. The man he helped make governor of Donetsk – then premier and ultimately president of Ukraine – was ousted in the pro-western revolution in February. Viktor Yanukovych fled with his top political allies to Russia, and the party he led with copious funding from Akhmetov fell into disrepute and disarray.
Driving past Oktyabrsky now, cars are stopped and searched at checkpoints by a motley crew of masked gunmen who support the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. This loose grouping of insurgents has seized the main administration buildings in the city of Donetsk and more than a dozen towns in the surrounding region and the neighbouring province of Luhansk.
Last Sunday the grouping held a referendum in which it claimed that an overwhelming majority of voters had opted to split from the rest of Ukraine. The next day, amid cries of derision from Kiev and the West, it asked to join Russia.