Ukrainian oligarch shows opposition to separatists

Pro-Russian insurgency faces growing opposition and lack of volunteer fighters

Workers at the  Azovstal Iron and Steel Works protesting against pro-Russian armed separatists in Mariupol,  eastern Ukraine, yesterday. Factories in two cities supported billionaire Rinat Akhmetov’s call for a show of opposition to the rebels. Photograph: Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

Workers at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works protesting against pro-Russian armed separatists in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, yesterday. Factories in two cities supported billionaire Rinat Akhmetov’s call for a show of opposition to the rebels. Photograph: Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

Wed, May 21, 2014, 01:00

Ukraine’s rebels have entered open conflict with the country’s richest man, as their insurgency appeared to stumble ahead of a presidential election that they vow to sabotage.

Billionaire “oligarch” Rinat Akhmetov told his employees to down tools for a period yesterday in defiance of the separatists, and launched a withering attack on their self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).

The tycoon’s intervention and “warning strike” by his workers was supported in Donetsk by drivers honking car horns in opposition to the rebels, who appear troubled by a lack of public support.

Mr Akhmetov’s words carry great weight, given the billions of euro he controls, his former role as chief financier of ousted president Viktor Yanukovich and his party, and as employer of some 300,000 Ukrainians – most of whom work at coalmines and metalworks in restive eastern areas like his native Donetsk.


‘Fear and terror’
“People are tired of living in fear and terror. They are tired of going into the street and coming under gunfire. There are people walking around with guns and grenade launchers. Cities are witnessing banditry and looting.

“Is this a peaceful life? Is this a strong economy? Is this good jobs and salaries? No!” Mr Akhmetov railed.

“I will not let Donbass be destroyed. I was born and live here. That is why I am calling on everyone to unite in our fight,” he said, using the term for the rustbelt region centred on Donetsk, and then taking direct aim at the rebels.

“Just tell me please, does anyone in Donbass know even one representative of this DPR? What have they done for our region, what jobs have they created?” he asked, accusing them of sowing chaos that amounted to “the genocide of Donbass”.

“I want to tell everyone – we will not stop! We shall not be frightened. No one will frighten us including those calling themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Denis Pushilin, the former casino croupier and pyramid scheme salesman who styles himself the chairman of the breakaway region, said that “due to the unwillingness of regional oligarchs to pay taxes into budget of the DPR, a decision has been taken to start the process of nationalisation”.

“Akhmetov has made his choice,” he added. “Unfortunately it is a choice against the people of Donbass. The payment of taxes to Kiev equates to financing terror in Donbass.”

Mr Akhmetov’s long refusal to publicly condemn the separatists frustrated Ukraine’s government, but in recent days he intensified criticism of the rebels and sent his workers out to patrol with police in the flashpoint city of Mariupol.

“At last some energy from Rinat Akhmetov!” interior minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.


‘Terrorist scum’
“I believed. I hope Donbass believes. People’s strength and energy will wipe away this terrorist scum far better than any anti-terrorist operation.”

Turnout figures for the May 11th referendum appeared to be heavily exaggerated, and surveys suggest most easterners want to remain in Ukraine, even though they have deep concerns about the new government.

Mr Akhmetov is now in clear opposition to the DPR, and his willingness to use his workers to oppose it is likely to further erode public backing for separatist unrest that Kiev and the West claim is fomented by Russia.

Moscow insists it has no hand in the rebel movement, even though it is led by two Russians who admit taking part in the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in March, Igor Strelkov and Aleksandr Borodai.

Ukraine believes both are members of, or have links to, Russia’s intelligence services, but neither makes an entirely convincing agent.

Mr Borodai was recently appointed prime minister of the DPR, stepping boldly out of the shadows to introduce himself as a Russian political consultant and instantly hand more ammunition to Kiev in its information war with Moscow.

His appointment was seen as reinforcing the power of his comrade Mr Strelkov, who leads forces in Slovyansk as the rebels’ so-called defence minister.

Mr Strelkov is a Muscovite whose real name is allegedly Girkin, and whose love of battle re-enactment is well-documented in photographs showing him sporting a range of period military costumes, including that of a Roman legionnaire.

If Mr Borodai, Mr Strelkov and allies hoped eastern Ukraine would fall to Moscow as easily as Crimea – where Russian forces quickly seized control, most people backed annexation and Ukrainian troops did not fight – they must be deeply disappointed.


Desperate plea
With Russia threatened by western sanctions and showing no sign of sending in the army, Mr Strelkov made a somewhat desperate plea to local men – and women – this week.

“I would have expected there would have been at least 1,000 men willing to risk their lives not just in their home towns but on the frontlines,” he complained.

“If men are not willing then we have no other option than to call up women and take them into the militias.”

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