Ukraine power struggle ousts ‘oligarch’ from key region

Two officials arrested and handcuffed in front of TV cameras during cabinet meeting

 

Ukraine’s president has removed a powerful “oligarch” as governor of a major eastern region, in a show of authority that could escalate a dangerous power struggle and undermine Kiev’s fight with Russian-backed separatists.

Petro Poroshenko accepted Ihor Kolomoisky’s unexpected resignation, after days of rising tension that saw the governor accused of sending gunmen to occupy the Kiev offices of energy firms over which his influence was threatened.

Ukraine’s security service (SBU) also said they suspected senior aides of Mr Kolomoisky in Dnipropetrovsk of having links to a criminal gang, which is accused of involvement in smuggling and the recent murder of an SBU officer.

Mr Kolomoisky’s resignation began a dramatic day in Ukrainian politics, as it was followed hours later by the televised arrests, during a cabinet meeting, of the head of Ukraine’s emergency service civil defence and rescue body, Sergiy Bochkovsky on suspicion of corruption.

His deputy, Vasyl Stoyetsky, was also arrested. Both men were handcuffed by the police and taken away. Mr Bochkovsky was suspected of buying fuel at an artificially high price, said a representative of the interior ministry, who did not identify himself.

The arrests were not reported to be linked to the resignation earlier of Mr Kolomoisky, who took control of Dnipropetrovsk region last year and ensured it did not fall to pro-Moscow militants, who seized swathes of nearby Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

Critics said Mr Kolomoisky (52) used the same shady tactics in politics as helped him accumulate his fortune, and warned that the armed unit he formed to defend Dnipropetrovsk could turn on the state if it threatened his businesses.

Conflict arose this month, when Ukraine’s pro-western parliament passed a law on shareholder rights that reduced Kolomoisky’s influence over two state-controlled energy firms.

Last Thursday, masked men apparently loyal to Kolomoisky seized one of those company’s headquarters in Kiev, while outside the oligarch harangued journalists and claimed he was defending the firm from Russian “saboteurs”.

Poroshenko said Kolomoisky would be “reprimanded”, but on Sunday gunmen also took control of the other energy firm’s offices in the capital.

Kolomoisky denied ordering in the gunmen, who left the buildings peacefully on Tuesday, but senior officials insisted he was behind the raids.

Poroshenko shot across Kolomoisky’s bows on Monday, saying he would no longer tolerate “governors with their own ‘pocket militaries’.”

Kolomoisky and allies also ramped up criticism of the president and his government, saying they were failing to fulfil promises to devolve power to the provinces and were not cracking down on corruption in the security services.

After replacing Kolomoisky with the former governor of the government-held Zaporizhia region, Poroshenko called for “peace, stability and calm.”

“Dnipropetrovsk must remain a bastion of Ukraine in the east to defend the peace and calm of its citizens,” he added.

Kolomoisky successfully parlayed financial clout in Dnipropetrovsk into political power, and it is unclear how his successor will establish and maintain authority over the region without the billionaire’s wealth and business influence.

Boris Filatov, a millionaire who was Kolomoisky’s right-hand man in Dnipropetrovsk before entering parliament last year, said Poroshenko removed the tycoon in the “most proper way” and that duties would be passed to the new governor, Valentin Reznichenko, “as comfortably as possible.”

Filatov called on Ukrainians to “show the whole world that we can be civilised people for whom our country is more important than ambitions.”

He also urged supporters to attend to a rally in Dnipropetrovsk on Saturday “for a unified Ukraine” and “to not give our enemies, domestic or external, a reason to be happy.”