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The Real Oligarchs of Donetsk

TRINAT Akhmetov is the richest, most powerful oligarch in Ukraine. He has significant
assets in Donetsk region – where ousted president Viktor Yanukovych was governor from
1997 to 2002. Is it a coincidence that Donetsk has become a hotbed for separatism?

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UKRAINE had two revolutions in ten years: the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2013-2014 so called
Euromaidan Revolution. During the Orange Revolution, pro-Russian sentiment was barely visible
and there were no rebellions in Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. So what changed in those years? Did
the linguistic, ethnic or religious divisions become bigger in such a short space of time? Or did
policies initiated by the post-revolutionary Kiev government suddenly oppress the Russian-speaking
population in the East?
The ethno-linguistic divide has not changed in the past ten years. Traditionally, Eastern regions
including Lugansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Zaporizhya have been mostly Russian-speaking with
significant ethnic Russian population (shown on the map as yellow with brown stripes.) In addition,
Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson and Nikolaev are also predominantly Russian-speaking regions.
While there are several Russian-speaking regions in the east of Ukraine, the separatist movement
became localized localized only in one – Donetsk. In a recent survey, 85 percent of Russian-
speaking Ukrainians said they felt no pressure or threats because of their language. In addition, 81
percent of all Ukrainians were opposed to Russia sending the army to protect Russian-speaking
citizens. (By contrast, 61 percent in Eastern Ukraine opposed intervention by Russia). Most
importantly, 64 percent percent of Ukrainians support a unitary Ukrainian state and only 14 percent
prefer a federation which would give greater autonomy to the regions.

Wikipedia Commons map

Separatists for hire

Pro- Russian sentiment actually has less to do with the ethno-linguistic divisions and more with
financial interests of the local oligarchs. In Donetsk, these interests collide with the desire of
outside forces to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. Notably, the cities most hit most by separatist
activity are all in the Donetsk region, including Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, Gorlivka and Makiivka.

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AFP map

Donetsk is the heartland of Yanukovych and Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man who has
significant metallurgical assets in the region. Akhmetov, an ethnic Tatar, has a net worth of $15.4
billion. In Donetsk, there is a clear convergence of interests between Russia and the local oligarchs
and members of Yanukovych’s inner circle ("the family"), who mobilize locals and rely on
organized crime groups to help destabilize the region.
Russian special forces, the so-called “green men” who are in several regions in Ukraine, do have
limited support from those elderly segments of the population still nostalgic for the old Soviet
Union. However, the Kremlin’s plans could not be implemented without support from Akhmetov,
who is known as the “Donbas Director” – the Donbas region includes Donetsk and Lugansk – and
local organized crime groups.
There is a nexus between the separatist movement and organized crime in the Donbas region where
separatist leaders are being directed and financed by local oligarchs. For example, the head of the
separatist movement in Gorlivka, who orchestrated the seizure of local government buildings is the
criminal “avroritet” Armen Sarkisyan, a mobster affiliated with the ousted president and “the
family”. He was involved is sending so called “titushkas” to Kiev and his people were involved in
tortures and assassinations.
The Dnipropetrovsk region which borders Donetsk is also predominantly Russian-speaking;
however, the situation there has been completely different. Dnipropetrovsk is now under the control
of another Ukrainian billionaire – Igor Kolomoisky (net worth $3 billion) who was recently
appointed governor. Unlike Akhmetov, Kolomoisky did not side with Russian separatists – indeed
he has been actively opposed to them. In an unprecedented move, Kolomoiskiy offered a reward of

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$10,000 from his own money for the capture of anyone taking part in separatist movements.
Kolomoisky also offered rewards for handing in weapons belonging to insurgents: $1,000 for each
machine-gun, $1,500 for a heavy machine-gun and $2,000 for a grenade launcher handed over to
his authorities. His administration says more than $100,000 in rewards has already been paid.

A tale of two regions

Political corruption is interwoven with the Ukrainian government right across the country but is
most prevalent in the two regions with the strongest support for separatism. The Crimea and Donbas
regions have been well known for the close ties between mafia, oligarchs and politicians. In Crimea,
the former gang leader Sergei Aksyonov (the self-proclaimed Prime Minister) was essentially used
by the Kremlin to carry out the annexation. The Ukrainian press reported Aksyonov’s alleged past
involvement in contract killings. In 1996 Aksyonov himself was almost killed when his car
overturned during a shootout. In Crimea, organized crime worked hand in hand with the Russians
and now a similar scenario is unfolding in Donbas, where oligarchs mobilize activists by scare
tactics and disinformation campaigns.

Godfather of Donetsk
The overthrown president Yanukovych entered the Donetsk political scene to campaign for
governor in 1996 with the support of the “Donetsk mafia”. It's no secret that he served two prison
terms and was a member of local organized crime groups. As governor, Yanukovych integrated
former and existing organized-crime leaders into his Party of Regions.
According to a 2006 US Embassy cable, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions was a “haven for Donetsk-
based mobsters and oligarchs” and the former President was “tapping the deep pockets of Donetsk
clan godfather Rinat Akhmetov.” Rinat Akhmetov has long been considered as the main influence
behind Yanukovych’s rise to power. According to political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, "for years
Akhmetov was the business director of the Donbas and Yanukovych was the political director.”

Rinat Akhmetov and Victor Yanukovych

Akhmetov is the owner of the Shakhtar Donetsk football club

and is the biggest player in the Donbas mining industry. he
controls 50 members (out of 450) in the Ukrainian parliament
and controls the Donbas region through local governors,
mayors and law enforcement units. The current presidential
candidate from the Party of Regions is Rinat Akhmetov's
representative Mikhail Dobkin, who openly appeals to
With Yanukovych in exile, the Donetsk political and business
elite seems to have initiated a Plan-B to protect their business Rinat Akhmetov (left) and Victor Yanukovych.
interests and assets in the region. Fearful of corruption
investigations by the new Kiev government, Donetsk oligarchs are trying to get a federal plan
implemented with outside help from Moscow.
A few months ago Akhmetov’s partner and fellow oligarch Dimytro Firtash was arrested in Austria
on corruption charges and is now waiting extradition to the United States. Firtash and Akhmetov
were for long seen as the main beneficiaries of the Yanukovych regime. Local oligarchs view
destabilization and federation as their only viable option. Russian Special Forces could not have

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entered the region without their approval and the propaganda campaign also serves their interests
It is clear that the separatism movement in Donetsk does not truly reflect the mood of the Russian-
speaking population. It simply would not be possible without the backing of the local oligarchs.

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