Ukraine’s richest oligarch has come down firmly on the side of Kiev authorities, calling on thousands of workers at his plants across the east to attend workplace protests against the armed separatist movement in the east of the country.
In a video address released late on Monday, Rinat Akhmetov appeared emotional and angry, and after months of equivocating between the separatists and the new Kiev authorities, launched a savage attack on the armed rebels, who have declared independence from Kiev as the Donetsk People’s Republic.
“What have they [the separatists] done for our region, what jobs have they created? Does walking around Donbass towns with guns in hands defend the rights of Donetsk residents before the central government? Is looting in cities and taking peaceful citizens hostages a fight for the happiness of our region? No, it is not! It is a fight against the citizens of our region.”
In recent months, Akhmetov had turned sitting on the fence into an art form, putting out a series of statements of lukewarm support for Ukrainian unity while rumours were rife that he was actually helping to fund the separatist movement.
Now, he has finally put his cards on the table. Akhmetov said in his video address that he was calling on workers in all his factories to carry out a mini-strike each day at midday until the situation is brought under control.
At the metal plant in the town of Enakievo on Tuesday, however, there was no real protest or even any visible emotion as midday struck. A few hundred assembled workers listened patiently while the factory director gave a speech about the danger of production numbers falling if the railways were disrupted, presumably by separatists. There was no mention of the Donetsk Republic, Akhmetov, Kiev or anything political. After a few minutes the workers trudged back to the factory’s cavernous halls to continue their tough labour.
Most of them, when questioned, said they actually supported the Donetsk People’s Republic, though they also expressed worry that the current situation could impact jobs and regional stability.
“Some people are for joining Russia and others are for staying in Ukraine,” said Vladimir Sadovoy, the head of the factory trade union. “But everyone is against the current Kiev government.”
One of the factory workers had taken unpaid leave and is fighting in Slavyansk, the epicentre of the rebel movement, he said, while others viewed the rebels with caution, sharing their goals but worrying that the movement had been hijacked by “drug addicts and criminal elements”.
In the regional capital Donetsk there was a car rally at midday in protest at the separatists, which drew a large number of drivers honking their horns. Just how many were there spontaneously was unclear however, as taxi drivers in the city reported text messages from their companies demanding compulsory attendance and horn beeping.
As Ukrainian presidential elections approach on Sunday, the crisis in the east is entering a decisive phase. There has been a de-escalation, with Russia promising to withdraw its troops from the border, and the Ukrainian parliament laying the ground on Tuesday to end a military operation in the region.
This, however, leaves an explosive situation on the ground, with a danger that the conflict could enter a more chaotic, internecine phase, involving different militias and criminal groups fighting each other for control. In such a scenario, Akhmetov’s businesses could become vulnerable.
An oligarch in the true sense of the word, Akhmetov has long been considered not only the richest but the most powerful man in Ukraine, emerging on top from the ruthless and bloody capitalism of the 1990s, when contract killings in eastern Ukraine were common.
Like many of the super-rich from Ukraine and Russia, Akhmetov has rebranded himself in the last decade as a modern, progressive businessman with companies operating to international standards and engaged in philanthropy.
Donetsk is the jewel in Akhmetov’s crown: his home city, the centre of which has been turned from a bleak mining town to a pleasant grid of tree-lined boulevards and manicured lawns, largely with the oligarch’s money. It is here that Akhmetov has built one of the most impressive football stadiums in Europe, the Donbass Arena, home to his beloved Shakhtar Donetsk, a team that he has filled with expensive Brazilian talent.
He has also used the proceeds of his empire at home to fund a lavish lifestyle across the world. In 2011 he paid £136.4m for a penthouse in the One Hyde Park development, the most expensive property ever bought in Britain.
For the workers of Akhmetov’s numerous metallurgy plants, life is somewhat tougher. At his Enakievo factory, the average salary at the plant is just £250 a month, and the air is so polluted that health problems are widespread. Nevertheless, with factories closing across the region, workers are happy for any job at all.
“As long as there are jobs and there is stability, we are happy,” said Sadovoy. “But recently all we have is chaos and rising prices.”
While most of the workers expressed respect for Akhmetov, it is unclear whether they will heed his call to kick the separatists out of power.
Natalia, a representative of the separatist movement who sneaked into the factory to listen to the midday speech, described the Akhmetov-backed protest as a “clown show” and said she was confident that the armed uprising would continue.
One political insider in Donetsk, with knowledge of Akhemtov’s negotiations with various players, said: “I think he underestimated how serious the game was. Power and influence only work as long as everyone believes you have them. If everyone stops believing they can disappear overnight.”
Last week, the separatist leader Pavel Gubarev said that at least two-thirds of those in the separatist movement had received money from Akhmetov. The businessman strongly denied the rumours, but the allegation chimed with rumours in Donetsk that the anti-Kiev feelings had been initiated by those close to the former president Viktor Yanukovych, before he fled the country in February, in order to shore up his support base in the east of the country.
It seems possible that the businessman underestimated the potential danger of the separatist movement.
Analysts say that it is quite likely Akhmetov at the very least had links with the separatist movement – his skill has always been not picking a single horse but rather backing every horse to ensure he wins whatever the outcome.
“Akhmetov is a talented businessman and a talented politician,” said Ihor Todorov, a professor at Donetsk National University. “He has always excelled at keeping his fingers in different pies, funding different political parties that would be fighting with each other, and ensuring that he always has his people in any given situation.”
Now, however, the businessman appears to be in the toughest battle of his life. After Akhmetov came down strongly against the separatists on Tuesday, Denis Pushilin, one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic, warned him that the de facto authorities would nationalise all of his factories.
“All these years, we were stolen from, stolen from by local oligarchs,” said Pushilin in a video address on Tuesday. By choosing to support united Ukraine and paying taxes to Kiev rather than to the separatists, Akhmetov was “financing the actions of the Kiev junta, who are continuing to kill our citizens”.
It is not clear that the separatists have control of any of the mechanisms of governance required to begin such a nationalisation, but they certainly do have a lot of guns.
“Donetsk for a long time has been a city that has worked on telephone calls,” says the editor of a local newspaper who did not want to be named.
“Any problem can be solved with a telephone call, especially for Akhmetov. But now you have 500 people with guns for whom telephone calls don’t exist, and all your billions suddenly mean nothing.”