A protester guards the barricade in front of riot police in Kiev, Ukraine, on Monday. Photograph: Darko Vojinovic/AP
In the two months since a wave of popular protests broke out in Kiev,Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to make concessions to opposition politicians and portrayed demonstrators occupying the city's central square as violent, foreign-funded provocateurs.
But when a trio of opposition leaders went to meet him on Saturday, they found his mood had changed. He was now suggesting compromise, offering government positions to his rivals and an array of constitutional reforms that had not been on the table before.
President Viktor Yanukovych. Photograph: Mykhailo Markiv/EPA
Sensing weakness, the opposition leaders rejected the offer, putting this amenability down to the increased violence in Kiev and the repeated storming of administration buildings across the country by protesters. At an emergency parliament session set for Tuesday the opposition is expected to insist on its key demand: snap presidential elections.
In the hours before the negotiations, however, there was another –largely unnoticed – development that may have helped prompt Yanukovych's change of heart. On the website of the SCM group, owned by Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, a statement appeared calling for increased dialogue.
Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. Photograph: Camera Press/Ria Novosti
Carefully phrased, but unambiguous, it read: "It is only by peaceful action that the political crisis can be resolved. Any use of force and weapons is unacceptable. With this scenario there will be no winners in Ukraine, only victims and losers. But most importantly, the use of force will not help to find a way out."
About half a dozen oligarchs in Ukraine have made enormous wealth since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The situation is similar to that in Russia during the 1990s, when businessmen jostled for influence around Boris Yeltsin. When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, he told the oligarchs they could keep their money if they stayed out of politics. But no leader in Kiev has been strong enough to silence Ukraine's oligarchs. They retain huge influence, controlling a number of MPs, owning television stations, and staying extremely close to political leaders.
Akhmetov is the most powerful of them all, and the timing of his statement, on the same day as the president's complete change of tack, seems unlikely to be a coincidence.
He has long been considered to be the influence behind Yanukovych's rise to power. He is the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk football club and is the biggest player in the mining industry in the Donbas, heartland of the president in east Ukraine. In 2011, he paid £136.4m for a penthouse at One Hyde Park in London, the most expensive property ever bought in Britain.
"For years Akhmetov was the 'business director; of the Donbas and Yanukovych the 'political director'," says political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko. "Yanukovych became president because of Akhmetov, and he remains the only oligarch who can call the president directly and affect his position."
The oligarchs have benefited from the political chaos and corruption in Ukraine over the past two decades, and Akhmetov, in particular, has seen his fortune rise during the last three years under Yanukovych. But none of the Ukraine's billionaires have an interest in it becoming a pariah state.
One of the key reasons for their survival during the past decade's political vicissitudes has been their political flexibility. Even Akhmetov has been careful to build up relations with the opposition to allow for all eventualities, say Fesenko. "The oligarchs keep good relations with the opposition as an insurance policy – it's like investing in futures."
Vitali Klitschko, the former world heavyweight boxer turned opposition leader seen as Yanukovych's most dangerous challenger, says that what the oligarchs really want is for the rules of the game to be set out clearly.
"In private conversations, all the oligarchs support the idea of the rule of law … The leaders change, and the rules change, and the lack of set rules means business groups can't be sure they will keep their assets," he told the Guardian.
Viktor Pinchuk, who built up a huge fortune while his father-in-law, Leonid Kuchma, was president, has now rebranded himself as a philanthropist and contemporary art collector. In an interview in his Kiev office last month, he noted that during the 2004 Orange revolution, when protesters refused to accept Kuchma's preferred successor – Yanukovych – as president, there was no violence. "This time we also need a peaceful solution," Pinchuk said, adding that he has had one-to-one meetings with the president and key opposition leaders.
"I thought a lot about the role of businessmen and thought of my responsibility. We can help to facilitate a peaceful solution because we have access to the president, leaders of the opposition and leaders of civil society. This is our main responsibility."
The question, now that violence has intensified, is whether the oligarchs still want to broker a peaceful solution, or whether they might be starting to feel that Yanukovych's days are numbered.
The established oligarchs have had their gripes with his style of rule for some time, and are unhappy about the rise of "the family", a group of businessmen around the president who have been promoted and given favourable contracts since 2010. Yanukovych's son Oleksandr, a dentist by training, has built up a huge fortune in the past three years, while a mysterious 28-year-old named Sergey Kurchenko has appeared from nowhere to control around $800m (£480m) of assets.
"A real wunderkind, from zero to hero," says Klitschko, when asked about Kurchenko.
Opposition leader and former WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko addresses protesters near the burning barricades in central Kiev. Photograph: Sergei Chuzavkov/AP
Kurchenko declined to be interviewed, but has said in the past that he made his money fairly through business acumen, and denies all allegations of corruption and cronyism. An associate of "the family", who did not want to be identified, denied Kurchenko was a "front man" for government figures but admitted that he is able to do deals because he is "easier for the authorities to deal with" than the traditional oligarchs.
"In just one year, this unknown man and his unknown company became fabulously rich," said Yuriy Syrotiuk, an MP from the nationalist Svoboda party who has filed a number of requests to the prosecutor general's office regarding Kurchenko and companies he says the 28-year-old owns.
"This is impossible in our country without support of those in power. I'm sure Kurchenko is just a front man. After all, he didn't create Facebook or do anything intelligent, he just managed to use links to those in power."
Forbes Ukraine magazine decided to investigate Kurchenko, and ran a long story questioning how someone with no connections could appear from nowhere and make hundreds of millions of dollars in such a short time. The article concluded that he must have powerful backers.
In response, Kurchenko bought the media holding, gaining control of Forbes and Korrespondent, two of the few remaining independent titles in Ukraine.
"The earlier privatisations were tough and dirty, but at least people made half-decent companies out of it," says Vladimir Fedorin, who resigned as editor along with most its editorial staff when Kurchenko bought Forbes Ukraine. "Now what we are seeing is simple stealing.
"The old guard of oligarchs are very dismissive of the new 'young wolves' and their methods. One of them told me that for the things that people in 'the family' are doing, they should be sent to the electric chair."
Akhmetov's statement at the weekend shows just how concerned the established oligarchs have become with Yanukovych. The growth of "the "family" and the crackdown on protests have threatened to make Ukraine a pariah state, and that more than anything is a risk for their businesses, most of which have gone international.
It is not known what discussions Akhmetov and Yanukovych have had in recent days, but it is clear that the businessman is getting increasingly disturbed by the prospect of further violence. Whether or not Yanukovych can survive until scheduled elections next year may depend as much on what the oligarchs decide as on the power of the street.
"For Akhmetov, if Yanukovych wins fairly in 2015 he will be fine, and if the opposition wins fairly in 2015 he will be fine," says one source who knows the businessman. "What he is really scared of is what happens if Yanukovych continues down the path of repression and autocracy. That would make things very dangerous indeed for him."