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Thursday, 30 October 2014

Is #Ukraine Slipping Into Illiberal Democracy? | The Nation

Is Ukraine Slipping Into Illiberal Democracy? | The Nation:

Ukraine elections
A Ukrainian soldier casts his vote for the parliamentary elections at a polling station at a military hospital in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
The latest parliamentary elections in Ukraine have been characterized in the West as a victory for pro-European forces. 
But the terms “pro-European” and “anti-European” no longer serve as useful reference points in Ukrainian politics. In these elections, after all, not one of the 29 parties that stood for election was officially opposed to EU entry.
The real issue in this election was war or peace.
President Petro Poroshenko called for snap elections just before going to Minsk to meet with Vladimir Putin on August 27th to request a cease fire. Subsequent negotiations led to the signing of two documents, on September 5 and September 19 outlining terms for the ceasefire and for a future political settlement in Eastern Ukraine. The terms of the Minsk accords, however, split his government. The prime minister, minister of interior, and speaker of parliament even set up their own political party—the Popular Front—which won the elections.  
This election was thus, first and foremost, a referendum on Poroshenko’s decision to halt the military campaign and grant de facto autonomy to the rebel controlled regions. 
The results must be disappointing to the supporters of peace. The parties that opposed the Minsk accords (Popular Front, Fatherland, and the Radical Party) got more than 35% of the party list vote, while the Poroshenko Bloc, which at the outset of the campaign was projected to get nearly 40% of the vote, actually got fewer than 22%. The only other party in the Rada to endorse the peace plan, the Opposition Bloc, barely got 10% of the vote. 
These results underscore the rise of militant nationalism among the Western and Central Ukrainian electorate. That is where the parties opposed to the Minsk accords did especially well. By contrast, the parties that placed peace first on their campaign agenda (Opposition Bloc, Communist Party, and A Strong Ukraine) did especially well in the East and South. The Opposition Bloc, the successor to the now defunct Party of Regions, won in five of the eight predominantly Russophone regions. 
The seating mechanism used in Ukraine, which is not at all unusual among parliamentary democracies, actually served to reinforce this regional division. In the Russophone regions, for example, the Communist Party received 9.2% of the vote on average, while Strong Ukraine received 8.2%.  This combined 17%, however, will not receive a single seat in the national parliament because neither party managed to get five percent of the total national vote. That is also why the nationalistic Svoboda and Right Sector parties will not be seated in the next parliament, though it is worth noting that their percentage of the local vote in nine Western and Central regions of Ukraine, was less than 7% on average. Thus, the results inflate the significance of nationalistic parties that are strong in the West and Center, while muffling the voice of parties popular in Russophone Ukraine.
To be sure, the nationalist agenda is likely to be tempered somewhat by the fact that a significant percentage of single mandate seats in the more populous East and South will be filled by candidates from the Opposition Bloc, “independent candidates” who were formerly part of the Party of Regions, and the Poroshenko Bloc.
But the political agenda of the parliament is set by parties, not by individual members of parliament, and if, in the previous Rada, the nationalistic parties—for whom it was key to emphasize Ukraine’s distinctiveness from Russia, oppose bilingualism, rewrite history textbooks, and treat those Ukrainians who fought alongside Nazi Germany as honored veterans—comprised less than a third of the party list, in the next Rada that figure will be closer to three-quarters.
What then can we expect from this new nationalist parliament?
Supporters of the current majority expect rapid progress on "lustration", anticorruption, economic progress, as well as a decisive military victory over the rebels in the East. Unfortunately, the money for these things is simply not there.
It is therefore likely that actual progress will be replaced by ever more intense anti-Russian and nationalistic rhetoric, which will only heighten the sense of alienation felt by Ukrainian Russophones.
New legislation prohibiting Russian cultural performers, televisions shows, and movies might suffice to show progress on the nationalist agenda for a while. Beyond that, however, parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Turchynov has already said that he hopes there will now be a sufficient majority to change the constitution.  In that case, one initiative likely to be adopted is to eliminate, or severely curtail, the 2012 language law that allowed individual regions to adopt a second language, such as Russian.
If such constraints on minority rights are indeed adopted, it will lead to a new spiral of conflict in the East, and to a political trajectory for the country as a whole that will resemble illiberal democracy. Such democracies hold regular elections, but without institutional guarantees of basic freedoms, or legal support for opposition public activity. Minority rights typically suffer first.
Of course, this pretty much also describes every previous Ukrainian government. The difference today, however, is the value added by the institutional presence of so many militant nationalists, which strikes me as unlikely to contribute to constitutional liberalism.
Such an outcome is not inevitable. One way out might be to grant meaningful economic and political self-rule to all regions of Ukraine. On this point, paradoxically, the third largest party, Self-Help, led by the mayor of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, is in full agreement with the leaders of Donbass. The only problem is that meaningful political devolution is quite unpopular among the nationalist majority in parliament, who see it as wresting control of the national political and cultural agenda out of their hands.
The coming months will reveal whether the new government embraces the course of radical or moderate nationalism. If it is the former, then Ukraine’s “European” choice may wind up being more reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s, than of Europe today.

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#Ukraine's Last Chance - Bloomberg View

Ukraine's Last Chance - Bloomberg View:

Now that Ukraine's electoral battles are over and the conflict in the country's eastern regions is frozen, one of three scenarios could unfold: Quick and painful economic and regulatory surgery, a slide into Russia's suffocating embrace, or chaos, as gangs of former volunteer fighters from the eastern war go on the rampage.
The window of opportunity for Ukraine to seize the first -- and best -- option is rapidly closing, but politicians squabbling over portfolios and bureaucrats who perpetuate the old corrupt system seem oblivious to the urgency. To a handful of outsiders who are pushing for rapid change, failure to act would be a tragedy.
One of these outsiders is Kakha Bendukidze, a former business tycoon who engineered Georgia's successful economic deregulation under then-President Mikheil Saakashvili. Bendukidze, along with Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Daron Acemoglu and other economic luminaries, belongs to an economic advisory group assembled by the Canadian government that was supposed to suggest reforms to the Ukrainian economics minister, Pavlo Sheremeta. The latter recently quit the government in frustration, and the advisory group is in limbo. Nonetheless, Bendukidze still spends a lot of time in Kiev trying to get his views across.
It's a frustrating experience, he said in an interview in the lobby of a Kiev hotel.
"The patient's head is coming off, and there is a bucket of blood next to the bed," Bendukidze said. "What are the relatives doing? They are vaguely worried about what the neighbors might think."
The advisory group laid out its agenda in a recent article in the English-language Kiev Post. It includes cutting government spending to 34 percent of gross domestic product from 53 percent, which would entail eliminating energy subsidies that amount to 10 percent of GDP, and reducing senior public servants' retirement benefits, equal to 4 percent of GDP. Bendukidze isn't optimistic that could happen.
"I tell people in the government about eliminating the energy subsidies, but I hear back that the people won't be happy," he says.
Bendukidze is an advocate of radical deregulation, and believes Ukraine has too many ministries and agencies.
"Who needs them when the government's sole function these days is to take money from the International Monetary Fund and pass them on in payment for Russian gas?" he asks.
Although deregulation was on the agenda of every major political party in the parliamentary elections last weekend, Bendukidze says there's no indication any of them are serious about taking action. Indeed, there have been no meaningful cuts to the number of bureaucrats or agencies since President Viktor Yanukovych's regime fell in February.
Another frustrated outsider, Vitaly Shabunin, who heads the non-governmental Center for Resisting Corruption, says a culture of corruption remains entrenched.
"Under Yanukovych, corruption was a well-organized state system," Shabunin said. "Now, it's like guerilla warfare: It has shifted to a lower level. All the old schemes still exist."
Shabunin's group, which is supported by grants from agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, drafted Ukraine's new anti-corruption legislation -- the only visible reform that has taken place since the regime change. The laws ease access to information on government and state company purchasing tenders, real estate and company ownership. They also set up an anti-corruption bureau of 700 staff members with broad powers to investigate and prosecute graft.
Shabunin and like-minded activists pushed the bills through parliament with the backing of the IMF and other foreign donors. "The laws were only passed for three reasons," he says. "Pressure from the donors, media attention and the election. The politicians needed something to show to voters." Still, he doubts Ukraine's leaders have the political will to implement them fully. There is a real chance, he said, that the new anti-corruption agency will be filled with Yanukovych-era officials who are no better than the bureaucrats they are supposed to catch.
There are worrisome indications that the laws aren't having much effect. President Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire, hasn't acted on his promise to sell his businesses once in office. At the same time, International Investment Bank, of which he is the principal shareholder, has increased its assets by 50 percent since the beginning of the year, even as the Ukrainian banking system as a whole only grew 5 percent. Prosecutor General Vitaly Yarema has been plagued by charges linked to illegal land sales involving one of his closest aides and was accused of nepotism after his 26-year-old son became the head of an important government department.
As bureaucrats keep stealing and politicians keep stalling, the specter of financial collapse hovers closer. Ukraine’s economy shrank 5.1 percent in the third quarter, compared with a year earlier, the most in almost five years, as industrial production and the currency, the hryvnia, slumped, Bloomberg News reported today. If foreign aid is delayed or cut off because the government misses economic-reform or corruption-fighting targets -- and even if the IMF refuses to expand the agreed $17 billion package -- Ukraine could face a debt default, deep currency devaluation and a budget sequester. Both Bendukidze and Shabunin fear that would push the country under Russia's sway because President Vladimir Putin would be able to set the terms of a rescue.
That is not even the worst that could happen. Bendukidze recalled how, in the 1990s, Georgian volunteer soldiers returning from the war with separatist Abkhazia organized into criminal gangs that terrorized the country for years, at one point even grabbing control of the government. "There are plenty of young guys like that fighting in eastern Ukraine now," he said.
Shabunin, who is Ukrainian, saw glimmers of hope: The post-Yanukovych government is more susceptible to public pressure and its primary motivation isn't to steal, he said. "They want to go down in history as the good guys," he said. "Well, they need a country in which to be the good guys".
We will know by the end of the year whether he's right.
To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at
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Saturday, 18 October 2014

Ukraine Must Reform to Save Itself | World Affairs Journal

Ukraine Must Reform to Save Itself | World Affairs Journal:

Will NATO Save Ukraine from Russia? I’m surprised by how many people, especially in Ukraine, believe the answer is yes. And I’m no less surprised by how many Western analysts and Russian policymakers claim that that’s exactly what NATO hopes to do—and, by implication, will do. Naturally, Russians describe NATO’s presumed intentions as offensive and not defensive.
It’s time to wake up and smell the espresso in Brussels.
First, NATO has no army. As an institution, as a bureaucracy located in two complexes in and near the capital of Belgium, the alliance does not have troops. It can cajole, persuade, bluster, and the like, but the troop-sending is done—if it is done at all—by NATO member states on behalf of NATO member states or, more problematically, in out-of-area missions. Second, most Europeans have slashed their defense budgets way below the limits they have publicly agreed to sustain. The United States is the only significant exception to this general rule. To put it mildly, Europe has passed the military buck to America, while insisting on the right to kvetch about Washington’s occasionally unwise use of armed force.
When Europeans say that war has become unthinkable on the European continent, what they really mean is that they don’t want to think about it. Unsurprisingly, most Europeans have been, and still are, extremely reluctant to commit large numbers of soldiers to battle. It took genocide to move them to action (sort of) in Bosnia. And even genocide failed to mobilize them, or the United States, in Rwanda. Would a Putin-directed genocide of Ukrainians incline Europeans to intervene? With their mouths, yes. With their weapons, less likely. Same goes for the case of further military aggression.
But what if Ukraine became a member of NATO? Then, surely, NATO member states would rush to its aid, right? Don’t bet on that either. The famed Article 5 is the nub of the matter. Here’s the relevant text:
The parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the party or parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
Most commentators cite the first few lines, which appear to promise a determined response to aggression. But keep on reading and you’ll come to that cop-out clause: “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” First of all, that line means that a member state’s response is made individually, by itself, and not collectively, by NATO, and that the response should accord with the state’s estimation of what it “deems necessary.” In theory, a state would be perfectly entitled to conclude that doing nothing is what it deems necessary. Second, “armed force” is only one possible permissible response. A state could conclude that convening an international peace conference would be the better way to go.
Being a NATO member is, thus, no guarantee against aggression—especially if the target of Russian aggression is a geopolitically “insignificant” state, such as any of the Balts. Back in 2008, I wrote an article asking whether NATO would defend the Estonian city of Narva. My conclusion then, as now, is no. Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia might send troops, and it’s possible that President Obama was serious when he said, “If you mess with the NATO country, then there will be a military confrontation,” but Germany and France are another matter. The Balts know this, of course—as do, I suggest, the Russians.
It’s preposterous to think the Kremlin is unaware of the fact that NATO is riddled with the above weaknesses. (Think of all the Russian spies in Brussels.) It’s just as preposterous to take Putin at face value when he insists that NATO is a threat to Russia. (He once justified the Crimean invasion as an attempt to forestall Ukraine’s turning Sevastopol into a NATO base; that’s either crude pandering to the peanut gallery in Russia, complete ignorance of how NATO functions, or a deep paranoia.) How could an alliance that wouldn’t defend its own members from Russia be a threat to Russia? Western analysts who repeat the myth of Russian sensitivity to NATO expansion are just naively buying into the Kremlin’s conscious or subconscious myth-making.
Forbes columnist Paul Roderick Gregory exposes this myth by imagining a scenario in which Russia launches a “hybrid war” against Latvia in order to destroy NATO. Russia takes control, the Europeans and Americans huff and puff, and Putin wins the day: “Putin has called NATO’s bluff, and the world has seen that NATO is an empty shell. There is no more NATO. Putin is king of the roost. It is he who decides who will be spared and who will punished.” Gregory is right to imply that, contrary to his public statements, Putin knows that NATO is bluffing.
What, then, should Ukraine do? Obviously, closer ties to NATO can’t hurt—especially as a bargaining chip with delusional Russians. But far, far more important is the condition of Ukraine’s own army. Only Ukraine can defend itself. To do that it needs, as the military analyst Yuri Butusov rightly says, to develop a complex, long-term strategy, modernize its armed forces, develop an adequate force structure, procure the requisite armaments, and raise its level of organizational competence. And for all that to become possible, Ukraine has to grow economically. Ukraine’s security and survival are thus ultimately, and intimately, dependent on economic reform.
During the Maidan Revolution, demonstrators chanted “freedom or death.” Today’s Ukraine should be chanting: “Radical economic reform or death.” 
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Thursday, 16 October 2014

Ukraine fears frozen conflict could yield winter energy crisis -

Ukraine fears frozen conflict could yield winter energy crisis -

An elderly man walks near snow covered cars during a heavy storm in the Ukraine capital Kiev on March 23, 2013. Kiev administration declared a state of emergency in the city. AFP PHOTO/SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP
At the Foxtrot appliance store in Kiev, the must-have product these days is a Delonghi electric heater.
“This is the last one left of 20 delivered to our store just a day ago,” Oleksander, a sales clerk, said, pointing to one of the Italian-made devices and noting that sales have increased fivefold from a year ago.
The conflict is also now endangering Ukraine’s coal supplies. Mining activity in eastern Ukraine has been interrupted by the fighting while damage to railways has created transport bottlenecks. A Ukrainian army spokesperson this week accused Russian-backed militants of trying to seize railway hubs to control the flow of coal out of the region.The bonanza is one indication of the panic gripping Ukraine as winter approaches and the country teeters on the edge of an energy crisis.
Imports of Russian natural gas have been cut off since June amid a price and debt dispute that has run alongside their military confrontation in eastern Ukraine. That has already prompted cold showers as the government has resorted to rationing domestically produced gas by cutting centrally provided hot water to flats.
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, is expected to discuss the energy situation with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, when the two leaders meet at a summit of EU and Asian leaders in Milan that begins on Thursday. Yet Kiev’s energy vulnerability is regarded by analysts as another factor that has given Moscow and the rebels it supports the upper hand in a conflict that has killed more than 3,500 people.
“Russia has much more leverage over Ukraine now than in 2006 and 2009 when it shut off gas,” said Dmytro Marunich, a Ukrainian energy analyst, referring to previous energy disputes between Moscow and Kiev. “Through the separatist-held eastern mining regions, it now holds de facto controls over much of our coal and, in turn, electricity generation.”
Jean-Marie GuĂ©henno, president of the international crisis group, suggested Mr Poroshenko’s government could be at stake. “One big question is how this next winter is going to be,” he said, asking “whether the hardship that Ukrainians will have to suffer will undermine Poroshenko?”
Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko was more upbeat, calling a winter energy crunch “the price of independence”.

In depth

Pro-Russian separatist
Pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine have escalated the political turmoil that threatens to tear the country apart

Further reading
So far, Ukraine has managed to stockpile 16bn cubic metres of gas in underground storage tanks. That is still 5 bcm less than it needs to satisfy peak winter demand.
Ukraine has sought to make up the shortfall by purchasing surplus Russian gas from EU member states such as Slovakia and Hungary. But Russia’s Gazprom has since clamped down on the practice by pressuring those governments.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s largest private thermoelectric power producer warned this weekend that some of its generators may be shut down within weeks because of a coal shortage.
“Coal leftovers will allow us to work 10 to 20 days depending on the type of (power) station,” DTEK’s director Maksym Timchenko said. The company has some 370,000 tonnes of stockpiles, far short of the 1.5m tonnes it had a year ago.
Once self-sufficient, Ukraine has in the past weeks started to import coal from South Africa, Australia and even Russia. But a growing pile of unpaid utility bills in the highly populated cities under separatist control in the east have complicated efforts to finance imports.
“We should have long ago cut off this region,” Yuriy Nedashkovsky, head of the state nuclear power company, which produces half of the country’s electricity needs, said this week.
The country is bracing for an energy diet. Supplies to gas-guzzling chemical factories are being limited. Officials are also considering longer winter breaks for schools to conserve utility consumption during peak winter periods.
Many Ukrainians are not waiting to find out if their president’s talks this week with Mr Putin will produce results.
Citizens in Kiev and other cities are rushing to better insulate their flats by replacing wooden-framed windows dating back to Soviet days with more modern ones.
Meanwhile, some villagers are stockpiling firewood. In a twist of fate, many homes in rural regions still have antiquated furnaces that can burn either wood, coal or natural gas.
But most Ukrainians live in Soviet-era city flats with centralised power and heating systems and are not so fortunate. “I’ve already bought candles, a portable recharging battery and am now looking to buy a solar-powered charger for my computer and mobile phone,” a European executive working in Kiev said.
In his sales pitch, Oleksander, shop assistant in Kiev, touted the Delonghi electric heater’s ability to continue warming an apartment for about an hour without power.
He admitted, though, it would be useless if hours-long electricity blackouts become rampant. “We unfortunately don’t have anything in stock to help customers keep their flats warm if the electricity and gas both get cut off,” he said.
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Monday, 13 October 2014

#Ukraine's Oligarchs: A Who's Who Guide | tks @VICENews

Ukraine's Oligarchs: A Who's Who Guide | VICE News:

This is part 1 of VICE News' guide to Ukraine's oligarchs.
Shark tanks, underground swimming pools, deluxe cars, a Qatari prime minister as a next-door neighbor and friends in diamond-dealing Russian mafia gangs: Ukraine's oligarchs, notorious for their dodgy deals and criminal associates, are a hardy bunch born from the ruins of the Soviet Union, and they know how to live in style. But now, as Ukraine finds itself center stage in a geopolitical tug-of-war between East and West, its elite class are facing the toughest challenge of their careers as they attempt to navigate the crisis with all their assets intact. Our who's-who guide to Ukraine's oligarchs brings you the down low on who's setting up a private army, who's doing double-cross backroom deals, and who looks set to go from hero to zero.
Rinat Akhmetov, owner of Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club, and then-president Viktor Yushchenko at a reception to honour the team in 2009. Image via Reuters
Name: Rinat Leonidovych Akhmetov
Born: September 21 1966, Donetsk Oblast
Net worth: $12.2 billion*
Background & Business Dealings:Rinat Akhmetov — owner of London's most expensive home, a deluxe £136.4 million ($221 million) penthouse property in London's One Hyde Park — came from humble origins. His mother was a shop assistant and his father a miner. Both were Muslim Tatars, an ethnic minority in Ukraine.
The media shy multi-billionaire began massing his fortune during the lawless early 1990s as entrepreneurs vied to construct a new financial order from the ruins of the Soviet Union. Yet, despite the era's culture of dog-eat-dog gangsterism, Akhmetov claims he made his fortunes on lucky gambles alone. "I earned my first million by trading coal and coke, and spent the money on assets that no one wanted to buy. It was a risk but it was worth it," Ukrainian media has reported him as saying.
Others, however, claim the oligarch's big break came in 1995 when his mentor, Akhat Bragin, was killed along with six of his bodyguards in a mysterious bombing. A Donetsk police chief, Vyacheslav Synenko was convicted in for murdering Bragin in 2005 after confessing that he committed the crime whilst working for a rival mob, but the former law enforcer later protested his innocence in jail. Akhmetov is said to have inherited a vast financial empire from his dead business partner, an alleged mobster, including Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club — which was recently renovated by the steel and coal giant to host games during the Euro 2012 soccer tournament.
Under the governments of Viktor Yanukovych — the corrupt pro-Russian president ousted by the Maidan protests in February 2014 — Akhmetov's businesses flourished exponentially.
A member of Yanukovych's Party of the Regions and himself a parliamentarian from 2001 to 2006, the billionaire is reported to have used a system of patronage to exert considerable influence over several deputies in the house. According to Bloomberg, after helping fund the former-president's election campaign in 2010 Akhmetov won five government auctions for some of the country's biggest thermal and power generators and distributors — boosting his wealth by $3 billion in six months.
Investigative journalists in Ukraine have repeatedly fingered Akhmetov in shadowy connections with the criminal underworld and backroom deal-making, but the oligarch has strongly denied and even sued over the allegations. A 1999 report by the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs identified the billionaire as the potential participant in an organized crime syndicate linked to money laundering, financial fraud and numerous fictitious companies, but later but noted it had not been possible to tie him directly to the ring. In a leaked 2006 cable, then US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, called the Party of the Regions a "haven for Donetsk-based mobsters and oligarchs" and named Akhmetov as the "godfather" of the clan.
Following the Orange Revolution in 2004 the oligarch reportedly fled from Ukraine to Monaco to avoid a newly-opened investigation into his alleged involvement in organized crime and a murder, but later returned to the country after all the charges were dropped.
Role in the Conflict:Before the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis Akhmetov was the undisputed King of the East, controlling the region's lucrative mining industry and dominating the political sphere via his patronage of Yankovych's Party of the Regions. Now, with his political cronies lying low or hiding out in Russia and his bid to play kingmaker between the separatists and government in the east failed, the oligarch, himself living in exile in Kiev, has found his business interests under threat and friends in the capital few and far between.
In the early days of the east Ukraine conflict Akhmetov called for "calm" and "compromise" whilst engaging in behind-the-scene negotiations with the leaders of the separatist movement in a bid to quell the unrest. But the break-down of talks in the build-up to Ukraine's presidential election forced the once-most-powerful man in Donetsk to flee his heartland when armed men and supporters of the separatist movement surrounded his deluxe gated-house on the outskirts of the city.
Driven out of his home, the east's coal giant has now thrown his weight, and money, behind Kiev, calling for a united Ukraine and even accusing the separatists of "genocide" in the conflict zone. But whilst Akhmetov has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars sending more than 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid to people internally displaced by the fighting, the oligarch has stopped short of directly financing Ukraine's military operations in the region.
The attempts to pin his colors to the mast of a united Ukraine have met with a mixed response from hiscritics. Some say the beleaguered oligarch's lukewarm efforts at crushing the rebellion are at best too little too late, and worst point to a failed double-cross bid to play the separatists off against Kiev to increase his leverage over the new government.
Notably, unlike Sergey Taruta, a fellow oligarch and the governor of Donetsk, Akhmetov's private property has not been looted by the rebels, indicating some form of deal was struck. Further fuel was added to the fires of speculation about the billionaire's involvement with the rebels when separatist leader Pavel Gubarev alleged to aRussian newspaper that Akhmetov had helped bankroll the uprising. The coal tycoon, however, retorted that he had not given a "cent" to the rebels and claimed he was the victim of a smear campaign.
Certainly, Akhmetov's seemingly dithering response may also be explained by his business investments. While the majority of the billionaire's wealth is tied up in coal and steel mines in Ukraine's east, his business is also heavily dependent on the lucrative iron ore assets he owns further west. Aligning himself too closely with Kiev and its western allies means incurring the wrath of Russia and the authorities of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, who recently threatened to nationalize his assets. However, failing to oppose the separatists also poses a risk to his business interests, which could end up stranded in a lawless and hostile territory, or even worse being swallowed up by more powerful and wealthy Russian oligarchs.
VerdictBalancing on a tightrope wire
Dmytro Firtash and Yanukovych at an opening ceremony for a sulphuric acid plant in Crimea, in April 2012. Image via Reuters
Name: Dmytro Vasylovych Firtash
Born: May 2 1965, Dnipropetrovsk
Net Worth: $500 million**
Business Dealings:Multimillionaire and gas giant Dmitry Firtash owns a London property near Harrods complete with an underground swimming pool and a collection of deluxe cars. But the swanky lifestyle of the oligarch — who reputedly has ties to Semion Moglivech, a diamond-dealing Ukrainian-born Russian mobster on the FBI's "10 most-wanted" list — is a long way from his formative years which he spent at Krasnolimansk Railway Vocation School learning how to shovel coal onto a boiler and drive steam trains.
Like most men of his generation, after finishing school Firtash completed compulsory military service in the army of the USSR before finding work as a fireman. But when the Soviet Union disintegrated, the young entrepreneur quickly gave up a dangerous career dousing flames to capitalize on the newly opened up opportunities in trade.
Basing himself in Moscow's Rossiya — at the time Europe's largest hotel — he traded everything from bed sheets to dried fruit and at aged just 24 made a deal worth between $200,000 and $250,000 swapping dried milk and canned goods for cotton in Uzbekistan.
Soon, however, the ambitious young businessman progressed from a small time commodities dealer to a key player in the cross-border supply of natural gas. In the mid-2000s, seemingly out of thin air, Firtash gained control of the shadowy Eural TransGas. A suspected front for the state-controlled Russian gas giant Gazprom, the Hungarian-based company reportedly won a lucrative contract to act as the intermediary in transportation of natural gas worth as much as $1 billion from Turkmenistan to Ukraine just 24 hours after being established.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Firtash alludes to a prior barter deal with Turkmenistan's government, which gave him access to gas in return for forgiveness of a overdue flour and oil debt. Many, however, suspect that the oligarch was not acting alone, but as a front man for the crime-boss Semion Moglivech, whose gang has been connected to prostitution rings, trafficking in nuclear weapons and materials, and money laundering, in addition to dealing in precious gems.
In 2004, EuralTransGas was superseded by RosUkrEnergo, a company established in a deal between Ukraine's then-prime minister Lenoid Kuchma and his Russian counterpart Vladmir Putin. Like its predecessor RosUkrEnergo — effectively half owned by the Kremlin via Gazprom — quickly hit gas gold, securing an exclusive deal to act as the sole middleman in the transit of the resource into Ukraine, not only from Turkmenistan but also from Russia and other Central Asian countries.
Moscow repeatedly denied knowing who owned the other fifty percent stake share in RosUkrEnergo, at its peak worth $800 million per year. But investigations that burrowed through a deep paper trail eventually revealed familiar faces. Through CentraGas Holding, a private holdings company based in Austria, the remaining fifty percent of the RosUkrEnergo was owned by two Ukrainian businessmen — Dimitry Firtash, with a 45 percent stake, and Ivan Fursin with five percent.
In 2009, RosUkrEnergo's monopoly on gas supply to Ukraine was brought to an abrupt halt when then-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko ended a gas crisis — which saw Russia shut off supplies to its neighbor and parts of Europe in the depths of winter — by signing a new deal with Gazprom's chief in Ukraine, Alexei Miller, which cut out Firtash as a middleman.
That was the start of a deep and bitter rivalry between the two oligarchs and, in 2011, under Yanukovych's pro-Russia government with which Firtash has boasted of having close ties, Tymoshenko was sentenced to 7 years in prison for her involvement in the deal, in a case the West described as "politically motivated."
As well as his murky dealings in gas, Firtash also owns 61 percent of Inter Media, which has an 18 percent share of Ukraine's television audience.
Role in the Conflict:Just over two weeks after Yanukovych was ousted from power by the Maidan revolution, the gas oligarch was detained on a FBI arrest warrant in Austria, where he had fled as the pro-Russia government crumbled.
According to the US Department of Justice (DoJ), the charges, which relate to bribery and criminal conspiracy in an Indian titanium deal, are the work of eight years of investigation. Despite the timing of the arrest — just days before an illegal referendum was held on Crimea's secession from Ukraine, a move which prompted US and EU sanctions against 30 Russian and pro-Russia businessmen — the US DoJ has claimed it was not "related to [the] recent events in Ukraine."
Some commentators have speculated that the case against Firtash was not only an attempt to set an example to other oligarchs, but an bid by the US to pressure him into revealing insider information on the murky financial dealings of Putin's inner circle.
Nonetheless, the oligarch is far from on his knees. One the largest employers in Ukraine, his businesses pay the wages of at least 100,000 people — a fact of which Firtash, who is also president of Ukraine's Federation of Employers, has been keen to remind the country's new cash-starved government.
Indeed, while many of Firtash's traditional allies in the Party of the Regions have either fled Ukraine or are lying low, the gas giant — who according to the New York Times had his record $170 million bail posted by Russian oligarch Vasily Anisimov — even moved to realign his political allegiances when he was still under arrest.
Just days after his release, Firtash hosted a meeting at a luxury hotel in Vienna attended by Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's so-called Chocolate King, and Vitali Klitschko, the boxer-turned-politician, in a swanky hotel in Vienna. In the behind-closed-doors session the oligarch reportedly helped broker a deal cementing a political allegiance between Poroshenko and Klitschko — now Ukraine's president and the mayor of Kiev respectively — and offered to support the duo's electoral bid with positive coverage of their campaigns on his Inter television channel.
The gas millionaire's former allies are also remobilizing. Several of his cronies are running in the upcoming parliamentary elections under the umbrella opposition block. Number one of the party's list is none other than the oligarch's old-time associate, Yuriy Boyko, the former vice president of Ukraine and chairman of Naftogaz.
Verdict: Down but not out
Ihor Kolomoisky, billionaire and governor of the Dnipropetrovsk, at his regional government headquarters in May 2014. Image via Reuters
Name: Ihor Valeriyovych Kolomoisky
Born: February 16 1963, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast
Net Worth: $1.6 billion USD*
Background & Business Dealings:Nicknamed Bonifatsiy — due to his uncanny resemblance to the central character in a Soviet-era animated film about the adventures of a circus lion — Jewish oligarch Khalomoisky is the co-founder and lead partner of Ukrainian bank Privat, with substantial investments in the oil industry.
The oil and banking tycoon, who has long controlled a private quasi-military army to enforce his dodgy deals and reportedly has a tank of sharks in his private office, is well known for his tough approach to business. During the early 2000s, Kolomoisky and Gennadiy Bogolyuov, his business partner and co-founder of PrivatBank, gained a reputation as corporate bandits for orchestrating a series of hostile takeovers, earning them the nickname "The Raiders." At least some of these schemes were physically enforced. In one instance, according to Forbes, hired rowdies wielding baseball bats, iron bars, chainsaws, and rubber bullet pistols helped the oligarch duo forcibly take ownership of a steel plant. Other underhand tactics reportedly used by the pair include phoney court orders, bribing the judiciary and using strong-arm tactics to replace board directors.
Attempts to export the heavy-handed methods abroad, however, have met with greater resistance. During a court case in London involving an attempted hostile takeover of an oil company, a British judge described the oligarch as having a reputation for trying to take control of companies "at gunpoint" and agreed with the defendants that there were "strong grounds for doubting (his) honesty."
While Kolomoisky has never been overtly political, the oligarch has recently been linked to several influential figures and groups, including Our Ukraine, the party of the post-Orange Revolution President, Viktor Yushchenko, andTymoshenko, the so-called Gas Princess. Most recently he was rumored to have connections to the election campaign of Klitschko's UDAR — a link the party has denied.
Another source of political influence for the banking tycoon has come from his investment in media outlets, including the influential 1+1 Media Group, which controls eight Ukrainian television channels and has an 11 percent in-country market share.
Finally, if all this wasn't enough, the wily Kolomoisky has also admitted that he has circumvented laws banning dual citizenship for Ukrainians by taking a hat trick of passports, with documents from Israel and Cyprus as well as his native country. 
Role in the Conflict:He describes himself as a "die-hard European" and has not limited his battles against Moscow to verbal assaults. Drawing on his private army and bankrolling so-called volunteer battalions, the Jewish billionaire has not only crushed pro-Russian sentiment in his city with an iron fist, but has financed the recruitment and arming of thousands of patriotic young men to fight for a united Ukraine, including Dnipro 1, a battalion that now has at least 2,000 gunmen at its disposal.
The oil oligarch, who recently opened a new television channel Ukraine Today with the aim of countering Russian propaganda, has also offered a $10,000 bounty for captured pro-Russia militants and $1,500 per seized Kalashnikov. He has also announced a plan to build an electrified fence along a 1,200-mile stretch of the Ukraine-Russia border, though that has yet to come to fruition.
But in a country where money and politics go hand-in-hand, the hardman's endeavors are unlikely to be sheer philanthropy. The oligarch's PrivatBank has reportedly been struggling for some time and will doubtless benefit from money being pumped into Ukraine's economy by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, loans which are de facto dependent on stabilizing the country and keeping it outside Russia's sphere of influence. With thousands of armed men now loyal to him, Kolomoisky also has considerable leverage over Kiev, which owes him a heavy debt — his financial contributions to Ukraine's war efforts have been estimated at a whopping $10 million per month.
Verdict: Carving out a new niche as a warlord
* Net worth on day of writing according to Forbes' real time net worth of the world's billionaires
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem
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