Akhmetov declares his loyalty to Ukraine – abandons Donetsk separatists
“Today in the Donbas (the administrative region of Donetsk and Luhansk with seven million people) there is an extremely difficult situation. Fear has settled on the Donbas. People are closing shops, offices, leaving the city, on the streets shootings and killings are taking place. And this is a huge disaster for our region," said Ukraine’s richest oligarch, the CEO of System Capital Management (SCM), Renat Akhmetov on May 14.
He outlined four choices for the Donbas:
“All power remains in Kyiv with the regions receiving the leftovers. This scenario has outlived itself and has no future.”
“The Donetsk People’s Republic that no-one in the world will recognise.” He added that the whole economy would be affected by international sanctions that would destroy it, and cause unemployment and poverty.
Joining Russia, which would also cause sanctions and economic collapse.
The “only way out,” he said, was to remain in Ukraine with a changed constitution and power decentralised to the regions. “This is when local government is responsible to the people for the present and the future.” “I firmly believe that the Donbas can only be happy in a united Ukraine”.
Earlier his political spokesman, the leader the Party of Regions in the Donetsk region, Mykola Levchenko, had denounced the separatist referendum scheduled for May 11 as lacking any legal credibility. Speaking on Akmetov's Ukrayina TV channel on May 8, Levchenko said: "First, there is no law according to which this referendum could be held. This is not a formal issue, but rather a practical one. Because there is no set of rules.” He asked who had created the commissions to manage the voting and the count, and what precautions had been taken to ensure that the results were not fixed. He pointed out that the ballot papers were being printed without watermarks or any kind of protection. “Any person or organisation can print ballot papers at home or in the office and throw in a batch of fake ballot papers that are not protected at all.” He wanted to know “Who are the observers? Who will count the votes? Who will confirm the results and how will these results correspond to reality?” He added: “Nothing is clear. There are more questions than answers."
Within half a day of the closing of the polling stations, the separatists claimed to have counted over three million votes. They said 75% of the Donetsk regional electorate had voted, of whom 89% had said yes to separation from Ukraine. The Luhansk regional separatists provided an even more questionable figure: a 98% turnout, and an over 96% vote for the Luhansk People’s Republic.
In contrast, the acting President of Ukraine, Turchynov, said that according to the Interior Ministry, the turnout in Donetsk was no more than 32% and in Luhansk 24%. The mayor of Donetsk said far fewer people had taken part in the referendum than voted in normal elections. Assuming that Turchynov's figures are correct, and only a quarter to a third of the five million Donbas voters voted for separation, the number of yes votes was still startlingly high, about 1.5 million.
The irony of Levchenko’s denunciation of the referendums as a legal farce is that he took a leading part in creating the separatist movement in Donetsk. On February 28, three months earlier, just days after President Yanukovych fled the country and Russia occupied Crimea, Levchenko launched the ultra-nationalist Pavel Gubarev on the public stage in Donetsk. (See “The Donetsk People’s Governor – Commander Pavel Gubarev”, www.jvkoshiw.com).
The Donbas oligarchs’ support to the separatist surrogates included finance, ordering the police not to intervene in their occupation of government buildings, TV and radio stations, and newspapers; helping them to terrorise, attack, maim and kill pro-Ukraine supporters, and closing down their media and institutional outlets.
Why did the Donbas oligarchs initially decide to go for separatism? President Yanukovych’s flight from office had left them as political orphans. From being the lords of Ukraine they suddenly became vulnerable to being financially expropriated by their political opponents.
Yanukovych was not overthrown by an armed coup and replaced by a junta, as President Putin, pro-Russia agitators, separatists and Donbas oligarchs endlessly repeat. He simply gave up and ran away with lorry loads of valuables (See my article “Why President Yanukovych fled Ukraine” at www.jvkoshiw.com).
In order to survive, Akhmetov and his company of oligarchs decided to hire ultra- nationalist Russians to take them into Russia. They expected that a Russian occupation of the Donbas, as well as much as half of Ukraine, to take place quickly as it did in Crimea.
The separatist plan stalled when Putin failed to send his troops and instead limited Russia’s intervention to Spetsnatzy [special forces, from “spetsialnoho naznacheniya”], armed groups of ultra-nationalists from Russia, money and propaganda. The other major problem was that the Donbas became isolated as separatists failed to take over the other regions of eastern and southern Ukraine, which they call “New Russia” – the regions of Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Kherson, Kirovohrad, Mykolaiv, Odesa, and Zaporizhzhya.
The Donbas oligarchs realised that their region was set for a prolonged civil war that would ruin them more surely than expropriation. They needed a new solution, something they had refused to support under President Yanukovych, the decentralisation of political and economic power to the regions. This would allow them to remain in power and in business.
The oligarchs had also lost control of some of their ultra-Russian surrogates, who after tasting power were bent on the Donbas becoming part of Russia at any price. Worse still, they now had to fear for their lives, as the separatists had thousands of armed men ready to kill for the Donbas to unite with Russia.
Akhmetov’s decision to abandon the separatists produced an angry response from the “Donetsk Region People’s Governor”, Pavel Gubarev. In an interview with a Russian journalist, Gubarev revealed that all the separatist leaders, presumably including himself, had taken money from Akhmetov:
“… after the junta (the temporary president and cabinet) came to power, the trust in the Party of Regions had sunk to zero. To restore trust was not possible. Even the public relations people working for the Party of Regions acknowledge this. Under these circumstances leaders of the so-called people’s volunteer militia began to emerge in all cities. And the party of power and our eastern (Ukrainian) oligarchs resorted to those same means of bribery they were used to. It was no longer a question of threats, but more bribery and intrigues; they began to work with activists of the people’s militia. It turned out that the oligarch Akhmetov was already paying two-thirds of the activists. A very small group of persons remained faithful to the idea, but everyone took money all the same. They all took money! (Source: Yuri Snegirev, “Naryad mychenika primeryat ne khochu,” Rossiyskaya gazete, May 12, 2014, http://www.rg.ru/2014/05/12/gubarev.html).
In response, the Donetsk Party of Regions issued a statement calling Gubarev “an impostor and fraudster”, and he and his group will end up in a madhouse."
Akhmetov denied to the Interfax news agency on May 12 that he paid any money to separatists: “Pavlo Gubarev said that I bought the two-thirds of the activists. I will say with confidence, I did not give anyone and will not give a penny. And most importantly, I did not outbid anyone, I persuaded them. And if I have persuaded two-thirds I will continue to do it. People come to me with arguments, and leave with other [views].”
Gubarev also threatened Akhmetov with violence, “we are superior in terms of armed forces”. This is a serious threat to Ukraine’s richest man as his enterprises employ 300,000 people.
Akhmetov has a security service that might be able to fight it out with the separatists, but it is yet to be tested. However, Akhmetov is better at politics than the separatists. In Mariupol, Akhmetov’s security representatives brokered a deal to stop the fighting in the city between the Ukraine’s security forces and the separatists, after pitched battles took place in the city on May 9. Akhmetov’s security service from his metallurgical plants, Ilyich and Azovstal, along with the Ukrainian police, and the separatist militia together patrol the city. After the municipal authorities removed the barricades across the city, it returned to normal. Soon tension flared again, after Akhmetov called for a general strike against the Donetsk People’s Republic and for Donbas to be in a united Ukraine.
For coming out in favour of Donbas being in Ukraine, Akhmetov has received threats from the separatists. A representative from the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Roman Manekin, has threatened Akhmetov with expulsion from the region if his enterprises don’t pay taxes to the “Republic” and he doesn’t declare his loyalty to Donetsk People’s Republic (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opyk1QZnAsA).
The confrontation between Akhmetov and the separatists will probably take place in the regional capital Donetsk. In the run-up to the May 25 presidential elections, the Russian Spetsnazy [Special forces, from “spetsialnoho naznacheniya”] commander Sergey Zdrylyuk (pseudonym Abwer) has threatened to seize the city to prevent the elections taking place (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opyk1QZnAsA). The separatists at the moment only hold the regional administrative building. Today, May 16, they created their first roadblock in the city centre. Their takeover of Donetsk will pose a danger to Akhmetov personally and to his palatial residence.
It would not be surprising if Akhmetov didn’t have fighters prepared to do battle with the separatists. Since the 1990s, when a competing gang headed by Kushnir and Rabin assassinated his godfather predecessors, Akhat Bragin and Yevhen Shcherban, Akhmetov has a small army of security personal along with gangsters and the police to protect himself and his interests.
Recently, the temporary president, Turchynov, has scored his own goal, and not for the first time. He organised a round-table discussion to discuss the situation in the Donbas, but would not allow Akhmetov’s right-hand man Mykola Levchenko to attend.