KIEV — The Globe and Mail
Last updated Friday, Jan. 31 2014, 9:46 PM EST
With Ukraine’s popular uprising showing no sign of easing, the country’s future depends largely on the actions of a few billionaires who control most of what goes on in government and have been caught off guard by the street protests.
Politics and business are linked in Ukraine unlike anywhere else in Eastern Europe. A handful of oligarchs emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, building vast fortunes by acquiring state-owned assets on the cheap and pushing aside any competitors, often violently. All of this was aided by helpful politicians and bureaucrats who facilitated the empire-building for a fee.
While much the same happened in Russia and other former Soviet republics, the oligarchs in Ukraine became far more politically entrenched, often holding seats in parliament and organizing groups of MPs who have no ideology other than protecting the oligarchs’ businesses. These billionaires’ interests are also dutifully covered by the country’s major media outlets all of which they own.
This system of mutual benefit has thrived more than ever under President Viktor Yanukovych, who has consolidated power in the presidential office since taking power in 2010. Mr. Yanukovych is backed largely by two groups of oligarchs led by these men: Dmytro Firtash, a natural-gas tycoon; and Rinat Akhmetov, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest men who comes from the same region as the president and has interests in mining, power generation and media. Mr. Yanukovych’s family has also built up sizable business holdings during his term, becoming something of a rival to the others.
The street protests against Mr. Yanukovych have upset this cozy world. Even worse for the oligarchs, it has hurt them financially. Much of the economy has ground to a halt and there are reports international lenders are getting nervous about extending credit. And that has made the oligarchs worried. “Protests and bloodshed are very bad for making money,” said Taras Berezovets, a political analyst in Kiev. The oligarchs “want to keep their money safe in Ukraine and overseas. So they do not want any sort of civil conflict.”