“The oligarchs brought many sturgeons. I don’t know where they got such large ones. Now, we’re making ukha and inviting everyone,” says someone from the stage at the Maidan in Kyiv. After several minutes, a huge line for the soup forms. Who brought the sturgeons? It is unknown, but the events at the Maidan show that the oligarchs’ support for the government will not last forever.
The protests at the Maidan have impacted all of Ukrainian society. For some Ukrainians, a key matter was the fate of European integration. For others, the protests had an anti-government orientation and yet for others it was the use of violence against the peaceful demonstrators that brought them to the streets. All of these matters were also considered by the political and business elites to be closely linked with the government, which is evident from their statements and reactions in the private media.
The most recognised members of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s business coterie include Rinat Akhmetov, the wealthiest Ukrainian, and Yanukovych’s son Oleksander, who is part of the so-called “family”, as well as some Donetsk businessmen. The official estate of Oleksandr is still relatively small, but since his father came to power it has been growing at a rapid pace. More is explained by the ranking of the most influential people in the country by the magazine Korrespondent. In it, the young Yanukovych is in third place after Akhmetov and his father, who top the rankings. Oleksander Yanukovych’s business, above all, focuses on the banking sector and real estate.
In the previous term, Akhmetov was a Member of Parliament of the Party of Regions (he is still a member) and a very influential figure in the party, exercising great control over it. Most of Akhmetov’s investments are in hard industry and finances. It is not a coincidence that the protests occurred next to the building belonging to Akhmetov’s System Capital Management firm. He was given a “bloody Christmas tree” which contained photographs of beaten demonstrators at the Independence Square. “Akhmetov paid, Berkut beat,” they chanted next to the SCM. They also demonstrated next his apartments in London.
The responsibility of a citizen and businessman
With regards to the Maidan’s supporters, in reality only one of the oligarchs has openly admitted to being on the side of the demonstrators. Petro Poroshenko, also known as the “Chocolate King”, is among the 10 wealthiest Ukrainians. His company Roshen is one of the largest producers of sweets and confectionary products in Eastern Europe. Poroshenko is currently an independent deputy in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament), and in recent years he was foreign minister in the second government of Yulia Tymoshenko as well as minister of trade and economic development in the first government of Mykola Azarov of the Party of Regions. In both cases, Poroshenko was responsible for negotiations regarding the Association Agreement with the European Union. After the 2012 elections, he did not join any political faction. Now, he is among those present at the Maidan.
It is being unofficially said that Viktor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of former President Leonid Kuchma, also supports the protestors, especially financially. He is the second-wealthiest Ukrainian, whose business is linked with, among others, metallurgy, banking and the media. He told the Financial Times that the events on the Maidan forced him to think about his responsibilities as a citizen and businessman. “The most important thing is that Ukrainian society has shown its strength. It’s not that the people supported a specific political contract, but that free citizens have their opinion and are expressing it vocally. Nothing is stronger. This gives me great optimism regarding the future of our country,” Pinchuk said.
A wave of criticism
Although most of the oligarchs officially support President Yanukovych, the media owned by the oligarchs have not been as loyal. In principle, only the government-run Channel One maintained a hard pro-government line. Even the Ukraine Channel, which belongs to Akhmetov, demonstrated what happened in the Maidan, although at the same time it tried to not show the government in a negative light. ISTV – belonging to Pinchuk – and 1+1 – the owners of which are two oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoyskyi and Henadiy Boholyubov – did not avoid criticising the government. The same was the case with Inter, which belongs to Dmytro Firtash and the current Head of the President’s Administration Sergei Lavochkin.
As Vladislav Holovin notices in the Russian edition of Forbes, the position of the media belonging to the oligarchs changed after the brutal dissipation of the peaceful demonstration on Independence Square on November 30th 2013. In the morning, divisions of the militia attacked the demonstrators who were there. The official reason for the use of force was the placing of the Christmas tree at Independence Square.
A positive or neutral portrayal of the events at the Maidan by the TV channels belonging to the oligarchs would have ultimately caused Yanukovych to see them as traitors. In a text for Zerkalo Nedeli Yulia Mostova writes that Oleksander Yanukovych took their television stations under strict control and a special group of people who collaborated with Viktor Yanukovych in different positions for years was formed.
A crisis of support
The crackdown on the Euromaidan was a watershed moment not only for the oligarchs; since then, serious conflicts have begun within the Party of Regions as well. As a result, two deputies have left. It is unofficially said that the mood is pessimistic among the members. Inna Bohoslovska, who on November 30th left the party, says that 60 parliamentarians wanted to do the same, but lacked the courage. After a meeting of a fraction of the Party of Regions with MP Hanna Herman, formerly from the inner circle of Yanukovych, she said that her colleagues desire a 90 per cent change in the government. On November 30th, Serhiy Lyovochkin also announced he would step down, but Yanukovych did not accept this.
As Mostova wrote, “The Maidan did not give obvious, tangible results, so the oligarchs had to hide their claws.” It showed, however, that with a larger political upheaval they could desert Yanukovych. This is especially because dissatisfaction with him results also from the excessive favouring of his “family”.
A change in the political landscape is not a novelty for Ukraine, so it is conceivable that next time Yanukovych may not only have the angry citizens against him.
The author wishes to thank the Warsaw office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for providing travel funding to Ukraine.
Paweł Pieniążek is a journalist specialising in Eastern Europe. He is a contributor to the Polish daily Dziennik Opinii, New Eastern Europe, the Polish magazine W Punkt and the portal Zaxid.net.