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.”
Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a business and sociology professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said Mr. Yanukovych and the oligarchs have underestimated the protesters and can’t understand that they have no allegiances or backers. “They still believe that there’s no way that people are here on their own volition,” he said. “They don’t understand that.”
The extent of the oligarchs’ concern surfaced publicly for the first time last week when Mr. Akhmetov issued a rare public statement. It came just as Mr. Yanukovych seemed ready to crack down on the protesters by introducing emergency measures. Mr. Akmetov’s message was clear: Make a deal.
“It is only by peaceful action that the political crisis can be resolved. … Any use of force and weapons is unacceptable,” he said in a notice put on his company’s website. “Business cannot keep silent when people are killed, a real danger of breakup of the country emerges, when a political crisis can lead to a deep economic recession and thus inevitably result in lower standards of living.”
The effect was immediate. Within days, Mr. Yanukovych dismissed the prime minister, agreed to an amnesty for those who had been arrested and repealed a set of draconian laws against demonstrations that had been introduced just two weeks earlier.
That has eased the tension somewhat, but an end to the crisis seems far off. Opposition party leaders have rejected the amnesty because it comes with conditions and the street protesters still want Mr. Yanukovych to resign.
The president has said the government has gone as far as it can and he has abruptly taken a medical leave, raising suspicions among those on the street.
There have also been indications of internal struggles within the ruling party as Mr. Yanukovych recently dismissed some staff who had ties to Mr. Firtash’s group of companies. Meanwhile, the army issued a dire warning on Friday about the protests becoming a threat to “the territorial integrity of the state” and a prominent activist turned up badly beaten after being missing for days. The activist, Dmytro Bulatov, has alleged captors cut off an ear and drove nails through his hands before dumping him in a forest.
For the oligarchs, there is no easy way out. A key problem is the country’s currency which the government has pegged to the U.S. dollar at a rate of eight hryvnia to one dollar. Many analysts say the rate is too high and has held back economic growth. But it has allowed the billionaires to borrow euros and dollars abroad at a better rate than if the currency traded freely.
If Mr. Yanukovych is removed and the country embraces the European Union, as the protesters want, the EU has indicated the currency restrictions have to go. If that happened, the hrynia would plunge in value, causing financial havoc for the billionaires. By keeping Mr. Yanukovych and sticking closer to Russia, which signed a $15-billion (U.S.) loan agreement with Ukraine last month, the currency peg remains but the economy would continue to sputter.
“If [the oligarchs] had a magic wand they would want someone who is less confrontational but able to keep the deal with Russia and have more balance with Europe,” said Chris Weafer, a senior partner with Macro Advisory, a Moscow-based consulting firm specializing in former Soviet republics.
They may have a candidate. Former foreign minister Petro Poroshenko, 48, has emerged as a something of compromise choice. He’s a fellow oligarch who founded Roshen chocolates, sits as an independent MP and has come out strongly for the protesters. His son, Oleksiy, joined the protest movement in Vinnytsia last week as they took over the regional government office.
“People want Yankovych out, nothing less,” the younger Mr. Poroshenko, 28, said in an interview. Sounding like the radicals on the streets, he added that the protesters have already had an impact on the oligarchs by lessening their influence. “The main goal now is to bring down the barriers so this kind of authoritarianism can never return,” he said.
That’s certainly what Bohdan Bilets wants to hear. He’s a 21-year old university graduate who wants to see radical change in the country and is organizing boycotts against businesses owned by the oligarchs. “I think for sure we have a great influence on [the oligarchs],” he said sitting in front of a computer at Ukraine House, a conference centre in Kiev that has been taken over by the protesters. “I hope they will lose millions.”