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Cambridge University (PHOTODISC)
Cambridge University (PHOTODISC)

Controversy puts oligarch’s charity contributions under the microscope Add to ...

Dimitry Firtash isn’t just a natural gas tycoon. He has also made a name for himself through a series of high-profile, and now controversial, charitable donations.

Mr. Firtash has donated millions of dollars to fund a Ukrainian studies program at Cambridge University in England, and he has been the primary donor for a new monument being built in Washington to commemorate the genocide in Ukraine in the 1930s. Mr. Firtash has also provided funds for a Ukrainian Catholic university in Lviv, in Western Ukraine, and he has funded Ukrainian theatre and cultural events at home and abroad, including a Ukrainian cultural festival on the banks of the Thames in London last fall.

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He says the donations have totalled $230-million (U.S.) in the past three years alone. But many of those donations have come under scrutiny since his arrest last month to face corruption charges in the U.S., raising concerns among recipients about the ethics of accepting his funding. Mr. Firtash denies the allegations, which have not been proven in court.

At Cambridge, student groups have seized on the criminal charges against Mr. Firtash in the United States to protest the university’s opaque guidelines for accepting donations from foreign businessmen seeking to polish their reputations by affiliating themselves with the prestigious British institution.

Mr. Firtash’s gift, made though his Firtash Foundation, totalled £5.4-million ($10-million Canadian) and was used to fund a Ukrainian studies department. He has also funded a scholarship program for students.

In return, he and his wife, Lada Firtash, have been admitted to the prestigious Guild of Cambridge Benefactors – an honour Mr. Firtash proudly displays on the home page of his charitable foundation’s website alongside a 2011 picture of himself receiving a certificate from Prince Philip, who was the chancellor of Cambridge at the time.

Daniel Macmillen, a Cambridge student and member of advocacy group Positive Investment Cambridge, said his group has been questioning Cambridge’s decision to accept funds from Mr. Firtash for years now amid critical reports about his business dealings. The new criminal charges have renewed his group’s efforts to press the university to adopt a more ethical process for vetting donations.

“The fact that so much money was accepted from this individual is indicative of a wider problem of either not having rigorous criteria or a lack of a really explicit and successful framework to look critically at the major benefactions that come in,” Mr. Macmillen said.

Positive Investment Cambridge is not calling for Cambridge to return the funds from Mr. Firtash because they were provided as long as six years ago and have long since been spent, Mr. Macmillen said.

Anthony Fisher, a spokesman for Mr. Firtash, said the businessman has helped make the Ukrainian studies program the largest of its kind in Europe, and said he “completely respects the independence and integrity of the academic programs.” He said Cambridge did careful due diligence before accepting the funding.

“Mr. Firtash denies the allegations against him in the strongest possible terms and is very proud of his partnership with Cambridge and the important role the programs play in promoting Ukrainian culture and enabling students from all backgrounds to study at such a prestigious institution,” Mr. Fisher said.

For Mr. Firtash, the British donations may have had a business importance beyond simple social prestige. They were also used as a factor to try to win legal standing in British courts.

He cited his donations in a controversial libel suit he launched in the U.K. against a Ukrainian newspaper, the Kyiv Post. In his suit, Mr. Firtash has claimed his dealings with Cambridge have given him a connection to the U.K. and a reputation that deserves protection from damage in that country, even though the Kyiv Post article was published in Ukraine. However, a British judge disallowed the lawsuit in 2011.

Mr. Firtash has not given funds to cultural projects in Canada, said Zenon Potichny, president of the Canada Ukraine Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Potichny, who has met Mr. Firtash at meetings with business officials in Ukraine, said he has also never heard of any business dealings by the oligarch in Canada. “The U.S. and Europe were his main areas of involvement,” Mr. Potichny said.

In Washington, Mr. Firtash’s $2.5-million (U.S.) donation to finance the construction of a Ukrainian monument is raising concerns for the project’s champion and organizer, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.

“Obviously we’re very disturbed about all of the allegations, and we’re concerned about the support of individuals like Firtash,” UCCA spokeswoman Roksolana Lozynskyj said in a recent interview. “However, the project is under way.”

The UCCA announced Mr. Firtash’s donation last year, prior to his March arrest, expressing “heartfelt gratitude” to Mr. Firtash for funding the memorial. His donation was enough to cover the projected construction costs.

Mr. Fisher said Mr. Firtash remains committed to financing the memorial, which “would not have been possible” without his funds. He said Mr. Firtash hopes his legal matters will be resolved in time for him to attend “as guest of honour” at the completion of the memorial, which is expected to be finished by November.

He added that Mr. Firtash is also considering buying a historic building next to the memorial site to turn into a permanent Holodomor exhibition centre. The memorial will honour the millions of Ukrainian victims of starvation and genocide in 1932 and 1933 under Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.

Mr. Firtash’s funding was received last August before his U.S. legal difficulties began, said Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the U.S. National Parks Service, which oversees monuments in Washington.

Under U.S. federal rules, new memorials in Washington must be financed by foreign governments, and the Holodomor memorial is officially financed by the Ukrainian government as a gift to the United States. Mr. Firtash was the major donor to the Ukrainian government for the project.

Ms. Lozynskyj said the new government of interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, who took power in February following the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych, will continue supporting the project.

“I would say this representative government of Ukraine is absolutely very supportive of this project,” she said.

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