In 2009, RUE’s Ukrainian gas import monopoly vanished when the Ukrainian government, then led by president Viktor Yushchenko, predecessor to the ousted Mr. Yanukovych, rewrote the gas import script and handed the market to Russia’s Gazprom.
Mr. Firtash thinks Ms. Tymoshenko was the driving force behind RUE’s banishment and argues that Ukraine is the poorer for it because Gazprom is charging Ukraine higher prices than RUE did (a new gas war has just broken out between Russia and Ukraine, with Russia demanding the end of discounts and arrears payments of more than $2-billion). “I cannot prove what I am saying, but she created a situation where Ukraine is completely dependent on Russian gas with no alternative to go to a different market and we have all these problems. Immediately after this, the Ukrainian budget began to shudder.”
He thinks the Kremlin is expertly using its control of the Ukrainian gas supply to exert pressure on Kiev as tensions rise in Eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian and pro-Ukraine forces were clashing this week. “Russia needed geopolitical influence in Ukraine,” he said. “And when Ukraine doesn’t have debts and doesn’t have problems, and when the economy is working normally, it is impossible for Russia to influence Ukraine. There are no weak points. So they had to create a scenario [to weaken Ukraine] through the price of gas.”
It appears, however, that Mr. Firtash’s empire – whose sales, he says, reached $6-billion in 2012 – largely survived Gazprom’s takeover of the Ukraine gas market in 2009. He still traded gas inside Ukraine and expanded into banking, media, real estate, titanium, chemicals and fertilizer. His connections obviously proved fruitful. Mr. Firtash has a close relationship with Sergey Levochkin, who was chief of staff in the administration of Mr. Yanukovych. Last year, Mr. Firtash and Mr. Levochkin purchased Ukraine’s Inter Media Group, the broadcaster that owns one of the country’s main TV networks.
Mr. Firtash faces an uncertain future in spite of his vast holdings and wealth. He could get extradited, in which case all bets on the health of his empire are off. While he has distanced himself from Mr. Yanukovych, and insists he supported his removal from the president’s office, Ukrainians still associate him with the kleptomaniac strongman.
He says he still has full control over his Ukrainian businesses, and that the jobs they create, and taxes they pay, will play a big role in the sustainability of Ukraine after the May elections. He believes that Ukraine, under a strong elected government, can act as a “neutral state that is a bridge between Russia and Europe.” In the presidential elections, he is backing Petro Poroshenko, who owns the confectionery company Roshen and is known as the “chocolate king.” Smart move – Mr. Poroshenko is ahead in the polls.
Mr. Firtash obviously hopes that Mr. Poroshenko, should he win, will highlight his role as a big employer and the president of Ukraine’s Federation of Employers. “I think I am one of those people who can be quite useful, to put it mildly, in the resolution of the country’s problems.”
The problem is that Mr. Firtash has lost a lot of his allies in Kiev and Moscow. The next chapters in the oligarch’s story are unlikely to be as rousing, or as lucrative, as the first ones and may end in a lengthy prison sentence.
For her part, Ms. Tymoshenko isn’t shedding any tears about her old foe’s woes. In an interview published April 13 in Austria’s Die Presse, she was asked how she felt about Mr. Firtash’s arrest. “That there is justice that prevails – sometimes earlier, sometimes later,” she said.