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A coal-mining disaster in Ukraine has spotlighted the mine's wealthy and powerful manager, a former prime minister who once fled the country to avoid charges of stealing $25-million (U.S.) in state funds.

The explosion was the second nearly identical catastrophe at the mine in the past two years. At least 49 workers were killed and dozens injured last weekend; 50 miners perished in a blast two years ago.

The manager, Yukhim Zvyahilsky, stood weeping at the site on Monday as he listened to a speech by President Leonid Kuchma, who questioned the wisdom of extracting coal at great depths where workers are vulnerable to dangerous levels of methane gas.

Although he seemed contrite this week, Mr. Zvyahilsky has enjoyed a long and profitable relationship with Ukraine's top politicians. His saga illustrates the close links between business and politics in a country that was recently ranked as one of the 10 most corrupt in the world.

A decade ago, when Ukraine became independent, Mr. Zvyahilsky was one of the Soviet-era "red managers" who emerged with enormous power. He became a leader of the "Donetsk clan," which ruled life in the vast coal-mining territory of eastern Ukraine, centred on the city of Donetsk where his mine is located.

He became a member of parliament and then a deputy prime minister. His career reached a peak in 1993 when he was promoted to the post of acting prime minister, a job he held for nine months.

But his luck changed when Mr. Kuchma was elected president in 1994. Newspapers began reporting allegations that Mr. Zvyahilsky had pocketed $25-million in proceeds from the government's sale of 200,000 tons of aviation fuel to a Greek company. Ukrainian prosecutors accused him of transferring $20-million in public funds to a Swiss bank account for personal use.

When Mr. Kuchma ordered Mr. Zvyahilsky's arrest on embezzlement charges, he fled the country, first to France and then to Israel, where he spent two years in hiding. In 1994, parliament voted to strip him of his immunity from prosecution.

Other allegations surfaced. As prime minister, he reportedly owned a bank that earned $200-million in currency transactions because of its status as the only bank authorized to have a Western partner. He was also allegedly an associate of a Russian commodities trader who had been convicted of corruption charges.

In 1997, however, parliament restored his immunity status, and he returned from exile. Charges against him were quietly dropped.

Since then, he has regained most of his political power. He maintained his control of the Donetsk mine, which employs about 10,000 workers, and he has remained an MP. He is one of the leaders of a new political coalition that is planning to support Mr. Kuchma in general elections next year.

"In many respects, [Mr. Zvyahilsky's]biography mirrors the biography of many Ukrainian politicians," Markian Bilynsky, a political analyst in Kiev, said.

"They were managers and bureaucrats, and when Ukraine became independent they found themselves as an accidental élite, charged with the task of forming a state. They began transferring their bureaucratic influence into politics. But rather than concerning themselves with state-building, they were more concerned with their own narrow interests."

The allegations against the coal magnate could have been made against many of the top Ukrainian politicians, Mr. Bilynsky said. "People took advantage of the blurring between public and private interests. They became wealthy by exploiting a highly politicized and highly regulated economy, where insiders could obtain lucrative licenses and quotas."

Coal-industry managers can profit because of heavy subsidies from the state, analysts say. Even with unprofitable mines, managers can earn cash by selling the best coal to foreign customers while selling poorer-quality coal to the state power industry.

"The stripping of Ukraine's assets by the corrupt robber barons who control both business and politics in the country is the single greatest tragedy of independent Ukraine," the Kyiv Post newspaper said in an editorial this week.

The latest mine disaster has cast a cloud over Mr. Kuchma's plans for an extravagant celebration of the 10th anniversary of its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union on Aug. 24, 1991.

Despite earlier signs that some of the events would be postponed, Mr. Kuchma is going ahead with the celebrations today, including an elaborate military parade through the centre of Kiev with dozens of tanks and 6,000 troops.

The celebrations include fireworks, concerts, exhibits of patriotic films and paintings, and the unveiling of a massive monument.

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