Ukrainian tycoon Rinat Akhmetov takes on peacemaker role in home city of Donetsk

Steel and mining magnate talks to pro-Russian rebels in his home city of Donetsk, but analysts claim he is just trying to protect own interests

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 9:53pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 8:02am

Ukraine's richest man has seized on the stand-off between the Kiev authorities and pro-Russia separatists to help forge new political alliances after the overthrow of his former ally, president Viktor Yanukovych.

Steel and mining magnate Rinat Akhmetov is drawing on his local clout in Donetsk to negotiate with separatist protesters to end their occupation of state buildings in the eastern city, his industrial fiefdom where Yanukovych was once the governor.

Since Monday, Akhmetov has been actively involved in talking to the rebels - even sympathising with some of their demands - while urging law-enforcement agencies to hold off from using force to end the stand-off.

Commentators say Akhmetov, 47, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine at US$11.4 billion, is trying to use the crisis in eastern Ukraine to re-position himself and protect his huge business concerns in the post-Yanukovych landscape.

But equally, the new leadership needs him and his clout in a region where much of Ukraine's population and industrial capacity are concentrated.

A local Donetsk boy, Akhmetov's business interests reach deep into traditional mining areas of the Russian-speaking Donbass region and he owns the Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club.

That can translate into useful support for the new leaders in a part of the country where people are strongly influenced by Russian cross-border propaganda and look askance at the pro-Western "Euromaidan" uprising in Kiev that led to the downfall of Yanukovych. He emerged into the public consciousness out of bloody regional gang wars in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union as head of a private business empire that now reaches into steel, mining, energy and the media.

In Donetsk, a steel and mining hub, he has strong popular appeal. But his close identification with the deposed Yanukovych, whose election campaign he backed in 2009-10, means he is far from popular in the capital.

In his much publicised contacts with pro-Russian activists who took over the regional administration building in Donetsk on Sunday, he has sympathised with their calls for upgrading the status of the Russian language in Ukraine and came out strongly against any use of force by authorities to end their sit-in.

At the same time he urged the separatists to tone down some of their demands, such as an independent "Donetsk Republic", and to hold constructive negotiations with the government.

He favours decentralisation of power - along lines already being drawn up by the new leadership - but is at pains to differentiate this from Moscow's call for "federalism", which Kiev says would lead to the break-up of the country.

Though he insists he backs only a united Ukraine, his aides acknowledge that he runs the risk of Russia's propaganda machine exploiting his sympathy for some of the separatists' demands, particularly on language rights.

"He is trying to achieve a solution in such a way that it will not be used for propaganda by Moscow," said one aide.