Until now Rinat Akhmetov – Ukraine’s richest man and the oligarch who made the most out of a cosy relationship with former regimes – has mostly had eyes only for his eastern interests and their business with Russian companies.
Apart from heavy industry like mining and steel he has media and energy companies.
The interim authorities in Kyiv have chosen to ignore the accusations some make about him, and instead named his number two as a governor of an eastern region in a bid to calm separatist fervor.
Some angrily accuse Akhmetov of supporting the separatists, and of now having lost control over them, claiming his support cooled when he found out they might nationalise his assets. This brought him down from the fence to come out firmly on Kyiv’s side.
On Tuesday Akhmetov called on his 300,000 workers to down tools every midday in protest until what he called the “pillages and kidnappings… stopped”, and peace returned to the Donbass region with an end to separatism.
Ukraine had to remain united, he insisted, dismissing the “so-called Donetsk People’s Republic”. He called what was happening in Donbass a “genocide”, and said the people of the region would not be “intimidated by men with guns”.
“Tanks, guns have no place in our city”, said one of Akhmetov’s steelworkers after a meeting in the stadium of Shaktar Donetsk, Akhmetov’s top-flight football club. “That’s because this is the city
that feeds the majority of the population – the entirety of Ukraine. The city that transfers money to Kyiv and that my family lives on,” he smiles.
That Donetsk myth, like so many others in this confusing crisis, explains the engrained attitudes that need changing if the country is to move forward. Akhmetov’s new militias to patrol alongside police adds another element to the jigsaw.