The net is closing around Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash after almost three years of exile on bail in Austria. In the space of a few days the businessman was pronounced liable for extradition to the US to face bribery charges, detained on a separate Spanish arrest warrant, released, and promptly hauled back into custody in the US case.
But amid the Keystone Cop chaos since a Vienna court upheld the US request on February 21, bigger power games at stake suggest Firtash could still emerge as “one who got away”, despite the efforts of justice officials in two countries to prosecute him for alleged financial crimes.
Firtash had won a crucial round in his extradition fight in May 2015, when a court agreed that his arrest had been politically motivated. The US Department of Justice since provided more evidence, resulting in the latest Austrian decision that he can be extradited.
February 21 dealt a double blow to martial arts buff Firtash, 51, who made most of his fortune in what he says was a forced partnership with Kremlin-controlled Russian natural gas producer Gazprom, while buying Ukrainian TV stations and fertiliser and chemical industry assets.
First, the Vienna Court of Appeals ruled that Firtash can be extradited to the US to face charges that he secured a titanium extraction permit in India by paying $18.5mn in bribes. As his legal team headed by former Austrian justice minister Dieter Boehmdorfer braced to contest the decision, Austrian authorities then detained Firtash on an arrest warrant issued by Spain. There he is accused of laundering tens of millions of euros, sending some offshore to Panama, and investing more in Spanish real estate.
Two days later he was released with no further bail to be paid on top of the €125mn paid when he was first arrested in Vienna in 2014 - only to be hauled right back into detention under the US case.
Testimony for freedom
If he is handed over to the US, Firtash might avoid imprisonment in exchange for his testimony against senior Russian leaders, according to Ukrainian interior ministry advisor Anton Gerashchenko, the UNIAN news agency reported.
Telling reporters that US justice cannot be bribed, Gerashchenko said: “There may only be a deal. If Firtash is offered to testify on his corrupt ties in the Russian Federation - and it is no secret that he reached big deals with Russian leaders on gas supplies and other economic issues - I think that the Americans will offer Firtash a possibility to remain a free man in exchange for his testimony about the involvement of Russian top leadership in corruption schemes.”
Otherwise Firtash risks a long jail term, the advisor said, citing the case of Ukraine’s former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who spent more than eight years behind bars in the US for money laundering, extortion and fraud.
A final decision whether to turn him over to US custody is expected to be made in the coming days by Austrian Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter.
But as important as the charges themselves – all strongly rejected by Firtash – is the quandary this creates for Austrian authorities, who have two allied states baying for his extradition – Spain and the US authorities under President Donald Trump – while Russia and Ukraine are also vulnerable to any explosive revelations.
More problems for Trump?
Firtash’s business partners in recent years include Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is said to have helped engineer the 2010 election victory of Ukraine's pro-Moscow former president Viktor Yanukovych. With Trump now under intense pressure to disclose any secret ties or business with Russia, the potential questioning of Firtash by US justice officials is another wild card in the turbulence around the White House these days. However, his links to Manafort could also provide him with powerful allies in Trump’s administration as his case is dealt with.
There are also accusations by the US Department of Justice that Firtash has ties to Semion Mogilevich, an organised crime figure who was named on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, and who allegedly helped make Gazprom's deals in Ukraine possible. Again, Firtash denies any links with the mobster.
Meanwhile, the current Ukrainian government under President Petro Poroshenko is supposedly pushing a campaign of “de-oligarchisation” and has pledged to arrest Firtash on behalf of the US if he comes home. The story behind the scenes is less clear-cut: his reappearance in Ukraine could also make life difficult for Poroshenko, who is said to owe Firtash and some other high flyers for Vitali Klitschko's withdrawal as a challenger from the Ukrainian presidential campaign in 2014.
In Moscow, Kremlin officials deny that Firtash had a close association with President Vladimir Putin, although any proof of this would fuel suspicions that Trump has more to say about Putin that he’s telling, given the Manafort link.
The tangled picture has everyone guessing what will happen next, even if “next” will simply be more time in luxury exile in Austria for Firtash as his heavyweight legal team does battle for him.
“With Firtash now entangled with both the US and EU legal systems, the likelihood of his being free any time soon is quite low,” the Concorde Capital brokerage in Kyiv wrote after his detention on the Spanish warrant.
Despite the ties with Manafort, it is unlikely that the Trump administration will expend any political capital on dropping the Firtash case at this time, but it could be some time before he actually makes it to a US court, Concorde added. “Previously, President Trump’s name has not been directly associated with Firtash, and we have no reason to forecast whether it will on not in the future. As of now, Firtash could still embarrass the Ukrainian and Russian governments more than the Americans should he talk.”
The story of Firtash’s rise to wealth and power is long and complicated, through his early wheeler-dealer years and alleged alcohol smuggling capers, to big gas deals with Turkmenistan to reduce Ukraine’s energy dependency on Russia, before, in his account, Gazprom elbowed its way into a 50:50 partnership with him in Ukraine’s natural gas business.
A Reuters investigation in 2014 showed that Gazprom sold more than 20 billion cubic metres of gas to Firtash over four years, four times more than publicly acknowledged, at a price so low that Firtash’s companies stood to make $3bn. Which means that it will be in many people’s interests if the canary can refrain from singing.
In one sign that people in Kyiv may be anxious that Firtash could jump bail and reappear in his homeland, members of the Opposition Bloc, a political party with strong ties to the businessman, claimed on February 22 that Ukrainian aviation authorities had temporarily barred private jets from entering the country’s air space.