INTERVIEW: Ukraine opposition leader Korban reveals Poroshenko had warned him to leave country

By bne IntelliNews November 3, 2015

Sergei Kuznetsov In Kyiv -

Gennady Korban, an opposition leader and close business associate of controversial Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, could have avoided arrest on October 31. In an interview with bne IntelliNews on the eve of these events, Korban revealed that President Petro Poroshenko had warned him to leave the country when a conflict arose in the spring between Kolomoisky’s team and the authorities in Kyiv. However, Korban refused to do so and subsequently became the leader and sponsor of UKROP, an anti-Poroshenko political party, and his fate was sealed.

“I know that criminal cases against me exist. They are under the control of the Prosecutor General’s Office, and, probably, [officials] are just waiting for the order [to arrest me],” the 45-year-old Korban stated presciently, less than 48 hours before being detained in Ukraine’s third largest city of Dnipropetrovsk, a stronghold of his and Kolomoisky's.

Korban was appointed to the post of deputy head of Dnipropetrovsk’s regional administration in 2014 after Poroshenko had approved Kolomoisky as regional governor in an attempt to stop the spread of the pro-Russian rebellion spreading to Ukraine’s central regions. The oligarch’s willingness to provide financial assistance to volunteer battalions and decisive support for the central Ukrainian government appeared crucial at the time.

However, in March Kolomoisky found himself locked in a bitter dispute with the government over two companies that are central to his business empire: Ukrtransnafta, the state-owned oil pipeline operator, where he had installed a loyal chief; and Ukrnafta, an oil company in which the oligarch owned a 42% stake.

The dispute resulted in the resignations of Kolomoisky, Korban and other members of their team from their posts in Dnipropetrovsk’s regional administration. Upon resigning, Korban slammed the Kyiv authorities. “We are sitting here in puddles of blood... while Kyiv steals the money of the regions,” he said in one of his interviews at the time.

“When we left office, I was thanked [by Kyiv], but I was asked by Poroshenko’s cabinet to leave the country,” Korban tells bne IntelliNews during an interview in UKROP’s Kyiv headquarters, located in the historical centre on Vozdvyzhenka Street, which because of its many luxury estates is dubbed “millionaire town”.

Korban was seated in a conference room with shuttered windows, presumably not to guard against daylight but for security reasons. A bodyguard also stood guard in the hall. The local press describes Korban as one of Ukraine’s best-known corporate raiders, who has survived several assassination attempts over the years. His fortune is estimated at $25mn-55mn.

A good showing in elections

Korban expressed satisfaction at UKROP’s results after the local elections that were held on October 25. The party gained 8-9% in many regions (except Kyiv, Odesa and Kharkiv), which he described as ”a phenomenal result”.

He added that the party campaigned with an eye to possible snap parliamentary elections being held. “Our strategy was built with a view to early parliamentary elections. I will not deny that,” Korban admitted. “Moreover, the ruling party is also building its strategy with a view to early parliamentary elections.”

“We believe that there will be some reformatting of the ruling coalition in the near future; perhaps the coalition will fall apart and snap parliamentary elections will be announced,” he said. “The local elections were a rehearsal for us. We wanted to see if we are attractive [to voters]. And it turned out that we are.”

Korban added that UKROP’s results “were actively understated” by the authorities in many regions, with the aim of showing that UKROP is a party whose appeal is limited regionally. “However, this was not the case. Lviv, Kherson, Dnipropetrovsk voted for us equally.”

Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based think-tank Penta Political Centre, tells bne IntelliNewsthat Kolomoisky was also looking at the local elections as a dress rehearsal for snap parliamentary elections. He also belives the oligarch is also interested in regaining control over his “patrimony” – the city of Dnipropetrovsk. “This issue is not resolved. There will be a second round of voting in Dnipropetrovsk [for the post of mayor]. And this will be the real war,” Fesenko says.

Oleksandr Vilkul from the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc secured 38% in the first round of voting in Dnipropetrovsk’s mayoral elections, while another leader of UKROP, lawmaker Borys Filatov, got 36%. On November 2, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shorin told journalists that Filatov’s parliamentary aide had been arrested on suspected murder as part of ongoing investigations into Korban.

Experts believe that Vilkul is controlled by Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov. “Indeed, he belongs to Akhmetov’s ‘group of influence’,” agreed Korban. “However, I know this person very well. He will bite his ‘master’ as soon as he senses a possibility to become an independent player.”

Kolomoisky the Giver

Korban revealed that Kolomoisky is one of UKROP’s party “donors”, alongside Filatov and himself. “I would characterise Kolomoisky as a businessman. However, he is a person with a wide range of interests... He sympathises with the party, but he is not trying to influence the decisions taken by its political council.”

Penta Political Centre’s Fesenko says that another political force, the Vidrodzhennya (“Rebirth”) party, which also enjoyed strong results in the local elections, is also “close to” Kolomoisky. “However, I do not consider it to be unequivocally a party of Kolomoisky. The leaders of this party have their own political interests. But many of them do represent the business interests of Kolomoisky, especially in parliament,” the expert says.

Describing relations between Kolomoisky and President Poroshenko, Korban denied that there is any serious conflict. “Periodically, there are some hostilities. Some disputes happen occasionally. However, there is no conflict that would lead to fierce opposition.”

However, Korban declared that UKROP has quite different ideological views to Poroshenko and his eponymous bloc in parliament. “We have fundamental differences with Poroshenko’s party. They have not implemented any of their promises, first of all with regard to the people of Donbas and processes that are underway there,” he stated.

He specified that the ruling party has failed to provide financial support to Ukrainian troops who are fighting the pro-Russian separatists. “We are determined people. We act unconventionally, but under the existing laws. Because the law is not perfect... we are acting as is necessary to act in a state of war. And they [the authorities in Kyiv] are feeling our strength and our resolve. They are afraid,” Korban said.

Andrei Marusov, chairman of Transparency International in Ukraine, tells bne IntelliNews that all major Ukrainian businessmen who have made fortunes since the collapse of the Soviet Union “arose, existed, and can continue to exist only with direct or indirect support from the government or politicians.”

“That’s why they [oligarchs] buy political parties and government officials in the areas that regulate their businesses,” he explains, pointing in particular to Akhmetov, who has significant assets in the country’s energy market, and who had significant influence over energy officials during the tenure of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.

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