Graham Stack in Kyiv -
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appears to be preparing the ground for an assault on another of the country's oligarchs, following allegations that metals and mining tycoon Rinat Akhmetov funded a miners' protest against government energy policy.
Poroshenko lashed out at oligarchs for financing political protests, without mentioning Akhmetov by name, in comments on TV on April 24. “The oligarchs who plan to pressure authorities with fake protests will be punished,” Poroshenko said, as quoted by newswires, saying that there was evidence that participants in the protests on April 22-24 had been paid.
Poroshenko said the miners' protests were part of the same pattern of struggle against oligarchs that had led him to clash with financier and fuel trader Igor Kolomoisky in February. "We will deal with it like we did when we cleaned up the oil and gas trade field,” Poroshenko said, in a clear reference to the sacking of Kolomoisky as governor of Dnipropetrovsk region.
Deputies from Poroshenko's party have directly accused Akhmetov of allegedly financing separatism in Eastern Ukraine as well as the miners' protests in Kyiv.
The allegations come as Akhmetov's steelmaking division Metinvest and his power generation division DTEK are both in fraught talks with bond holders over a debt restructuring, which are likely to be affected by the uncertainty over the political fate of the oligarch.
On April 22-24, some 500-1,000 miners protested at parliament and other locations, calling for the resignation of Energy Minister Volodymyr Demchyshyn.
MP Mustafa Nayem, a former journalist , accused Akhmetov in a blog on April 23 of organising the protests. Naiem published what he claimed was a DTEK document outlining a plan called 'Fortress' designed to protect DTEK's interests in the power general and thermal coal mining industries, in particular against government imports of coal and power from abroad, including Russia.
The document published by Nayem envisaged among other things the staging of miners' protests against government policy in the energy sector. DTEK has denied the document is genuine.
Ukraine's youngest MP, Yegor Firsov, also claimed live during a talk show on April 24 that Akhmetov was under investigation for supporting separatism in Eastern Ukraine, though this was swiftly rebutted by the oligarch's company, who said he had only been questioned as a witness.
“The Prosecutor General has initiated a criminal case against Rinat Akhmetov over his financing of terrorism and separatism,” said he 27-year-old Firsov, an MP in the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, who hails from the Donetsk town of Avdeevka, home to one of Akhmetov's core facilities.
The “terrorism and separatism” allegations refer to claims that Akhmetov has supported Russian-backed insurgents in East Ukraine's Donbas region, the heartland of Akhmetov's business empire.
Akhmetov's holding company System Capital Management (SCM) furiously rejected Firsov's claims: “The information announced by Yegor Firsov is false. MP Yegor Firsov, taking advantage of his authority as a representative of the executive government, deliberately misled TV viewers. This is intentional disinformation of the society and defamation. We regard the actions of MP Yegor Firsov are provocative and unacceptable,” SCM said in a statement.
But Firsov stuck to his statements, posting on Facebook a copy of the prosecutorial summons to questioning as a witness, which though did not indicate the matter of the questioning. “Why lie again, gentlemen from Akhmetov's press service, do you think it will be difficult for me to prove the truth? On Monday [April 27] I will file an official query to the Prosecutor General's office [for confirmation],” Firsov said.
SCM said in a statement that Akhmetov had been questioned as a witness in January, not as a suspect. “Rinat Akhmetov was interrogated, we underline, as a witness on 22 January 2015 in the General Prosecutor’s Office and personally informed media about it,” the SCM statement said. “Since then officers of the Security Service of Ukraine and the General Prosecutor’s Office have made numerous official comments that they do not know any facts of involvement of Mr Akhmetov into any unlawful activities,” it added.
Former prosecutor general Vitaly Yarema previously confirmed on February 2 that prosecutors had questioned Akhmetov on “terrorism financing ... in relationship to an investigation of former top officials in the administration of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych."
"Concerning citizen Akhmetov, he was questioned by the Prosecutor General's Office of Ukraine regarding two topics: this is his relation to the Maidan events [bloodshed in the run-up to the ousting of Yanukovych], and also under request of MP Iryna Heraschenko on financing terrorism," Yarema said, as quoted by Interfax.
Yarema was replaced as prosecutor general in February by Viktor Shockin, regarded as a hardliner.
The head of Ukraine's security service (SBU), Valentyn Nalivaichenko, on April 15 said that the SBU was not currently investigating Akhmetov. "No, there are no criminal proceedings [currently being] handled by the SBU [regarding Akhmetov]” he said, as quoted by Interfax.
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