Graham Stack in Kyiv -
The "Kremlin whip" in the Rada - Russian-Ukrainian oligarch Vadim Novinsky - is thought to have helped spark the recent mayhem around the country by blocking the registration of a bill to change the constitution.
February 18 was the day that was supposed to see the opposition press home its advantage. Ukraine's parliament was to register draft bills for restoring the parliamentary constitution of 2004. That move would shift power from the president to parliament. It's a core rallying point of the opposition, and one that President Viktor Yanukoych had conceded to in principle, in return for the opposition reining in the violent protests that erupted in mid- January.
To register a draft constitutional bill for a first reading needs the signatures of 150 MPs, and thus needed support from Yanukovych's ruling Party of Regions. This had seemed entirely possible, either as back bench revolt or with consent of the party leadership. Sources say over 60 MPs from Regions were prepared to support the legislation, which would have given it support of around 200 votes in total.
But it was not to be. According to the Rada press service, "the draft bill submitted by the opposition for registration was not supported by the necessary number of MPs." Opposition leaders claim they found the registration office simply locked and abandoned. Then the violence started.
The Party of Regions failure to support the draft bill struck activists on the Maidan as treachery. Diverse groups had fulfilled their part in the ceasefire agreement: surrendering state offices such as Kyiv City Hall and dismantling massive outlying barricades. Within an hour, furious kitted-up protestors marched on the Rada. When the route to the parliament was blocked by riot police, the protestors turned on the headquarters of the Party of Regions.
In an attempt to calm the situation, Oleksandr Turchinov, deputy head of the opposition Batkyvschina party, met Regions MP Vadim Novinsky for talks, with the two visiting the party headquarters. Following the meeting, according to local press, Novinsky headed to the presidential administration.
Novinsky met the opposition as the fighting kicked off
Why turn to Novinsky at such a time? The 50-year-old is a metals oligarch rated among Ukraine's top ten richest men. He's a freshly minted politician, and even a freshly minted Ukrainian. Novinsky swapped Russian citizenship for Ukrainian in 2012; entered the Rada in August, and formally joined the Party of Regions in September.
That recent history may contain the answer: his alleged high-level Russian links. Novinsky is widely regarded as the Kremlin whip in the Rada, and is thought to have helped pressure Party of Regions MPs against supporting the constitution bill. That makes him a point man for an apparently futile last ditch effort to push the legislation through.
While Russia's President Vladimir Putin basks in international attention at the winter Olympics in Sochi - and projects a 'hands off' approach to Ukraine - Novinsky's role may point to Kremlin complicity in escalation of the conflict in Kyiv.
"Of course he is an agent of Kremlin influence," Boris Filatov, a business associate and friend of the recently-minted Ukrainian for over thirteen years, tells bne. He adds that Novinsky's Kremlin links likely stem from the St. Petersburg roots he shares with many top officials. "Vadim was born and lived in Petersburg, the hometown of Putin and Co," Filatov notes.
However, most of Novinsky's career is shrouded in mystery. In the early 1990s he is believed to have worked at top St. Petersburg physics research institutes - a milieu shared by some of Putin's closest friends, such as the Kovalchuk brothers - Mikhail and Yury - and Andrei and Sergei Fursenko. Later in the decade he worked in the Russian oil sector. It was not until around the turn of the century that Novinsky materialised as a metals trader in Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk. He quickly managed to privatise key companies, the core of his current fortune.
Ironically, given his science background, Novinsky proclaims close ties to the Russian Orthodox church - and sources speak of his direct contact to Patriarch Kirill. "He is a very concerned, religious person, from what I know of him, and would have been seeking to find some peaceful way out of the situation and to avoid conflict," a business figure acquainted with Novinsky suggested of his role on February 18.
The avenues to secure that peaceful solution are not immediately obvious, however. Novinsky remains a reclusive figure; he has yet to make his maiden speech in the Rada, and never gives interviews, except to carefully selected media during his election campaign. bne attempted to contact Novinsky via his Rada offices and his business structures, but received no response.
However, Novinsky appears less concerned about concealing his intentions in the parliament. His role as "Kremlin whip" came to wide attention three weeks ago, in the run-up to the vote on the amnesty for demonstrators, as he was shown on live TV lobbying independent MPs to support the watered-down government version of the bill, which eventually went through.
Irina Bogoslovskaya, a leading Party of Regions rebel supportive of the Maidan and EU, criticises Novinsky's role as unofficial whip. "My advice to Vadim is parliament is not a business office where you can decide questions under cover and then confront people with fait accompli." she told journalists on February 6, accusing him of addressing MPs as if he were their boss, and labeling him "Yanukovych's shadow". Bogoslovskaya previously accused Regions of threatening MPs against rebelling.
Away from the frontline, Novinsky openly campaigns for Ukraine to join Putin's Eurasian Union, rather than the European Union, as favoured by the majority in the country. As MP for Sevastopol, he represents a fiercely pro-Russian port that hosts that country's Black Sea naval fleet. The lead point of his 2013 election campaign was "the creation of conditions for the renewed integration of Ukraine into an economic and cultural union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan." Barely four months after his election as MP, Ukraine exploded when Yanukoyvch backed down over signing an association agreement with the EU.
Novinsky's core business asset is a 23.75% stake - worth around $2bn - in giant metals and mining conglomerate Metinvest, which is regarded as a pillar of the Yanukovych regime. A majority stake in the company is held by System Capital Management (SCM), which is owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man. A former Party of Regions MP himself, Akhmetov is thought to control a group of up to 50 Party of Region MPs.
SCM, which is planning an IPO on Western markets, has been plying a fine line between its close links to Yanukovych and fear of sanctions from the West. "Rinat Akhmetov strongly believes that there are no circumstances that would justify the use of force against peaceful citizens," SCM press service told bne on February 18, in an attempt to distance Akhmetov from the bloody crackdown on the streets.
SCM also denied that Novinsky's activity in the Rada had any link to business partner Akhmetov. "Mr Novinsky is the President of Smart Group, which is a partner in Metinvest, but he does not represent SCM. He is an MP and sits with the Party of Regions," the PR statement insisted.
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