Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took aim at the country’s richest businessman, Rinat Akhmetov, during a three-hour long press conference to mark the end of his second year in office.
Held on the shop floor of Ukraine’s iconic giant Antonov cargo plane producer in Kyiv on May 20, the conversation was wide ranging, but included thinly veiled criticism of Akhmetov, who has been keeping his head down and has largely avoided inclusion in the current public discussion of Zelenskiy “de-oligarchisation” drive.
While Zelenskiy didn’t mention Akhmetov by name, the president talked about low taxes on iron ore extraction and energy lobbying that has led to regulators prioritising more expensive coal-powered electricity over the cheaper state-produced nuclear energy – both core Akhmetov businesses – which has led to losses by the state nuclear energy producer Energoatom.
Akhmetov owns Metinvest, the biggest metallurgical company in the country, and DTEK, which is a major producer of power, both of which are part of the Akhmetov holding System Capital Management (SCM), a multi-industry conglomerate.
The comments are the latest in a growing drive by Bankova (the home of the presidential administration in Kyiv) to distance the government from the oligarchs and bring to an end their many rent-seeking schemes. Zelenskiy laid out the ground work in his oligarch speech in March and has since lambasted the oligarchs, many by name, in his public remarks.
The president went up a gear last month by sanctioning Viktor Medvedchuk, the pro-Russian head of the Political Council of the Opposition Platform, For Life Party, who has more recently been placed under house arrest and is awaiting trial on treason charges.
Likewise, Zelenskiy’s mentor and business partner oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky has been sanctioned by the US, and whose alleged embezzlement of $5bn from PrivatBank and state company Centrenergo are being investigated.
Answering a question from Vasyl Holovanov, a TV host on Akhmetov’s Ukraina channel, about raising taxes for Ukrainians, Zelenskiy ignored the question and instead roasted the reporter, accusing him of manipulation.
“I understand whose TV channel you work for,” Zelenskiy said as cited by the Kyiv Post. “You could be asking a question, but (instead) you’re passing me information, and I know from whom. Don’t manipulate. Regular Ukrainians and small and medium businesses won’t be paying more taxes. As for big business, we won’t let anyone make 200-300% profits using the natural resources of Ukraine.”
Akhmetov’s companies pay a 12% iron ore extraction fee counted from the prime cost. The government seeks to link the extraction fee to the market price of iron ore.
More anti-oligarch legislation is in the works after Ukraine’s Security Council that meets on Fridays recently drew up a list of 13 oligarchs. The list itself has not been released but the Kyiv Post and local press report that both Akhmetov’s and Kolomoisky’s names are on it.
The list is the first stage in drawing up legislation to limit the oligarchs' influence and the Security Council is now developing new rules that would define the criteria of an oligarch and limit their influence, Zelenskiy said without giving any details.
“There will be no influence on politics, on state officials, on the media. The people who do it will get the label of an ‘oligarch.’ This will harm their assets abroad, decrease their value. They will be in this register (of oligarchs) and some sanctions will be applied to them.”
The one piece of information he did share was that a person who designated an oligarch will be barred from holding public office.
Akhmetov was a member of parliament until 2012 and was reported by Bihus.com to control some 200 deputies in the legislator. Kolomoisky is not a member of parliament but also reportedly controls dozens of deputies, as bne IntelliNews described in “The Oligarch Problem.“
"The figure of 200 members of parliament who are loyal to Mr Akhmetov came from a very low quality analysis of voting records in the Rada carried out by the site Bihus.com.," a spokesman for SCM said in an emailed comment to bne IntelliNews. "For example, if an MP voted in favour of EU or DCFTA compliant legislation in parliament, for example in the energy sector, they were then described as being loyal to Mr Akhmetov. This clearly is not evidence to suggest that these MPs have an association with SCM group, they are simply and independently voting for EU integration related legislation which is the mandate of the government and part of Ukraine’s treaty commitments. As you can imagine both SCM and many MPs refute this unfounded allegation."
Ironically Zelenskiy seems to be taking a leaf out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook, who early on in his first year in office held an oligarch meeting and proposed a pragmatic deal: “Keep what you have, but stop the stealing.” Notably oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky ignored the deal and ended up in jail for ten years.
“The law will give them time to re-adjust. There won’t be a dead end for them. This is a normal law that respects big business,” Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy didn’t give a direct answer to the question on whether the Security Council will issue sanctions against oligarchs Ihor Kolomoysky and Dmytro Firtash.
“You can expect many more interesting decisions from the Security Council,” he said, adding jokingly: “Watch our show every Friday.”
Correction: Previously this article said that Akhmetov was still a member of parliament, but he has not held a seat since 2012