Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, normally prefers shadows to sunlight. But that's changed in the past week, with a series of strikes and noisy protests calling for the ouster of pro-Russian separatists from his native Donetsk.
In the latest demonstration on May 20, the billionaire called on Donetsk residents to stage daily protests until the self-declared "Donetsk People's Republic," the driving force behind the May 11 self-rule referendum, was eliminated.
Akhmetov's sudden description of separatists as "bandits and looters" is in full keeping with concerns expressed in Kyiv, which feared Ukraine was preparing to lose its eastern flank to Russia, and had staged numerous "antiterrorist operations" in an effort to prevent it.
But the sentiment was somewhat surprising coming from a man who is widely believed to have been one of the separatists' primary funders. Pavel Gubarev, the self-styled governor of the "people's republic," asserted that Akhmetov, whose personal fortune is estimated at $11 billion, provided up to two-thirds
of the movement's operational funds. (Akhmetov denied the claim.)
Ivan Lozowy, a Kyiv-based political analyst, says it is "impossible" that a figure like Akhmetov -- who enjoys near-complete authority over law enforcement, local government, and the entire working population in the Donbas region -- would allow any activity on his territory, separatist or otherwise, that he did not personally profit from.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (left) and Rinat Akhmetov attend Shakhtar Donetsk UEFA Champions League group-stage match against Arsenal in Donetsk in November 2010.
He says Akhmetov -- together with Oleksandr Yefremov, a Party of Regions bigwig in neighboring Luhansk, a region with its own separatist movement -- have used the threat of breakaway territories to prevent the new guard in Kyiv from undermining their king-like status in the east.
"Because they fear for their livelihood following a mass uprising and revolution which overthrew the ruling elite, these local satraps or chieftains try to carve out a territory for themselves, so separatism was part of their agenda," Lozowy says. "Now that the separatist movement is faltering very seriously and is, I believe, headed for collapse, Akhmetov has simply come out and quickly changed sides, and announced that he's against the separatists. 'What are these people doing here?'"
'Vive Le Statu Quo!'
Separatists in both Luhansk and Donetsk claimed massive support in their May 11 referendums. But since then, the temperature has cooled, with Moscow refusing to openly endorse the results and Russian troops stepping back from the Ukrainian border.
Enthusiasm in the separatist ranks has dimmed to the degree that Igor Girkin, who leads pro-Russian actions in Slovyansk, recently issued a video rant
describing the men of Donetsk as weak and feckless, and asking local women to step up in their place. The separatists, Lozowy says, "are standing on a precipice."
Some observers have suggested that Akhmetov, who owes much of his wealth to a healthy export business in Russia, may be following the Kremlin's lead in turning off the separatists' tap. The oligarch may also be looking to protect his interests in the West, and protect himself from an Interpol warrant, by capitulating to growing irritation among EU and U.S. officials over the Ukraine crisis.
Yet another theory posits that Akhmetov has called off the dogs because he's received the assurance he's wanted all along -- that Donbas's richest oligarch will remain Donbas's richest oligarch.
"Akhmetov finally woke up," says Oleksiy Matsuka, the editor of the "Novosti Donbassa" news site. "Maybe it was hearing the explosions during the government antiterrorist operations that did the trick, or something else. But you also can't rule out the possibility that his blackmail was successful in getting what he wanted -- a degree of decentralization, full control of the region, and guarantees of his own personal safety. That's why we're beginning to see some concrete actions."