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Analysis: Is Ukraine's Richest Man Also Its Future Prime Minister?

Akhmetov addressing voters in Donetsk (Ukrinform) In mid-February, 40-year-old Rynat Akhmetov -- one of Ukraine's richest men by virtue of his 90-percent stake in the Donetsk-based System Capital Management Corporation (SCM) -- was interviewed on his nationwide television station, TRK Ukrayina.

The interview was conducted by Raissa Bohaturova, a leading member of the Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovych, President Viktor Yushchenko's main rival in the 2004 presidential election. Bohaturova was elected to parliament in 2002 after Akhmetov, who had been considered a likely candidate, stepped aside, saying he did not wish to run for public office.

Things appear to have changed.

The TRK interview was, for many Ukrainians, the first opportunity to hear the usually reclusive billionaire describe his stance on a variety of subjects. The interview was widely watched throughout Ukraine, and established Akhmetov as a man with his own vision regarding the country's future.

Electoral Ambitions

Akhmetov's name is seventh on the Party of Regions' electoral list for the 26 March legislative vote. But the fact that his interview was televised nationally, rather than just in Ahmetov's native Donbas region, led some viewers to conclude Akhmetov sounded more like a candidate for prime minister than a man merely seeking a parliamentary seat.
Akhmetov's repeated assertions that a future Ukrainian government must be run by 'professionals' and promote 'economic growth' have only intensified speculation that the head of one of Ukraine's largest corporations might be persuaded to head up the country's new government.

Akhmetov denies he is seeking the premiership. But some of his comments during the interview could indicate otherwise.

“We need to form a government that cares about economic growth," Akhmetov told Bohaturova. "What does that mean? It means a government of professionals, a government which will take not only power, but responsibility, into its hands."

Akhmetov went on to define a strong Ukraine as one where the country is dependent upon neither Russia, the United States, nor the European Union. He was going into politics, he added, "in order to see Ukraine enrich itself, in order that there be no poor people in Ukraine. I want Ukraine to hold in its hands the trophy for being the best country in Europe."

Who Is Akhmetov?

Akhmetov, an ethnic Tatar and practising Muslim, was born in Donetsk in 1966. His father was a coal miner, and the family often lived in poverty. Akhmetov graduated from Donetsk State University with a degree in economics.

In 1996, Akhmetov took over the presidency of the Shakhtar football club in Donetsk after the murder of its owner, criminal boss Oleksandr Brahin. Around that time, he founded Donetsk City Bank, DonGorBank, and remains its majority shareholder.

In 2000 Akhmetov founded SCM, which rapidly became a very aggressive player in acquiring companies in the Donetsk region. Over the next few years, it took control of over 90 companies concentrated in the iron ore, coal, steel, and energy generation sectors. SCM also has interests in insurance and banking, food and beverage services, and hotels and hospitality.

The 'Business' Of Politics

Akhmetov's assets and personal fortune are sure to make him a major player in Ukrainian politics for years to come -- regardless of whether he becomes prime minister.

But his repeated assertions that a future Ukrainian government must be run by "professionals" and promote "economic growth" have only intensified speculation that the head of SCM -- one of Ukraine's largest corporations -- might be persuaded to head up the country's new government.

In the past year SCM has gone to extraordinary lengths to polish its image as a responsible, European-style corporation and overcome past rumors about reputed links to organized crime and unorthodox business methods.

In the summer of 2005, SCM launched a massive advertising campaign aimed at promoting the stature in Europe of Ukrainian businesses. Ads were featured in publications including the "Wall Street Journal Europe," "The Economist," the "Financial Times," and on television networks like CNN, EuroNews, and BBC World.

Seeking Nationwide Popularity

Akhmetov will need to do several things to succeed in extending his popularity beyond the Donetsk region. One is learn Ukrainian. Akhmetov grew up speaking Russian and only recently has hired a Ukrainian teacher to learn the language – an indication that, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, his political plans are broader then he admits.

Many observers also believe he will ultimately need to break ties with Party of Regions leader Yanukovych, his old friend and political ally.

This could be relatively simple. Yanukovych has no financial support base of his own, and relies on SCM and the Industrial Union of the Donbas for funding. Moreover, Yanukovych is seen by many Ukrainians as a former convict -- as a young man he was twice convicted of assault and battery -- and not fit to run for public office.

President Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc has reportedly discussed a possible coalition with the Party of Regions, but says it will not agree to Yanukovych becoming prime minister. It has, however, avoided such a categorical refusal regarding a similar deal with Akhmetov.