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Ukrainian Tycoon Takes Russia To Court Over Seized Crimean Assets

Ihor Kolomoyskiy

A Ukrainian oligarch fleeced of assets in Crimea valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars is taking Russia to court in the quixotic hope of recouping a tiny fraction of those losses.

Ihor Kolomoyskiy says he was unfairly deprived of his right to operate a civilian airport in Crimea after Russia illegally annexed the peninsula in March 2014.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague announced on January 7 that it had agreed to review the claim, which Kolomoyskiy filed one year ago with the world's oldest institution for the arbitration and resolution of disputes involving states.

Kolomoyskiy's company -- Aeroport Belbek LLC -- had a contract to operate a passenger terminal at Crimea's Sevastopol International Airport until 2020. Kolomoyskiy wants Russia to compensate him for an estimated $15 million in losses, according to Ukrainian media reports.

But whether the Ukrainian billionaire -- who has business interests in the banking, energy, media, aviation, and metals sectors -- will get his day in court is far from clear.

Moscow says the court has no jurisdiction over the matter and that it will not participate in proceedings, according to a statement by the court.

Kolomoyskiy is no friend of the Kremlin. While governor of the industrial Dnipropetrovsk region, he took a firm stand against pro-Russia separatism by arming and bankrolling local militia groups and volunteer battalions.

Bad Court Experience

The PCA will first decide if it does, in fact, have jurisdiction to hear the case.

Russia's only encounter with the court to date ended badly for Moscow.

In 2014, the PCS ruled that the Kremlin must pay $50 billion in compensation to former shareholders of the defunct Yukos oil company.

Kolomoyskiy's claim has cast a spotlight on the blatant asset grab by the Russian authorities in Crimea after the peninsula's seizure.

Shortly thereafter, all assets belonging to the Ukrainian state -- from shipyards and oil rigs to health resorts -- were openly expropriated by Crimea's regional government, now part of the Russian Federation. Others were simply seized by armed men, sometimes claiming to possess official decrees, which were never published, or no documentation at all.

Early targets included Ukraine's Chornomornaftogaz, the oil and gas company that was seized and handed over to a Crimean-run enterprise bearing the same name.

The legendary Soviet-era summer camp Artek, and the Massandra, Noviy Svet, and Magarch vineyards figured prominently among the other assets that were pilfered.

Russian authorities in Crimea said in February that "about" 260 properties on the peninsula had been nationalized.

However, officials in Kyiv put the figure much higher.

On the first anniversary of Russia's takeover of Crimea, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said Russia had illegally taken control over more than 400 Ukrainian enterprises in Crimea and seized 18 gas fields.

"It was Russia that, using weapons, committed a holdup on Ukraine and nationalized dozens of Ukraine's state-owned facilities," Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in March. "We are talking not about billions, but about hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars."

Even that total, however, is likely much higher if the stolen assets of private firms are factored in.

In a preliminary estimate, Ukraine's Justice Ministry told AP in December 2014 that around 4,000 enterprises, organizations, and agencies had had their property expropriated.

Kolomoyskiy and his businesses were among the big losers.


The authorities in Crimea seized 100 of his properties, including all Crimean branches of PrivatBank, which he co-founded in 1992 and which is the largest commercial bank in Ukraine.

Andrey Sambros, a political analyst and independent journalist from Simferopol, wrote in March 2015, that the "Crimean government has used nationalization to target political enemies."

Sambros noted that while Kolomoyskiy was a clear victim, he was not alone.

Serhiy Taruta, a multimillionaire tycoon and former governor of the Donetsk region, also lost his holdings in Crimea, including the Ayvazovskoye park and palace.

Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man with large industrial holdings in separatist-controlled Donbas, was stripped of the Crimean branch of Ukrtelecom, Ukraine's largest landline telephone company, in February 2015.

Kolomoyskiy's seized assets are proving to be a headache for the new authorities in Crimea.

Russian-installed Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov said on December 28 that few potential buyers were showing interest in the properties, apparently, he mused, because of the sanctions imposed by the West after Crimea's annexation by Russia.

"Big players, unfortunately, do not want to have direct dealings on the territory of the republic due to the sanctions regime,” Askyonov was quoted as saying by the TASS news agency.

Aksyonov noted that an auction to sell of Kolomoyskiy's former Foros health spa had to be cancelled because there were no bidders.

Aksyonov's government has assessed the value of the 65-hectare facility on Crimea's southern coast at $20 million, far below its believed value.

Undaunted, Aksyonov said the auction would take place in late January.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.