Billionaire Akhmetov's empire on the line in Ukraine

2014-05-14 19:44
Fierce fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia protesters in Mariupol killed seven people. (Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP)

Fierce fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia protesters in Mariupol killed seven people. (Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP)

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Mariupol - Shaken by deadly violence last week, residents in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol are now patrolling the streets - with a big dose of help from billionaire powerbroker Rinat Akhmetov.

"The public was terrified and the police demoralised," 39-year-old Yury Zinchenko said of the atmosphere in the normally placid port city after clashes on Friday that ended with seven people killed and dozens injured.

"There was a lot of looting of shops, car theft, chaos, a feeling of a power void," he told AFP. "We had to react."

Zinchenko is the director of the Ilyich Steel metallurgical factory, a huge regional company that is part of Akhmetov's Metinvest industrial empire.

Akhmetov is Ukraine's richest man and an influential force in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have vowed to break away.

He has kept to the middle ground in Ukraine's escalating crisis, making few public statements as violence has raged between government troops and the pro-Moscow rebels in his industrial stronghold.

But after the Mariupol clashes Metinvest stepped forward to help, saying it would work with local police to "defend civilians from looters and criminals".

The Ilyich factory, which employs 30 000 people, then recruited men to help bring order to the city after the mayhem that left dead bodies lying in the streets and buildings gutted from fire.

"It's completely legal. Our people patrol together with the police, they don't carry weapons," Zinchenko said.

"Already the looting has stopped and there are no more armed men in the city. The situation is much calmer."

Patrols of about a dozen men were seen this week strolling through the streets side-by-side with police officers, recognisable by their jackets emblazoned with the factory name.

Similar patrols will be formed in other cities in the Donetsk region where Akhmetov owns factories, Zinchenko said.

The factory has also helped police in Mariupol with purchases of petrol after their headquarters was destroyed in a blaze.

Ilyich, named after Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, is the main employer in the Azov Sea port city of 500 000 and the entire region.

"We love our country, we are for a united Ukraine. We are patriots," Zinchenko said, as two yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags flew in the wind by the entrance to the company's offices.

$11bn fortune 

Akhmetov, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine at more than $11bn, is a key figure for the regional economy. Mariupol's Ilyich plant alone provides 25% of the Donetsk region's budget in tax payments.

Careful to keep all his options open, Akhmetov has walked a fine line between Kiev's new pro-West authorities and the pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine.

Akhmetov has vouched support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and is helping restore order in Mariupol, but he has also met with separatist leaders and demanded that Kiev put a stop to the military operation against them.

He has good reason to be careful. Separatists have asked Moscow to annex the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk and it is unclear what impact that would have on Akhmetov's assets there or whether he is likely to make allies with any potential separatist government.

Separatist newspaper Voice of the People has not been kind to Akhmetov, whose holdings range from energy to Ukraine's national phone operator Ukrtelekom, denouncing "oligarch vampires" in the region and calling for an end to "Nazi-oligarch gangland" in Ukraine.

Reports have said that he is financing separatist groups, but Akhmetov - the epitome for many of the oligarchs who made vast fortunes after the Soviet collapse with questionable methods - has denied this, also insisting he has no plans to sell his Ukrainian assets.

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