This is part 1 of VICE News' guide to Ukraine's oligarchs.
Shark tanks, underground swimming pools, deluxe cars, a Qatari prime minister as a next-door neighbor and friends in diamond-dealing Russian mafia gangs: Ukraine's oligarchs, notorious for their dodgy deals and criminal associates, are a hardy bunch born from the ruins of the Soviet Union, and they know how to live in style. But now, as Ukraine finds itself center stage in a geopolitical tug-of-war between East and West, its elite class are facing the toughest challenge of their careers as they attempt to navigate the crisis with all their assets intact. Our who's-who guide to Ukraine's oligarchs brings you the down low on who's setting up a private army, who's doing double-cross backroom deals, and who looks set to go from hero to zero.
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Rinat Akhmetov, owner of Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club, and then-president Viktor Yushchenko at a reception to honour the team in 2009. Image via Reuters
Name: Rinat Leonidovych Akhmetov
Born: September 21 1966, Donetsk Oblast
Net worth: $12.2 billion*
Background & Business Dealings:
Rinat Akhmetov — owner of London's most expensive home, a deluxe £136.4 million ($221 million) penthouse property in London's One Hyde Park — came from humble origins. His mother was a shop assistant and his father a miner. Both were Muslim Tatars, an ethnic minority in Ukraine.
The media shy multi-billionaire began massing his fortune during the lawless early 1990s as entrepreneurs vied to construct a new financial order from the ruins of the Soviet Union. Yet, despite the era's culture of dog-eat-dog gangsterism, Akhmetov claims he made his fortunes on lucky gambles alone. "I earned my first million by trading coal and coke, and spent the money on assets that no one wanted to buy. It was a risk but it was worth it," Ukrainian media has reported him as saying.
Others, however, claim the oligarch's big break came in 1995 when his mentor, Akhat Bragin, was killed along with six of his bodyguards in a mysterious bombing. A Donetsk police chief, Vyacheslav Synenko was convicted in for murdering Bragin in 2005 after confessing that he committed the crime whilst working for a rival mob, but the former law enforcer later protested his innocence in jail. Akhmetov is said to have inherited a vast financial empire from his dead business partner, an alleged mobster, including Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club — which was recently renovated by the steel and coal giant to host games during the Euro 2012 soccer tournament.
Under the governments of Viktor Yanukovych — the corrupt pro-Russian president ousted by the Maidan protests in February 2014 — Akhmetov's businesses flourished exponentially.
A member of Yanukovych's Party of the Regions and himself a parliamentarian from 2001 to 2006, the billionaire is reported to have used a system of patronage to exert considerable influence over several deputies in the house. According to Bloomberg, after helping fund the former-president's election campaign in 2010 Akhmetov won five government auctions for some of the country's biggest thermal and power generators and distributors — boosting his wealth by $3 billion in six months.
Investigative journalists in Ukraine have repeatedly fingered Akhmetov in shadowy connections with the criminal underworld and backroom deal-making, but the oligarch has strongly denied and even sued over the allegations. A 1999 report by the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs identified the billionaire as the potential participant in an organized crime syndicate linked to money laundering, financial fraud and numerous fictitious companies, but later but noted it had not been possible to tie him directly to the ring. In a leaked 2006 cable, then US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, called the Party of the Regions a "haven for Donetsk-based mobsters and oligarchs" and named Akhmetov as the "godfather" of the clan.
Following the Orange Revolution in 2004 the oligarch reportedly fled from Ukraine to Monaco to avoid a newly-opened investigation into his alleged involvement in organized crime and a murder, but later returned to the country after all the charges were dropped.
Role in the Conflict:
Before the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis Akhmetov was the undisputed King of the East, controlling the region's lucrative mining industry and dominating the political sphere via his patronage of Yankovych's Party of the Regions. Now, with his political cronies lying low or hiding out in Russia and his bid to play kingmaker between the separatists and government in the east failed, the oligarch, himself living in exile in Kiev, has found his business interests under threat and friends in the capital few and far between.
In the early days of the east Ukraine conflict Akhmetov called for "calm" and "compromise" whilst engaging in behind-the-scene negotiations with the leaders of the separatist movement in a bid to quell the unrest. But the break-down of talks in the build-up to Ukraine's presidential election forced the once-most-powerful man in Donetsk to flee his heartland when armed men and supporters of the separatist movement surrounded his deluxe gated-house on the outskirts of the city.
Driven out of his home, the east's coal giant has now thrown his weight, and money, behind Kiev, calling for a united Ukraine and even accusing the separatists of "genocide" in the conflict zone. But whilst Akhmetov has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars sending more than 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid to people internally displaced by the fighting, the oligarch has stopped short of directly financing Ukraine's military operations in the region.
The attempts to pin his colors to the mast of a united Ukraine have met with a mixed response from his critics. Some say the beleaguered oligarch's lukewarm efforts at crushing the rebellion are at best too little too late, and worst point to a failed double-cross bid to play the separatists off against Kiev to increase his leverage over the new government.
Notably, unlike Sergey Taruta, a fellow oligarch and the governor of Donetsk, Akhmetov's private property has not been looted by the rebels, indicating some form of deal was struck. Further fuel was added to the fires of speculation about the billionaire's involvement with the rebels when separatist leader Pavel Gubarev alleged to a Russian newspaper that Akhmetov had helped bankroll the uprising. The coal tycoon, however, retorted that he had not given a "cent" to the rebels and claimed he was the victim of a smear campaign.
Certainly, Akhmetov's seemingly dithering response may also be explained by his business investments. While the majority of the billionaire's wealth is tied up in coal and steel mines in Ukraine's east, his business is also heavily dependent on the lucrative iron ore assets he owns further west. Aligning himself too closely with Kiev and its western allies means incurring the wrath of Russia and the authorities of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, who recently threatened to nationalize his assets. However, failing to oppose the separatists also poses a risk to his business interests, which could end up stranded in a lawless and hostile territory, or even worse being swallowed up by more powerful and wealthy Russian oligarchs.
Verdict: Balancing on a tightrope wire
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Dmytro Firtash and Yanukovych at an opening ceremony for a sulphuric acid plant in Crimea, in April 2012. Image via Reuters
Name: Dmytro Vasylovych Firtash
Born: May 2 1965, Dnipropetrovsk
Net Worth: $500 million**
Multimillionaire and gas giant Dmitry Firtash owns a London property near Harrods complete with an underground swimming pool and a collection of deluxe cars. But the swanky lifestyle of the oligarch — who reputedly has ties to Semion Moglivech, a diamond-dealing Ukrainian-born Russian mobster on the FBI's "10 most-wanted" list — is a long way from his formative years which he spent at Krasnolimansk Railway Vocation School learning how to shovel coal onto a boiler and drive steam trains.
Like most men of his generation, after finishing school Firtash completed compulsory military service in the army of the USSR before finding work as a fireman. But when the Soviet Union disintegrated, the young entrepreneur quickly gave up a dangerous career dousing flames to capitalize on the newly opened up opportunities in trade.
Basing himself in Moscow's Rossiya — at the time Europe's largest hotel — he traded everything from bed sheets to dried fruit and at aged just 24 made a deal worth between $200,000 and $250,000 swapping dried milk and canned goods for cotton in Uzbekistan.
Soon, however, the ambitious young businessman progressed from a small time commodities dealer to a key player in the cross-border supply of natural gas. In the mid-2000s, seemingly out of thin air, Firtash gained control of the shadowy Eural TransGas. A suspected front for the state-controlled Russian gas giant Gazprom, the Hungarian-based company reportedly won a lucrative contract to act as the intermediary in transportation of natural gas worth as much as $1 billion from Turkmenistan to Ukraine just 24 hours after being established.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Firtash alludes to a prior barter deal with Turkmenistan's government, which gave him access to gas in return for forgiveness of a overdue flour and oil debt. Many, however, suspect that the oligarch was not acting alone, but as a front man for the crime-boss Semion Moglivech, whose gang has been connected to prostitution rings, trafficking in nuclear weapons and materials, and money laundering, in addition to dealing in precious gems.
In 2004, EuralTransGas was superseded by RosUkrEnergo, a company established in a deal between Ukraine's then-prime minister Lenoid Kuchma and his Russian counterpart Vladmir Putin. Like its predecessor RosUkrEnergo — effectively half owned by the Kremlin via Gazprom — quickly hit gas gold, securing an exclusive deal to act as the sole middleman in the transit of the resource into Ukraine, not only from Turkmenistan but also from Russia and other Central Asian countries.
Moscow repeatedly denied knowing who owned the other fifty percent stake share in RosUkrEnergo, at its peak worth $800 million per year. But investigations that burrowed through a deep paper trail eventually revealed familiar faces. Through CentraGas Holding, a private holdings company based in Austria, the remaining fifty percent of the RosUkrEnergo was owned by two Ukrainian businessmen — Dimitry Firtash, with a 45 percent stake, and Ivan Fursin with five percent.
In 2009, RosUkrEnergo's monopoly on gas supply to Ukraine was brought to an abrupt halt when then-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko ended a gas crisis — which saw Russia shut off supplies to its neighbor and parts of Europe in the depths of winter — by signing a new deal with Gazprom's chief in Ukraine, Alexei Miller, which cut out Firtash as a middleman.
That was the start of a deep and bitter rivalry between the two oligarchs and, in 2011, under Yanukovych's pro-Russia government with which Firtash has boasted of having close ties, Tymoshenko was sentenced to 7 years in prison for her involvement in the deal, in a case the West described as "politically motivated."
As well as his murky dealings in gas, Firtash also owns 61 percent of Inter Media, which has an 18 percent share of Ukraine's television audience.
Role in the Conflict:
Just over two weeks after Yanukovych was ousted from power by the Maidan revolution, the gas oligarch was detained on a FBI arrest warrant in Austria, where he had fled as the pro-Russia government crumbled.
According to the US Department of Justice (DoJ), the charges, which relate to bribery and criminal conspiracy in an Indian titanium deal, are the work of eight years of investigation. Despite the timing of the arrest — just days before an illegal referendum was held on Crimea's secession from Ukraine, a move which prompted US and EU sanctions against 30 Russian and pro-Russia businessmen — the US DoJ has claimed it was not "related to [the] recent events in Ukraine."
Some commentators have speculated that the case against Firtash was not only an attempt to set an example to other oligarchs, but an bid by the US to pressure him into revealing insider information on the murky financial dealings of Putin's inner circle.
Nonetheless, the oligarch is far from on his knees. One the largest employers in Ukraine, his businesses pay the wages of at least 100,000 people — a fact of which Firtash, who is also president of Ukraine's Federation of Employers, has been keen to remind the country's new cash-starved government.
Indeed, while many of Firtash's traditional allies in the Party of the Regions have either fled Ukraine or are lying low, the gas giant — who according to the New York Times had his record $170 million bail posted by Russian oligarch Vasily Anisimov — even moved to realign his political allegiances when he was still under arrest.
Just days after his release, Firtash hosted a meeting at a luxury hotel in Vienna attended by Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's so-called Chocolate King, and Vitali Klitschko, the boxer-turned-politician, in a swanky hotel in Vienna. In the behind-closed-doors session the oligarch reportedly helped broker a deal cementing a political allegiance between Poroshenko and Klitschko — now Ukraine's president and the mayor of Kiev respectively — and offered to support the duo's electoral bid with positive coverage of their campaigns on his Inter television channel.
The gas millionaire's former allies are also remobilizing. Several of his cronies are running in the upcoming parliamentary elections under the umbrella opposition block. Number one of the party's list is none other than the oligarch's old-time associate, Yuriy Boyko, the former vice president of Ukraine and chairman of Naftogaz.
Verdict: Down but not out
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Ihor Kolomoisky, billionaire and governor of the Dnipropetrovsk, at his regional government headquarters in May 2014. Image via Reuters
Name: Ihor Valeriyovych Kolomoisky
Born: February 16 1963, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast
Net Worth: $1.6 billion USD*
Background & Business Dealings:
Nicknamed Bonifatsiy — due to his uncanny resemblance to the central character in a Soviet-era animated film about the adventures of a circus lion — Jewish oligarch Khalomoisky is the co-founder and lead partner of Ukrainian bank Privat, with substantial investments in the oil industry.
The oil and banking tycoon, who has long controlled a private quasi-military army to enforce his dodgy deals and reportedly has a tank of sharks in his private office, is well known for his tough approach to business. During the early 2000s, Kolomoisky and Gennadiy Bogolyuov, his business partner and co-founder of PrivatBank, gained a reputation as corporate bandits for orchestrating a series of hostile takeovers, earning them the nickname "The Raiders." At least some of these schemes were physically enforced. In one instance, according to Forbes, hired rowdies wielding baseball bats, iron bars, chainsaws, and rubber bullet pistols helped the oligarch duo forcibly take ownership of a steel plant. Other underhand tactics reportedly used by the pair include phoney court orders, bribing the judiciary and using strong-arm tactics to replace board directors.
Attempts to export the heavy-handed methods abroad, however, have met with greater resistance. During a court case in London involving an attempted hostile takeover of an oil company, a British judge described the oligarch as having a reputation for trying to take control of companies "at gunpoint" and agreed with the defendants that there were "strong grounds for doubting (his) honesty."
While Kolomoisky has never been overtly political, the oligarch has recently been linked to several influential figures and groups, including Our Ukraine, the party of the post-Orange Revolution President, Viktor Yushchenko, and Tymoshenko, the so-called Gas Princess. Most recently he was rumored to have connections to the election campaign of Klitschko's UDAR — a link the party has denied.
Another source of political influence for the banking tycoon has come from his investment in media outlets, including the influential 1+1 Media Group, which controls eight Ukrainian television channels and has an 11 percent in-country market share.
Finally, if all this wasn't enough, the wily Kolomoisky has also admitted that he has circumvented laws banning dual citizenship for Ukrainians by taking a hat trick of passports, with documents from Israel and Cyprus as well as his native country.
Role in the Conflict:
He describes himself as a "die-hard European" and has not limited his battles against Moscow to verbal assaults. Drawing on his private army and bankrolling so-called volunteer battalions, the Jewish billionaire has not only crushed pro-Russian sentiment in his city with an iron fist, but has financed the recruitment and arming of thousands of patriotic young men to fight for a united Ukraine, including Dnipro 1, a battalion that now has at least 2,000 gunmen at its disposal.
The oil oligarch, who recently opened a new television channel Ukraine Today with the aim of countering Russian propaganda, has also offered a $10,000 bounty for captured pro-Russia militants and $1,500 per seized Kalashnikov. He has also announced a plan to build an electrified fence along a 1,200-mile stretch of the Ukraine-Russia border, though that has yet to come to fruition.
But in a country where money and politics go hand-in-hand, the hardman's endeavors are unlikely to be sheer philanthropy. The oligarch's PrivatBank has reportedly been struggling for some time and will doubtless benefit from money being pumped into Ukraine's economy by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, loans which are de facto dependent on stabilizing the country and keeping it outside Russia's sphere of influence. With thousands of armed men now loyal to him, Kolomoisky also has considerable leverage over Kiev, which owes him a heavy debt — his financial contributions to Ukraine's war efforts have been estimated at a whopping $10 million per month.
Verdict: Carving out a new niche as a warlord
* Net worth on day of writing according to Forbes' real time net worth of the world's billionaires
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem