Does Kolomoisky’s exit signal start of real crackdown against oligarchs?
Igor Kolomoisky was dismissed as governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in the early hours of March 25.
Shortly after noon the same day, the head of Ukraine’s Emergencies Services, Serhiy Bochkovsky, and his deputy, were handcuffed on suspicion of corruption in the middle of a Cabinet meeting. The scene was broadcast live on national television. The two officials are suspected of taking kickbacks from the purchase of fuel at exorbitant prices.
Is the nation witnessing the rule of law finally taking root? Is this a power play? Or are these merely public relations stunts?
Some observers have said that Kolomoisky’s resignation may indicate President Petro Poroshenko’s increased clout in collaboration with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to get rid of the tycoon’s influence.
The resignation followed the passage by parliament last week of a bill depriving the oligarch of his de facto control of state-owned oil and gas extractor Ukrnafta. At the same time, the government removed a Kolomoisky protégé as head of oil pipeline operator Ukrtransnafta.
Kolomoisky responded by sending armed men to both companies while exploding in a curse-laden tirade at journalists.
Observers say the future will show whether Kolomoisky’s resignation and Bochkovsky’s arrest were a cheap show intended to impress the public and the West or a demonstration of genuine political will. A lot will depend on the whether suspects are successfully prosecuted, and whether the government cleans up state-owned companies and reduces the influence oligarchs have on them.
Viktoria Syumar, a lawmaker from Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front party, told the Kyiv Post that the most qualified, independent people should run state companies. They should be hired through a transparently competitive process, and possibly be Western executives. Others maintain that the firms should be privatized at transparent auctions – a measure for which Poroshenko has recently pushed.
Another crucial issue is whether Kolomoisky’s resignation will have implications for other oligarchs, including Rinat Akhmetov, Viktor Pinchuk, Dmytro Firtash and Konstyantyn Grigorishin, among others.
The tycoons have dominated Ukraine’s political and economic life for most of its nearly 24 years as an independent state. “Nobody doubts that Kolomoisky is an oligarch but he’s definitely not the only one and he’s a pro-Ukrainian oligarch,” Syumar says.
Some argue that Kolomoisky’s amicable exit from his job is an indication that some kind of agreement had been reached with the president.
Another theory is that Poroshenko – himself a billionaire oligarch – was motivated not by the interests of the state but by his own business in his struggle with Kolomoisky. Last week the former governor accused some of the president’s allies, including Poroshenko Bloc lawmaker Ihor Kononenko, of installing a loyal associate at the helm of Ukrtransnafta.
Kolomoisky’s resignation also prompted a debate over the extent of his influence over Yatsenyuk and his allies, who have often been accused of being in the oligarch’s pocket. Yatsenyuk’s faction, however, voted with Poroshenko’s to pass the Ukrnafta bill, suggesting that claims of Kolomoisky’s influence over Yatsenyuk were greatly exaggerated.
Syumar denied that Kolomoisky was financing her party and said that Yatsenyuk “supported the Ukrainian state’s interests in the dispute.”
“We should divide the business story and the political one. Politically, we support (Kolomoisky) in what he was doing, in his efforts to help volunteer battalions,” she says, adding that they did not support Kolomoisky as a businessman.
The oligarch has been praised for turning Dnipropetrovsk Oblast into a bulwark against pro-Kremlin separatists last year. He succeeded in those efforts far better than former Donetsk Oblast Governor Serhiy Taruta and Odesa Oblast Governor Ihor Palytsya, Syumar says.
The Kolomoisky saga may also have repercussions for the fate of volunteer battalions, some of which have been accused of being his “private army.”
He has reportedly financed the Dnipro, Azov and Donbas battalions, which are part of the Interior Ministry, and also has links to the Right Sector’s military unit, which has no legal status, and Dnipropetrovsk-based private security firm Sich.
Pavlo Kishkar, a combatant in the Donbas battalion turned lawmaker from the Samopomich party, denied by phone that there were any links between his unit and Kolomoisky, however.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has argued that Kolomoisky does not have much sway with the battalions now, and they have been firmly incorporated by his ministry. Meanwhile, Security Service head Valentyn Nalyvaichenko said on March 25 that all “illegal” military units, including those in Donbas and in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, should be disarmed. The statements were likely a reference to the Right Sector and Sich, the security firm.
Serhiy Bochkovsky, head of the State Emergency Service (C), being arrested by a police officer at a Cabinet meeting on March 25. (kmu.gov.ua)