Jewish Oligarch Spends Millions on Militia To Hold Onto Ukraine Province

Igor Kolomoisky Intent on Keeping Dnipropetrovsk

By Gabriela Baczynska

Published May 23, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

(Reuters) — Ukrainian militia fighters who clashed with armed pro-Russian separatists on Friday are at the forefront of Kiev’s efforts to prevent the country splitting.

Co-funded by Igor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s richest men, they play a more assertive role than the unarmed miners and metalworkers working for another oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, who more recently spoke against the rebels.

Igor Kolomoisky
Igor Kolomoisky

At least two people were killed in Friday’s firefight involving the pro-Ukrainian ‘Donbass Battalion’ allied to Kolomoisky. The violence took place just two days before a presidential election the separatists have vowed to disrupt.

Kolomoisky, appointed governor of the eastern region of Dnipropetrovsk in March, has spent tens of millions of dollars, an aide said, to prevent his territory falling, like the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk further to the east, into separatist hands and being proclaimed autonomous “people’s republics”.

Among Ukraine’s five richest men, the 51-year-old has put a $10,000 bounty on the head of any Russian “saboteur” and has bought up weapons from people to help pacify the region.

With Kiev’s blessing, he is now seeking to expand his influence with an offensive to win back ground in the two neighboring regions, where the separatists have seized strategic public buildings and called for union with Russia.

The forces allied to him are already patrolling four western districts of the Donetsk region where he helped install pro-Ukrainian locals in governing roles and three more districts are expected to follow, according to his aides.

“CONSOLIDATING FACTOR”

“We are doing all this in agreement with the central government. We coordinate and cooperate with Kiev, they accept that we are influential as a consolidating factor in the east,” Kolomoisky’s deputy Borys Filatov told Reuters.

“Our goal is to knit the country back together,” said the 42-year-old lawyer and real-estate businessman after a meeting with voters in the Dnipropetrovsk region that represents some 7 percent of Ukraine’s population, with 3.3 million people.

Ukraine’s long-running political crisis escalated sharply in February when mass street protests toppled Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich and he fled to Russia. Moscow then grabbed Ukraine’s Crimea region after declaring Kiev’s interim authorities illegitimate and hostile to Russian speakers.

It remains unclear to what extent voters in the eastern regions will be able to take part in Sunday’s election.

In a sign of the trust Kiev now has in Kolomoisky and his political clout in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking south-east, his ally Igor Palitsa was named head of Odessa region and tasked with easing tensions after dozens were killed in clashes in the port city earlier in May.

Igor Bereza, a commander in Kolomoisky’s National Defense Force, said the force now has nearly 15,000 people, including some 2,000 combat-ready troops organized in four battalions.

The battalions still formally take orders from Ukraine’s army and law enforcement bodies but earn about twice as much as the average salary and are better equipped, he said.

Ukraine’s political crisis has shone a harsh spotlight on the parlous state of the ex-Soviet republic’s military forces.

“The problem is that there was never such a thing really as the Ukrainian army. Our top generals, most senior officers still do not see Ukraine as a truly separate and sovereign country,” said Bereza, more than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave Ukraine independence.

In Dnipropetrovsk, where Ukrainian yellow-and-blue national flags are seen all around the city of one million people, there is much less tension than in and around Donetsk, but Bereza’s men feel the deadly gravity of Ukraine’s predicament.

“I thought the war was long over for me, it’s still hard to believe we are fighting on our own soil,” said Oleksandr Rybich, who served in Afghanistan in the Soviet army in 1980s, and now mans the Bratske check-point outside Dnipropetrovsk.

OLIGARCHS AT ODDS

Many in Dnipropetrovsk compare Kolomoisky favorably with Ukraine’s richest man, Akhmetov, who is based in Donetsk where he owns steel mills and coal mines. Akhmetov kept a diplomatic silence as separatists took control of the city.

Kolomoisky, who is a senior figure within Ukraine’s Jewish community, co-owns the country’s largest lender Privatbank.

Belatedly, Akhmetov condemned the separatists this week and ordered his workers to join daily protests to register their opposition to the separatists who have seized public buildings and other key sites in several cities and towns.

“We were just lucky to get a better oligarch,” said Yevgeny Khapatko, a 24-year-old self-defense member at the Bratske spot. “Much of Kolomoisky’s business is here, he is trying to protect that. Akhmetov has stronger ties with Russia. In the end he has overplayed his hand.”

In Donetsk, where many accept Moscow’s line that Kiev is now ruled by dangerous nationalists bent on making Russian speakers second-class citizens, Kolomoisky is viewed very differently.

“Before all these events, I thought Kolomoisky was a normal businessman. Now Kolomoisky has taken a pro-Nazi, pro-fascist stance that I cannot understand,” said Nikolai Zagoruyko, head of the Party of the Regions faction in Donetsk’s regional parliament.

“He is financing mercenaries … He and Kiev will tear the country apart,” added Zagoruyko, whose party was once led by the ousted president Yanukovich.

“Akhmetov and other businessmen in the Donetsk region sought to distance themselves from all this, to prevent the conflict and the violence,” he said.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.