Two years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s initiation of the war in Donbas, the peace process in Ukraine is at a standstill. Moreover, there are fears that after a pullout from Syria, Moscow may mount a new offensive in Ukraine (Segodnya.ua, March 18). On the other hand, if Moscow decides to back away from all-out confrontation with the West, a détente in eastern Ukraine could plausibly follow a U-turn on Syria. If so, the replacement by Moscow of its puppets in Donetsk and Luhansk with somebody more acceptable to the West and Kyiv would be logical. It has been speculated that steel tycoon Rinat Akhmetov and the leader of the Opposition Bloc (OP) in Ukraine’s parliament, Yury Boyko, might replace Moscow appointees Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky in Donetsk and Luhansk, respectively.
The weekly Zerkalo Nedeli has reported, citing an anonymous source, that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko approved an idea of Viktor Medvedchuk, a mediator in the peace talks who is linked to Vladimir Putin, that Akhmetov and Boyko should become the new heads of Donetsk and Luhansk. Poroshenko discussed this with Akhmetov and Boyko, who gave their preliminary consent, according to the paper (Zerkalo Nedeli, March 11). Ukrainska Pravda later cited a source from Poroshenko’s administration, who confirmed that talks with Akhmetov and Boyko took place. The source also said that Akhmetov, not Medvedchuk, was behind the idea of himself replacing Zakharchenko, and that US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland backed it (Ukrainska Pravda, March 12).
Akhmetov and Boyko have neither confirmed nor denied these reports. Akhmetov’s press service issued an evasive statement saying, that it would not comment on rumors, while stressing that Akhmetov would do his utmost to stop the war. The government should be decentralized, and Donbas should remain part of Ukraine, said the statement (Interfax, March 12). Judging by official declarations, this vision is shared in Kyiv, Moscow, Washington and Brussels. Boyko has been no less evasive, dodging questions about the purported talks with Poroshenko even from his close allies, according to a people’s deputy from the OP, Tetyana Bakhteyeva (Ostro.org, March 16).
Akhmetov and Boyko used to be among the leaders of the kleptocratic elite that had ruled Ukraine until February 2014, when the then-president and head of the Party of Regions, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia as the EuroMaidan revolution was heating up. After that, their party was transformed into the OP. Both men have played rather controversial roles throughout modern Ukrainian history. Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest businessman for many years, was rumored to have had links to the underworld in the 1990s. In 2014, when most Ukrainian oligarchs sided with Kyiv against Russian aggression, he took an ostensibly neutral position. Boyko, as energy minister and deputy prime minister under Yanukovych in 2006–2007 and 2010–2014, has for years had to fend off allegations that he bought drilling rigs for Ukraine to extract gas from the Black Sea from a fictitious firm based in Latvia at an inflated price (see EDM, January 28, 2013).
Despite these controversies, the two men have been popular in Donetsk and Luhansk, where appointees from Kyiv have often been scorned and rejected. To start with, both are natives of the region. Akhmetov has for years been the main local employer: his steel mills and coal mines are the backbone of the regional economy. While there has been widespread perception locally that Kyiv abandoned the region, especially since Kyiv has mounted an economic blockade against the rebel-held areas, many needy locals have been surviving arguably thanks to humanitarian assistance linked to Akhmetov.
Meanwhile, Boyko would perform relatively well in a presidential election, mainly thanks to his popularity in his native region, according to recent opinion polls. But his and Akhmetov’s OP is even more popular. According to the most recent poll by KMIS, it has leapfrogged even the Poroshenko Bloc, becoming the most popular party after former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland (Ukraine-elections.com.ua, accessed on March 18). Local elections last fall demonstrated that the OP has no rivals in the government-held areas in Donetsk and Luhansk, and this political party and Akhmetov’s people won elections for both the mayor and local councils in Mariupol (Mariupil), the biggest city in the area not controlled by Moscow-sponsored rebels (Depo.ua, November 15; UNIAN, December 2).
Naturally, the warlords in Donetsk and Luhansk do not want to go. Commenting on the rumor about Akhmetov and Boyko, Zakharchenko said he saw no future for oligarchs, while Plotnitsky bragged that he would arrest Boyko if he crosses the division line (Lugansk1.info, March 12; Regnum, March 15). However, Moscow is unlikely to ask Zakharchenko and Plotnisky’s opinions if their replacement is on the agenda. After all, the two were installed in their positions by Moscow in August 2014, and have been backed with money and weapons ever since.
It is a big question if Poroshenko would agree to the appointments of his bitter rivals Akhmetov and Boyko to top positions in the rebel areas. First, the political establishment, nationalists, and especially anti-corruption activists in the rest of Ukraine would be unlikely to accept that. Second, Poroshenko has already had enough problems with a regional oligarch roughly on a par with Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoysky, who was entrusted his native Dnipropetrovsk province in March 2014 (see EDM, March 6, 2014). Poroshenko had to fire Kolomoysky last year for trying, as had been widely expected, to convert his political clout into economic dividends (see EDM, April 1, 2015). A sudden about-face by Poroshenko regarding Akhmetov and Boyko, regardless of whether or not Moscow cooperated or acquiesced, could thus create serious domestic backlash against the Ukrainian government.