The uncrowned king of the Donbas, Renat Akhmetov, may be in serious trouble. Though Akhmetov has not been formally charged with any crime yet, Kyiv investigators do not conceal that they want to see him behind bars for an attempted murder in the 1980s. Akhmetov backed former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych’s failed presidential bid against Viktor Yushchenko last year, so the media under his control claim that he is a victim of political persecution. Akhmetov’s crony Borys Kolesnykov, the Donetsk regional council chairman, has been in custody since April — not for dirty campaigning against Yushchenko, but on extortion charges (see EDM, April 11). Kolesnykov’s clout, however, cannot be compared to that of Akhmetov, and indicting Akhmetov would be difficult.
Akhmetov has been the informal leader of the Donetsk “clan” since the mid-1990s, when his predecessors, Akhat Bragin and Yevhen Shcherban, were murdered. Cleverly using connections in the Donetsk bureaucracy and ties in the influential local Muslim community (Akhmetov is an ethnic Tatar) and burning cheap coal from the heavily subsidized local mines at local steel mills, Akhmetov, age 38, has become the world’s 258th richest billionaire and Ukraine’s richest man, according to Forbes’s 2005 list. Among the assets controlled by Akhmetov are Ukraine’s champion soccer team, Shakhtar, the country’s third largest steel mill, Azovstal, and the key maker of pipes for the fuel industry, Khartsyzk Pipe Plant. Akhmetov also holds the controlling stake in the Investment Metallurgy Union, which last year won a government tender for Ukraine’s largest steel mill, Kryvorizhstal. (The other shareholder is Viktor Pinchuk, former president Leonid Kuchma’s son-in-law.) The tender was held with numerous violations, and Yushchenko during his campaign pledged to reprivatize Kryvorizhstal.
In 2002-2003 Ukrainian newspapers speculated that Yushchenko had sought Akhmetov’s support for his presidential bid. Akhmetov, however, bet on Yanukovych, a former governor of Donetsk Region. Since Yushchenko’s victory, Akhmetov, who has always been a reclusive character, has tried to recede further into the shadows. Unlike fellow tycoon Pinchuk, he has been shunning the media.
In June Ukraine’s anti-organized crime chief, Serhiy Kornych, became the first official to publicly call Akhmetov “a real criminal boss,” and on July 16 Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko said that a certain individual “had testified that Akhmetov committed an attempt on his life” (see EDM, July 19). On July 18 Lutsenko and Prosecutor-General Sviatyslav Piskun, however, received a letter from the individual in question, a former resident of Donetsk named Serhiy Chernyshev who lives Moscow, denying that Akhmetov tried to kill him. Chernyshev, who does not conceal that his past was murky, admitted to surviving a murder attempt in Donetsk in 1988, but insisted that Akhmetov had nothing to do with it.
Speaking to Glavred on July 20, Deputy Interior Minister Hennadiy Moskal said that the letter from Chernyshev admitting that the attempt took place was all that the police needed. He said Akhmetov’s security had found Chernyshev in Moscow and made him sign the letter, but hinted this was a silly mistake. “Now, when we have a statement from the victim, we have all grounds [necessary] to open a criminal case into the event,” not necessarily against Akhmetov personally, he said, although “Ukraine’s richest man” will be the main suspect. The Penal Code provides for punishment ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment for the crime of which Akhmetov is suspected, Moskal said.
Moskal’s statement triggered an avalanche of denials from Akhmetov’s defenders. On July 21 Mark J. MacDougall, a partner of the U.S.-based Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, and Feld law firm, issued a statement accusing the Ukrainian police of “using fake evidence in an attempt to put pressure on political opponents.” According to MacDougall, Akhmetov has been persecuted for backing Yanukovych in the presidential race. On July 22, the Segodnya newspaper, which is linked to Akhmetov, ran a long interview with Chernyshev, in which he denied that it was Akhmetov who had shot at him in 1988. It is interesting that Chernyshev complained of poor eyesight to Segodnya — “Everybody knows I don’t see well.” He claimed that he had visitors from the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General’s Office in June who wanted him to testify against Akhmetov. Chernyshev repeated the denial, talking by phone with Donetsk-based Ukrayina TV the same evening. Deputy Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin, however, denied that his people had gone to Moscow to see Chernyshev.
Akhmetov ignored an invitation to come to the police for “a conversation” on July 18. His press spokesman said that he is vacationing abroad. Lutsenko said on July 20 that the police would seek a court order to bring Akhmetov to the police by force if he continues to ignore the requests.
(Ukrayinska pravda, July 18; Glavred.info, Channel 5, July 20; Interfax-Ukraine, July 21; Segodnya, Ukrayina, July 22)