On February 10 Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko visited the heavily industrialized and densely populated Donetsk region, whose representative, Viktor Yanukovych, finished a disputed second in the 2004 presidential election. Yushchenko has been notoriously unpopular in Donetsk, scoring around 3% there both with his Our Ukraine bloc in the 2002 parliamentary polls and as a presidential candidate last year. This was to a large extent due to the local elites’ rejection of Yushchenko, they did not tolerate any unbiased information about him in the local media. They also physically prevented Yushchenko from chairing a congress of Our Ukraine in Donetsk in 2003 and from visiting Donetsk during his campaign last year.
Addressing the region’s officials and business community, Yushchenko made it clear that he had not forgotten their hostility, nor would he tolerate the local magnates’ informal control of the Donbas. “Soon you will see a different Donbas,” he said. “I give you my word, there will be no more suitcases or plastic bags full of money coming from Kyiv to Donetsk,” he said, referring to the infamous trade in official positions that was widespread under former president Leonid Kuchma.
The person who should probably feel most uneasy after Yushchenko’s visit to Donetsk is the uncrowned local king, Renat Akhmetov. Without Akhmetov’s consent, the locals say, a sparrow will not fly in Donetsk. He is rumored to have been the main private financier of Yanukovych’s campaign. Yushchenko did not single out Akhmetov by name, but warned that last year’s privatization deals made in his favor, including the sale of the Kryvorizhstal and the Dniprovsky steelworks, as well as of several ore extracting companies, would be revised. “It was Donetsk region that launched the scheme of preferential denationalization,” Yushchenko said. “We shall re-examine every case of improper privatization. Nothing will stop me.” Yushchenko also warned against monopolizing the metals and mining market and against “blackmailing competitors by refusing to sell raw materials to them.” The Mariupol-based Illych steelworks and the Zaporizhstal steel mill — Ukraine’s second- and fourth-largest steel producers — had earlier complained that companies controlled by Akhmetov and Kuchma’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk monopolized the raw materials market for metallurgy. Last but not least, Yushchenko said that lands earlier taken from the Donetsk Botanical Gardens should be returned. Everybody in Donetsk knows that Akhmetov lives near the Botanical Gardens.
The formal reason for Yushchenko’s visit to Donetsk was to introduce the newly appointed regional governor to the local elite. Contrary to the hopes of Yushchenko’s local supporters, the governor, Vadym Chuprun, who was the Donetsk regional council chairman in 1992-94, is not from Yushchenko’s team. “The new governor worked in Kuchma’s team, so what can he change in the corrupt Donbas?” the disgruntled lawyer Serhy Osyka, who assisted Yuriy Pavlenko, Yushchenko’s representative in Donetsk, during the election campaign, wondered in an interview with the Glavred news agency. But Chuprun is not Akhmetov’s man either. In an interview with Ukrayinska pravda, Chuprun confessed to not even being acquainted with him. This is not surprising, as Chuprun did not work in Donetsk after 1994, and it was around 1996 or 1997 when Akhmetov’s young business elite replaced the post-Soviet “red directors” in top positions in the region.
Chuprun was Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkmenistan from 1995 to 2004, which was a rather controversial page in his biography. Ukraine depends on Turkmenistan for roughly half of the natural gas that its energy-inefficient heavy industry consumes, and Chuprun had to be very diplomatic with maverick Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, occasionally praising “the wise and foresighted policies of Turkmenbashi” in the local press. Chuprun was an important link also between Donetsk and Turkmenistan, as Ukraine pays for Turkmen gas partly in metal cast at the region’s steel mills. Chuprun returned from Turkmenistan last year, and in September he was appointed deputy head of the Naftohaz Ukrainy oil and gas monopoly. But Naftohaz’s January 3 gas deal with Niyazov, reached not without Chuprun’s participation, left Kyiv unhappy, as the price for Ukraine was increased from $44 to $58 per 1,000 cubic meters (see EDM, February 11, January 6, 12).
After returning from a long vacation in Moscow, Yanukovych, Donetsk’s governor from 1997 to 2002, offered this reserved comment on Chuprun: “He is experienced and he has always been balanced.” Chuprun said in an interview that he knew Yanukovych in the early 1990s, when Yanukovych headed a transport company in Donetsk. Speaking in neighboring Luhansk on February 12, Yanukovych announced that his Party of Regions would be in the opposition to Yushchenko, advocating the Donetsk elite’s interests. “I am surprised that there is nobody in the government from such a huge region as the Donbas. I don’t understand this,” Yanukovych said. It remains to be seen whether Yanukovych and Akhmetov will be in opposition to Governor Chuprun also.
(Ostro.org web site, February 4; Ukrayinska pravda, Glavred.info, February 7; UNIAN, February 10; Ukraina TV, February 10, 13.)