While the war in Ukraine continues, the country’s oligarchs have seemingly fallen off the radar. Often seen as an essential part of Ukraine’s political system, these powerful figures are now scrambling to save themselves and their assets in very unique circumstances.
Oligarchy (ὀλιγαρχία) in translation from the Greek means “government by the few”. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle considered oligarchy as a bad form of aristocracy under which the state is governed by a few wealthy citizens, who use public resources in their own interests. The French Revolution added to this idea by suggesting that oligarchy is a fusion of political and economic power. All these phenomena, without any doubt were characteristic of Ukraine on the eve of the full-scale invasion on February 24th 2022.
The class of oligarchs appeared at the end of 1990 with the assistance of the second President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma. Since then, the oligarchs have never lost their positions of authority. They had their own strong representation in every parliament and government of Ukraine. The actions of the central authorities have always been considered from the point of view of which oligarch has benefited from the new decision of the authorities.
In order to systematise information, Ukrainian mass media has had a special focus on “oligarchology” since the beginning of 2000. This is journalism at the intersection of politics, economy and celebrity news. Since the middle of 2000 in Ukraine special rankings concerning these oligarchs have been compiled every year. The first publication to do this was the magazine Focus, followed by the Ukrainian edition of Forbes.
Thus, oligarchs have become a kind of brand for Ukraine. The higher the position of the oligarch in the ratings, the more he appears to be influencing events.
Who is traditionally considered the most influential?
- The richest person in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, possesses large business interests in metallurgy and the energy sector.
- The duo of Ihor Kolomoyskyi and Gennadiy Bogolyubov – the powerful unofficial Privat Group – with interests in oil refining, chemistry, energy, transport, etc.
- The pro-western oligarchs, among whom Victor Pinchuk is the most powerful player.
When it came to appointing members of the government, usually first of all everyone watched for a new official “man” of one of these big three.
However, there are other powerful oligarchs in Ukraine, including poultry producer Yuriy Kosiuk, iron ore extractor Kostyantyn Zhevago, Kharkiv magnate Oleksandr Yaroslavskyi, Dmitry Firtash, whose business deals in gas trading and chemicals, the producer of sunflower oil Andriy Verevskyi, and the Hereha couple who own the “Epicentr K” supermarket.
The country’s “official” oligarch was and is the previous President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko. Today’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was considered the project of the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi from the beginning, because he helped him with the media during the election campaign. At the same time, acting Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal was considered to be a candidate from the camp of Rinat Akhmetov, and the ministers in his government represented (and possibly continue to represent) the interests of other influential persons.
So, before the war, the authorities were not excluded from the general trend toward oligarchy.
The law “On Oligarchs”
Zelenskyy tried to distance himself from Kolomoyskyi and other oligarchs in order to keep his position. The president, like his predecessor Poroshenko, declared a decisive fight against the oligarchs.
In autumn 2021 he passed the law “On Oligarchs” through parliament. This document was intended to end the fusion of political and economic power in the country. According to the law, an oligarch is a person who combines a big fortune with influence in politics and the media.
The first important detail in this new project is the “register of oligarchs”. The authorities promised that in early 2022 they would publish a list of those officially recognised as oligarchs. The authorities could use these aforementioned measures of influence to decide who would be included in this list. However, the register has not yet been published. Of course, Ukraine is now faced with a war, and it is not against the country’s oligarchs.
The head of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov in a September interview assured the public that work on the registry continues every day. However, he made similar statements before.
The second important detail regarding this law is the oligarchs’ influence on the media. There is an opinion, that the purpose of the law was to strengthen Zelenskyy’s grip on the media. However, the truth is that the president did not have his own media resources. Voter behaviour in Ukraine is still determined by TV channels and the most powerful channels were owned by oligarchs before the war: Rinat Akhmetov (Ukraina), Ihor Kolomoyskyi (1+1), Victor Pinchuk (ICTV, Novyi Kanal, STB), Petro Poroshenko (Priamyi, 5 channel) and Kostyantyn Zhevago (Espresso).
A large pool of TV channels was also owned by the pro-Russian Viktor Medvedchuk. However, in February 2021, the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine closed these channels, imposing sanctions. For some time, oligarchs who remained supported Zelenskyy, while receiving the authorities’ good faith in return. However, the president was always faced with the risk that at any moment the oligarchs could give orders to destroy the authority of the government.
Administrative influence was soon thought of as a way to prevent oligarchs from using their own power. The law “On Oligarchs” offered them a choice of who to get rid of in the country’s political, media and business spheres. In the media environment it was believed that oligarchs would attempt to maintain their power by negotiating with the Ukrainian authorities. In order to finally secure its authority, the president’s office has also drafted the law “On Media”, which contains certain “repressive” norms regarding media owners. However, this law is still not approved due to non-compliance with EU norms. The oligarchs responded to the actions of the authorities in their own way. In particular, Poroshenko officially handed over the channel “Direct” to other people.
All plans have been confused by the war. As soon as Russia’s invasion began the president’s office introduced a system of “unified transmission”. All the oligarchs’ TV channels were obliged to transmit broadcasting approved by the presidential office. However, they should continue to pay for the maintenance of these channels. Thus, Zelenskyy has excluded the influence of oligarchs from information policy, at least during the war.
In the new circumstances, Ihor Kolomoyskyi and Victor Pinchuk continue to fund the channels, though they have significantly lost influence over editorial policy. On the contrary, Rinat Akhmetov sold the largest TV channel in Ukraine and all his other media projects. He ceased to meet all of the attributes needed to qualify as an oligarch, because he no longer has any media holdings.
What are the consequences of fighting the oligarchs? In Ukraine there is the impression that the oligarchs have disappeared as a class. From the beginning of the war they have not been visible and we do not hear from them. TV channels and other Ukrainian media are now focused on war, sanctions and war crimes. Overall, the oligarchs seem to have been forgotten.
In a certain way, this can be interpreted as a victory over the oligarchs in Ukraine. If we do not say anything about a person, it may seem that they essentially do not exist. But they do exist. Moreover, the oligarchs have kept the levers of influence on events inside the country. Now it is perhaps useful to look at information about individual oligarchs.
The richest oligarch in Ukraine has lost the most from the war. However, we cannot say that this has resulted in total harm for him. He finally got a decent force majeure in the form of the war to agree on the cancellation of some debts concerning western loans. The Russians destroyed and occupied Mariupol, where two large metallurgical combines are located. These were the main part of Akhmetov’s “Metinvest” group.
The iron ore extraction business remained, which had previously brought Akhmetov and his business partner Vadim Novinsky billions of US dollars in export revenues. But because of the war, there is no place to reprocess it and it is extremely difficult to export from Ukraine due to the blocking of ports by the Russians, as well as the unreliability of railways running westward. As a result, this division of Akhmetov’s empire is in a dire state.
His energy business suffered less. Akhmetov controls most electricity distribution networks in Ukraine. Before the war these distributed around 50 per cent of electricity in the country. Throughout the world, this is recognised as a powerful and influential business. Akhmetov even exports electricity from Ukraine. In spite of the war, it appears on the energy front that not everything is going wrong. For example, the Office of the President wants to suspend the so-called “RAB-tariff” for the “Oblenergo” (regional companies), of which Akhmetov is the largest owner. However, in the area of electricity exports, in which Akhmetov formerly had a monopoly, a powerful competitor has appeared in the form of the State Energy Company of Ukraine. This group is controlled by the president’s office.
In order to get rid of his oligarch status, Akhmetov sold his media assets in Ukraine, even the largest market share in the channel “Ukraine”. He continues to finance media in Poland – the law “On Oligarchs” does not prohibit it. But according to other information, staff cuts have taken place in these groups too.
He stopped completely, or partially, funding a large group of deputies in the Verkhovna Rada. They say that in this way he has fulfilled an agreement with Zelenskyy. By leaving the media and politics, it seems that he may get assistance in business. Indeed, there are no signs that the state is seriously hindering his businesses. The Antimonopoly Committee has no claims against Akhmetov’s companies and Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, traditionally associated with the oligarch, remains in government. From the reports in Akhmetov’s PR service, we know that he is constantly buying and sending cargo with humanitarian aid to Ukrainians who have suffered war damage.
This oligarch works in tandem with Gennadiy Bogolyubov. Within this duo there is a long-standing problem that they have had to live with for a long time. This is a criminal prosecution involving the US.
After the nationalisation of PrivatBank in 2016, it appeared that in the previous years two businessmen had withdrawn from the bank some 5.5 billion US dollars. There is no threat to them in Ukraine regarding this, as Kolomoyskyi with his partners can get the necessary court decision if any issue ever arose. However, the money was invested, in particular, in real estate in the US. Reaching an agreement with the courts in the US is unlikely to happen, so we are still waiting on an outcome.
That is why Zelenskyy recently deprived Kolomoyskyi of Ukrainian citizenship. I do not know how exactly this will benefit this oligarch, but probably there is a certain legal scheme behind the scenes. Now he is hiding from extradition to the US in the resort town of Bukovel far from the front line.
Whilst it may have appeared that Kolomoyskyi was moving away from active business, this appears to be far from the truth. Since the beginning of the war, the Russians have destroyed the only working oil refinery in Ukraine in Kremenchuk, which belonged to the oligarch. However, he, through his people, began to buy alcohol plants for the production of bioethanol and also lobby for a reduction of excise duty for fuel that included ethanol.
Kolomoyskyi has also returned to a practice that was actively encouraged in the early 2000s – raiding. Recently, the Russian business group VS Energy through the courts attempted to seize the Ukrainian oligarch Kostyantyn Zhevago’s 40 per cent share in the Poltava Mining and Processing Plant. This is a mining and processing combine, which is a large exporter of iron ore raw materials to Europe. Many years ago, Zhevago bought the plant from the Russians and even built an international company “Ferrexpo” at its base. The Russians believed that they sold too cheaply and fought in court for many years to return what was lost, but they now cannot do it.
Kolomoyskyi is believed to be the “magic force” that helped in the midst of the war to fully return these assets to Ukraine. The oligarch himself had long wanted to take away business from Zhevago but, surprisingly, he only managed to do it during the war. Zhevago was attacked through the courts and in mass media publications.
However, Kolomoyskyi does not have any hope of getting PrivatBank back, or at least compensation from the state. He has made three efforts in the courts in this regard. This suggests that the presidential office has not completely lost interest in the activities of the country’s most toxic oligarch. In general, Kolomoyskyi is a legendary person in Ukraine. He has long been in control of “Ukrnafta”, in which the state has a majority stake. On the eve of the war, he almost managed to divide the company so to take away the best assets, and to leave the debts to the state.
Recently, the interests of Kolomoyskyi could be found in the appointment of his representative to the State Property Fund, which manages the state-run energy companies – in particular, “Centernergo” and the Odesa Portside Plant. Such appointments have long been one of the favourite instruments of oligarchs in Ukraine. Successful appointment allows for the controlled management of the state company that makes it work for the oligarch’s interest. Remember the definition of oligarchs in Ancient Greece – this is exactly that.
Probably, you will be asking the question of whether this is true? After all, such things cannot simply be done in a state in Europe which, with the help of the civilized world, is choosing its right to a bright future. Unfortunately, however, these issues are occurring in the current conditions of war. Since 1990, oligarchy has been able to deeply influence state authority in Ukraine. None of the events surrounding Maidan were able to eradicate this influence. We hope that this will be done after the war thanks to the insistence of the collective West.
In the early 2000s, Pinchuk appropriated industrial objects with the help of the father of his wife – the former President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma. However, after the Orange Revolution in 2004 he changed his official status and turned into a philanthropist and connoisseur of contemporary art. Overall, he has a strong financial relationship with western influence groups, which gave the oligarch loans for renewal, in particular the construction of an electric metallurgical factory, which produces the pieces for pipe and wheel plants.
The financial crises of 2008 and 2014-15 had an impact on Pinchuk’s businesses and they were burdened by numerous debts. According to some estimates, the cost of business has even become negative. However, Pinchuk has a steel will to win and due to the good use of his resources he can maintain a very large influence on Ukraine. There is an opinion that he also made his own contribution to the election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy as president (though not as much as Kolomoyskyi), and for that has received certain benefits.
Pinchuk’s favourite tactics are so-called “invisible appointments”. Many influential officials in the central authorities of Ukraine are considered to be his protégés. With the help of such people, he is able to receive regular orders for the supply of pipes, wheel parts, etc.
The war did not reduce Pinchuk’s assets, he kept afloat, enabling savings. In particular, he did not get rid of his TV channels like Akhmetov, but simply minimised the costs for them. This indicates that Pinchuk plays long, relying on good communication with the West.
His main hope remains his lack of visibility and his good political ties. Pinchuk’s image is completely different from Kolomoyskyi. His annual political discussion platform “YES” gathers the most influential representatives from Ukrainian politics and business.
From the beginning of the invasion Pinchuk was involved in a scandal. In his house near Kyiv, where the Pinchuk family had not lived for many years, a mobile hospital for Ukrainian soldiers has been placed. This step was celebrated across the country. However, for some time Pinchuk demanded that the doctors leave the house.
Other figures in Ukraine
The war created problems with logistics. They, in turn, have caused clear issues for the agrarian oligarchs of Ukraine. For example, Andriy Verevskyi and his “Kernel” holding now have problems with the export of sunflower oil and grain. Yuriy Kosiuk, on the contrary, has strengthened his export of chicken to Europe due to the abolition of duties and an excess of grain.
However, local European businessmen are already demanding a limit on the supply of chicken from Ukraine.
Even after the opening of exports by sea, Ukraine cannot export sufficient volumes of grain. According to recent data, about five million tons of grain were exported by sea over two months. But before the war, the same amount was transported monthly. In the coming months, agricultural oligarchs will feel great discomfort.
Overall, Dmytro Firtash found an interesting way to save his gas supply business. The corporate rights for regional gas companies were supposedly taken and transferred to state agencies that managed to temporarily seize the assets. However, Firtash remains a part of the management of these companies, so he has actually kept his own assets.
Kostyantyn Zhevago became a victim of raider capture on the part of the Russian group “Luzhnikovsky” together with Ihor Kolomoyskyi. By this time, Zhevago had managed to solve his problems with the current authorities. But this case is unique, because his opponents are also able to play this game.
Petro Poroshenko essentially received a pardon due to the war from the authorities. The experience of the previous three years has proven that it is extremely difficult to put the former president in prison, almost impossible. Therefore, even in spite of the outdated public request for Poroshenko’s punishment, he will remain free. However, his reputation has been destroyed. Everything in Poroshenko’s future currently looks bad. The fate of Viktor Medvedchuk will likely remain a key warning for many oligarchs in the country.
Serhiy Liamets is a graduate of International Economics at the Kharkiv National University and a secretary of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine. He is a former editor at Ukrainska Pravda and Realist.
This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the RITA – “Region in Transition” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.