Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov urged people to stand up against separatist rebels in his strongest statement against the rebels to date, as the crisis in the country’s eastern regions shows signs of abating.
Akhmetov, a one-time supporter of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, is becoming more vocal as the separatist movement struggles to maintain momentum in the run-up to presidential elections on May 25. Government forces are fighting the insurgents across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, both located in an area known as Donbass, where the pro-Russian supporters declared independence after disputed referendums.
The insurgents “have taken the entire Donbass hostage and are terrorizing it,” the steel magnate, who has most of his assets in the coal-rich region, said in a statement yesterday. Earlier, he organized unarmed patrols of his workers to take control of the city of Mariupol and called a rally.
The condemnation of the rebels represents a shift for Akhmetov, whose fortune the Bloomberg Billionaires Index puts at $13.3 billion, after he called on the central government to halt military operations against the separatists. It also follows a call yesterday from separatist leader Denis Pushilin to “nationalize” the assets of wealthy Donbass businessmen.
Akhmetov owns System Capital Management, the country’s largest industrial conglomerate. The company had $23.5 billion in revenue in 2012, and has investments in metallurgy, mining and energy, mostly in the Donetsk region.
The U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russian companies and people in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle for supporting the separatists and say Russia has provided with cash and manpower.
The Interior Ministry said separatist violence and other crimes have fallen by as much as half in Donetsk, the ministry’s spokeswoman, Larysa Volkova, said yesterday. Even so, the situation remains “tense” in the region, said Ilya Suzdalev, the spokesman for the Donetsk governor’s office.
“We are observing the calming of the situation in Donetsk,” Volkova said by phone. “We can link this to creating patrol groups in Donetsk.”
Aside from organizing the patrols, Akhmetov also this week also called on people to show their opposition to the separatists. Even so, a May 20 rally in Donetsk, a city of almost 1 million, met a lukewarm response, with cars driving in a column in the city’s center honking their horns and several scores of people gathering in his Shakhtar Donetsk soccer team’s stadium. At plants across the region, where he employs more than 300,000 people, workers stopped to gather in factory yards as sirens wailed.
There are about 900 rebels in Donbass in control of buildings and road blocks in 15 cities, Ukraine’s Security Service said May 19, while the Central Electoral Commission said they had seized at least a third of the region’s district voting offices.
Under the announcement of the rally posted by Akhmetov’s spokeswoman, Natalya Yemchenko, on her Facebook page, one respondent complained the rallies inside factories had done little to give courage to “ordinary citizens” who are against the separatists “but are still afraid.”
“It looks like a rally in your own apartment,” Dmitriy Popov wrote. “When will you have a rally in Mariupol, a city of 50,000 people?”