Ukraine's Richest Man Ousts Separatists From Town After Government Fails

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May 16 2014 3:22 PM

Enter the Oligarchs

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Rinat Akhmetov.

Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine’s military has been unable to oust pro-Russian separatists from the towns they have occupied in eastern Ukraine, but the country’s richest man seems to have been able to get the job done in at least one:

In Mariupol, the second-largest city in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov's Metinvest holding group agreed with steel plant directors, police and community leaders to help improve security and get insurgents to vacate the buildings they had seized.
Several dozen Metinvest workers in overalls and helmets Friday cleared out barricades of debris and tires outside the Mariupol government building. Trucks carried it away and by midday, the barricades were nearly gone.
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Pro-Russian forces have, for now, fled the buildings they were occupying in Mariupol, and Metinvest has organized citizen patrols of the city.

Until now, Akhmetov had remained publicly neutral on the conflict. The development is likely to lead to some new scrutiny on the role that the country’s powerful oligarchs are playing in the events in Ukraine. “Chocolate king” Petro Poroshenko, for instance, is one of the leading candidates for the May 25 presidential election. The country’s second-richest man, steel pipe magnate Victor Pinchuk, funded medical evacuations during the Maidan protests, seems likely to play an influential role in the new government. 

Other billionaires have been appointed interim governors by the new government, including energy tycoon Igor Kolomoisky in Dnipropetrovsk and metals magnate Sergey Taruta in Donetsk.

The role of these tycoons provides plenty of fodder for the pro-Moscow media and could also make some of Ukraine’s foreign supporters nervous about the new regime, but at the moment, it doesn’t appear that the politicians in Kiev have the ability or the resources to keep the country in one piece on their own. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog.