Hariette Salem in Kyiv
January 28, 2014
Powerful Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, a shadowy figure with strong ties to Moscow and President Viktor Yanukovych, is the latest name from the new US visa ban list to be leaked to the media, according to bne sources.
Two independent sources close to Ukraine’s opposition forces, one with ties to Washington DC, tell bne that Firtash, who amassed much of his wealth during the 1990s, was amongst the 20 high-ranking Ukrainian figures now banned from entering the US.
As well as owning Ukrainian media outlet U.A Inter Media Group which includes Ukraine’s most watched TV channel Inter, Firtash holds a 45% stake in the controversial RosUkrEnergo - a gas trader half-owned by Russian state-controlled Gazprom that until 2009 held a monopoly on supplying Russian gas to Ukraine. Wikileaks information released in 2010 alleged the Ukrainian billionaire has ties to Semion Mogilevich, a powerful Russian mafia boss who is on the FBI's 10 most wanted list.
“It is not at all surprising that Firtash is on the list. They are trying to hit them [the government] where it hurts, that is their bank accounts,” one Kyiv business insider tells bne. “And we all know that it is likely that Firtash funded Yanukovych’s election campaign in 2010.”
Some uncertainty remains over Firtash’s visa status: the US embassy said in a statement that it was “revoking” the visas of a select few Ukrainian officials, which implies that these officials already have visas, whereas it is not clear if Firtash has a US visa. Also, while the US State Department has explicitly said it had revoked the visas of some Ukrainian officials, it has not admitted to banning any Ukrainian businessmen.
Firtash’s team did not respond to bne’s request for confirmation of his US visa status.
The announcement of the US visa ban list follows a dramatic turn of events in Kyiv’s anti-government protests, now in their third month. On January 16, the passage of a repressive package of legislation by Yanukovych’s government, which curtails media freedom and criminalises an assortment of activities related to the ongoing protests, sparked open street battles between demonstrators and police. The subsequent sanctioned use of excessive force - including indiscriminate firing of rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds - that led to the death of at least two anti-government protesters proved the final straw for US officials, who had reportedly been drafting sanctions against the regime for weeks.
In a statement released January 22, the US Embassy in Kyiv said that: “In response to actions taken against protestors on the Maidan in November and December of last year, the US embassy has revoked the visas of several Ukrainians who were linked to the violence.”
Composed under the Magnitsky Act, which blacklists those implicated in the 2009 death of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky and other human rights violations in Russia, and in line with US privacy laws, the people subject to visa restrictions are strictly confidential. However, alongside Firtash, the two sources in contact with bne were able to provide a total of a six further names that were blacklisted. “As far as I know there are between 15 and 19 people that went through to the final version of that document, the information is being very closely guarded,” one of the sources, who is Kyiv-based, tells bne.
Most of those who were also outed as banned by the US are either high-ranking advisors closely aligned to the government or top-level officials in Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions government, including: Minister of Justice Olena Lukash, Minister of Interior Vitaliy Zakharchenko, Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka, Yanukovych legal adviser Andriy Portnov, and MPs Olena Bondarenko and Volodymyr Oleynik. Leaks appearing in other media outlets, including Buzzfeed and Russian newspaper Izvestia, have also referenced the above six names in various formulations.
One of the list-leakers tells bne that Yanukovych himself was also amongst those being considered for a US travel ban. “Let’s say his name made the very final stages. But it was not popular in all quarters and in the end it was considered too much of a bold move to make - at least for now,” the source with links to the US administration says.
However, it should also be noted that some of Ukraine’s oligarchs might have been subject to visa restrictions in the US even prior to the recent unrest in their home country, largely due to their common-knowledge murky dealings during the 1990s and ties to the mafia in Eastern Europe.
Rinat Akhmetov, another oligarch rumoured to be on the list, is just one such example. According to a news report from a Ukrainian media outlet that bne has been unable to verify, the tycoon’s purchase of the MetInvest United Coal Company last year proved an ineffective attempt to obtain a US visa. Akhmetov’s team denied the oligarch is on the new visa ban list, but confirmed he was involved in ongoing wrangling surrounding a US visa application that predates the unrest in Ukraine
In this sense, the new visa restrictions are perhaps less a means to directly affect business than a symbolic attempt to push key players in Ukraine’s political scene into either abandoning Yanukovych’s camp entirely, or at least influence the president’s decision-making. The recent political flip-flopping of some of Ukraine’s media outlets, which are nearly all controlled by oligarchs like Firtash, between favourable coverage of the government and anti-government positions is just one indication of how this group's allegiances can be shifted.
However, the strategy may backfire, the Kyiv business insider warns bne. “It is important that there are not mistakes made,” he says. “Many people in this area of the world had dubious dealings in the 90s, that doesn’t mean they're not pro-West or seeking the best future for their country today... The past should be the past.”
In contrast to the US, Europe has not, so far, taken the leap from words into action. And that EU officials have just expressed “concern” and “sympathy” over Yanukovych’s repressive crackdown in Ukraine has angered some. “It is time to show the Ukrainian authorities there is a price to pay for repression,” Oleh Shamshur, former Ukrainian ambassador to the US told bne.
Western authorities must now take a step further and impose wholesale sanctions on Ukraine, says Shamshur. “In the end, these sanctions will have to be imposed anyway,” he says. “But if they are to have an effect in curbing the growing violence, they must be imposed immediately. The chance of controlling this situation through diplomatic channels is diminishing by the hour.”
However, getting Europe onboard may prove a tougher challenge. With multiple national governments involved in decision-making processes, obtaining the level of consensus required to impose even the softest sanctions is much tougher in the EU than the single-entity US. Additionally, if European officials statements that the door to Europe remains open to Ukraine in the future, then there may be a reluctance to alienate those whom may one day sit at the negotiating table again.
The outcome of the next few days' negotiations between the opposition and government -including the commitment to repeal the repressive law package at a special session held at the Verkhovna Rada on Tuesday 28 - will prove vital in determining the course that the EU takes. “If the repressive laws are not repealed as promised, and certainly if there is any more violent action from the state, then we will see similar sanctions imposed by Europe, and these will be tightly coordinated with the US so as to deliver the biggest blow,” a Brussels-based source close to the EU tells bne.
For its part, the US has left the door open to imposing further sanctions if the situation escalates. “We will continue to consider additional steps, as I said, including sanctions, in response to the use of violence,” said State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf at a press briefing.