For over a year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had been in a battle with renewable energy producers after his government slashed tariffs and failed to pay the companies in a timely fashion.
That saga appeared to be coming to an end when a state-owned firm raised $825 million on November 3 through a bond sale to reimburse the producers.
As of November 23, all the producers had been fully compensated except one: DTEK, a company owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man.
It was not an oversight.
The government’s decision to withhold 3 billion-hryvnya ($115 million) payment to DTEK — a move the company called “shocking” and described as “discrimination” — was just one of several signs of growing tension between Zelenskiy and Akhmetov, who is widely seen as the most powerful of the influential tycoons known as oligarchs.
For many Ukrainians, the tension is visible when they turn on their television: In recent weeks, stations owned by Akhmetov have been pounding the president with what media observers say is critical coverage — though he says he exerts no influence over their content or editorial decisions.
Zelenskiy, whose popularity ratings have been hovering near all-time lows, appears to have the tycoon’s media assets in his sights: Earlier this month, he signed legislation that could force Akhmetov to dispose of his television station and other news outlets.
How the struggle between Zelenskiy and Akhmetov plays out could have substantial economic and political consequences for Ukraine, analysts say, both over the next few years and further in the future, after a presidential election scheduled for 2024.
It has been brewing for some time.
A comedian with a popular TV show but no prior political experience, Zelenskiy — now 43 — won the 2019 presidential election by a large margin, riding a surge of support based in part on his pledges to stand up to the handful of tycoons who have wielded outsized influence over Ukraine’s economy, government, and media over much of its 30 years as an independent country.
In office, he has made taming the tycoons — or “deoligarchization,” as his administration calls it — the cornerstone of his presidency.
“If Zelenskiy wins this confrontation, it will be much easier for him to run for a second term” in 2024, Yevhen Mahda, director of the Kyiv-based Institute of World Politics, told RFE/RL.
The “oligarchs” enjoy little sympathy among the millions of Ukrainians facing poverty or stark economic challenges, many of whom believe the magnates accumulated their wealth at the expense of the state.
But analysts say they have been able to maintain sway through several changes of government since the 1991 Soviet collapse — including two that followed massive popular protests against corruption, among other things — in part by bankrolling officials and lawmakers.
Akhmetov, 56, is the biggest in terms of revenue from businesses ranging from metals, mining, and energy to banking, telecommunications, real estate, and the media — a portfolio whose size and breadth means almost any law or regulation is likely to impact his interests.
While he is dogged by rumors of alleged criminal activity in amassing his assets — for which he reportedly had been denied entry to the United States — the tycoon has never been charged with any crime. He denies any wrongdoing.
With a net worth estimated by Forbes at more than $7 billion, Akhmetov is richer than the next three Ukrainian tycoons combined. He is also the country’s largest taxpayer and employer, with about 200,000 workers nationwide.
That gives him enormous power to lobby at all levels of government for policies favorable to his companies, such as low tariffs on ore transportation and high tariffs for power, analysts and business executives say.
Akhmetov — who briefly served in parliament in the 2000s, representing the Russia-leaning Party of Regions, which disbanded after the Euromaidan protests that pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power — can turn to dozens of lawmakers in the Verkhovna Rada for support in getting policies that favor him enacted, according to Ukrainian media. The magnate has denied he has “control” over any deputies.
However, Zelenskiy has an advantage over his predecessors in dealing with lobbying from tycoons: The seventh person to serve as president since independence, he is the first to control a majority in the Rada.
That means that at least in some cases, he can push legislation through without needing the support of lawmakers who may be loyal to a particular tycoon.
But the billionaires’ control over several major TV stations has been a potential weak spot for Zelenskiy — and he is now seeking to end that vulnerability, putting him on a collision course with tycoons including Akhmetov.
In June, Zelenskiy introduced a controversial bill that legally defined the term “oligarch” based on several criteria, including wealth, industry dominance, political activity, and influence over media assets.
Anyone meeting certain benchmarks in three of those areas is to be labeled an “oligarch” and barred from participating in both political activity — such as financing parties — and state asset sales.
The bill was passed by the Rada in September and signed by Zelenskiy on November 5. It enters force in May 2022.
The National Security and Defense Council (RNBO), a nonelected government body headed by Zelenskiy, will determine who meets the criteria, raising concerns about selective judgement.
A designated “oligarch” can potentially get off the list by either ending participation in political life or, more simply, selling their media assets to a nonaffiliated third party.
For most tycoons, neither of those is an attractive prospect, according to analysts who say the owners use their media assets as tools to advance their business and political interests, including by defending allies and attacking opponents. Akhmetov denies that he has done this.
Ironically, Zelenskiy’s swift transformation from actor who played a president on TV to actual president is widely seen as having been aided by the media assets of Ihor Kolomoyskiy, a tycoon who has been publicly banned from the United States due to alleged corruption.
Former President Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire confectionary magnate whom Zelenskiy defeated in the 2019 election after the incumbent had a falling-out with Kolomoyskiy, announced this month that he had sold his television stations to their current and former journalists to avoid being declared an oligarch under the law.
Poroshenko heads the European Solidarity party, the third-largest in the Rada, and is considered a presidential contender in 2024. He has criticized the law, calling it an attack on freedom of the press.
Akhmetov has so far held firm, not announcing any sale of his media assets. In a response to questions from RFE/RL about his attitude toward the new law, Akhmetov rejected the idea that he is an “oligarch,” describing himself as an “investor.” He said he would be ready to sue in Ukrainian and international courts to protect his reputation.
Orysia Lutsevych, an analyst at London-based think tank Chatham House, says tycoons like Akhmetov have strong legal teams and are skilled at defending themselves. Akhmetov has used the services of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, a Washington-based international law firm that is also the top U.S. lobbying firm by revenue. “It’s clear that Akhmetov will not just give up. He will fight back,” Lutsevych said.
He may already be doing so.
Akhmetov’s television station Ukraine-24 has become a “refuge” for opponents of Zelenskiy, according to the Kyiv-based media outlet Ukrayinska pravda, frequently giving critics of his administration a prominent platform.
In his response to questions from RFE/RL, Akhmetov said that he did not exercise influence over the content of Ukraine-24’s programming. He said the channel offered a platform for both officials and government opponents to express their views. “If in the past few months there has been more criticism of the authorities than previously [on Ukraine-24], then that is, I think, a question for the authorities,” Akhmetov told RFE/RL in an e-mailed response to questions.
Mykhaylo Minakov, an analyst who is the senior adviser on Ukraine at the Kennan Institute, a U.S.-based think tank, says that Zelenskiy’s attempts to reduce the influence of tycoons goes beyond the “anti-oligarch law.”
He says Zelenskiy is trying to replace the oligarchic system that has dominated the country since independence in 1991 with a “power vertical” — a system in which the president has more real power at all levels of government — “and it’s making [the tycoons] nervous.”
He points to Zelenskiy’s use of the RNBO to rein in tycoons and alleged criminal kingpins as a sign of his attempts to consolidate power.
The RNBO has slapped sanctions on a few tycoons, including powerful Moscow-friendly businessman and parliament deputy Viktor Medvedchuk, as well as dozens of alleged crime bosses since the start of the year, a tool that enables Zelenskiy to bypass the prosecutor’s office and courts.
Amid speculation that Akhmetov could be next, he told RFE/RL that there was no legal basis for the RNBO to target him with sanctions.
Ukraine’s Western backers have long called for the government to reduce the influence of tycoons. However, they want rule-of-law improvements, such as strengthening the independence of the judiciary and anti-monopoly agency, rather than through centralization of power.
Minakov also said that Zelenskiy was seeking to curtail the wealth of tycoons through a new bill — known informally as the “anti-Akhmetov” law — that would raise taxes on businesses and give more power to the tax authorities. The bill has been watered down since being introduced to parliament but could still be a victory for Zelenskiy in his fight with the magnates if it passes.
Analysts are split over how the tension between Zelenskiy and Akhmetov will develop — and who is more likely to end up the winner.
Oleksiy Holobutskiy, deputy director of the Agency for Modeling Situations, a nongovernmental think tank, says he believes that Zelenskiy missed his chance to take on Akhmetov shortly after coming to office, when his ratings were still sky-high.
The tycoon is now taking advantage of Zelenskiy’s vulnerability to “put him in his place,” Holobutskiy said.
However, Volodymyr Fesenko, the head of the Kyiv-based Center for Applied Political Research, says Akhmetov is underestimating Zelenskiy’s strength, as did Medvedchuk.
“I think there will be a response from Zelenskiy. And a tough one,” he said.
Sofia Sereda of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service contributed to this report
Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.
Yevhen Solonyna is a correspondent in Kyiv for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.