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Ukraine oligarch campaigns to save his country

On the eve of presidential elections, a wealthy and powerful Ukrainian businessman has challenged Moscow-backed separatists. The move could help bring peace to eastern Ukraine, says DW's Bernd Johann.

When jobs and finances are at stake in Europe, politicians save banks and other enterprises. In eastern Ukraine, it's an entrepreneur who plans to salvage peace and the unity of the state. Rinat Akhmetov, the influential albeit controversial steel magnate from the Donbass region, is mobilizing people to resist pro-Russian separatists. Many people are still afraid to take to the streets, but that could change.

The oligarch sent a strong signal: On the eve of presidential elections, Akhmetov called for an end to the bloodshed. He warned of "bandits" and "marauders" that are jeopardizing peace in the region - a reference to the separatists. Akhmetov also took action: in the wake of severe unrest in the city of Mariupol, he sent members of his private plant security on patrol alongside Ukrainian police. As a result, the situation in the city on the Black Sea hasn't continued to escalate.

Anger and dismay

Ukraine's richest citizen has taken significant steps in view of the bloodshed over the past weeks, after standing by and watching the separatists for quite some time. He is the biggest and most important employer in the Donbass region. What he says, counts. The livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people directly or indirectly depends on his plants' economic success and not on the rhetoric of separatists who rely on weapons to make a statement.

Akhmetov was regarded as a leading force behind Ukraine's efforts at negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU. He poured a lot of money into the 2012 European Soccer Championships, an event that presented Ukraine as an aspiring European nation.

The separatists, supported by Russia, are now undoing that success.

Akhmetov makes good money with his deals with Russia, but economic ties with EU countries have become even more important. Not only are they lucrative, they could also nudge the modernization of outdated manufacturing plants. Western economic sanctions would be damaging.

In favor of national dialogue

The oligarch rarely makes explicit political statements in public. Doing so could be detrimental to his business. But he always worked the system. For a long time, Akhmetov backed Viktor Yanukovych, only to withdraw his support at the height of the police violence against the protest movement on Maidan Square, Ukrainian media report. Whether the latter is true or not, the fact remains that shortly thereafter, Yanukovych fled to Russia.

At present, Akhmetov appears to be redefining his position once more, and now backs an urgently needed national dialogue. He is participateing in roundtable talks on solutions to the crisis initiated by a reputable OSCE mediator, German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger.

The focus currently is on Ukrainian presidential elections, scheduled for Sunday, May 25 – if possible across the nation. Akhmetov's appeal might help reach that goal.

Democratic polls instead of militant separatism

The armed separatists in eastern Ukraine want to prevent the election from going ahead in the areas under their control. But conceivably, Akhmetov could mobilize the population against them. Up until now, the majority has remained silent, partly out of fear. The separatists are known to kill, torture and kidnap people that don't share their opinion.

Their leaders come from Russia – that much is becoming increasingly clear now that the masked men have begun to drop their disguises.

Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, is from Moscow. Borodai, notorious for extremist slogans, made his fortune in the Russian shadow economy.

It's time to put an end to the evil specter of Russian nationalists in eastern Ukraine. Akhmetov is aware of that.

He is definately acting in his own best interest because he doesn't want to lose his fortune to the separatists. But he has also appealed to the Ukrainian people. He wants them to express their interests on a political level rather than be cowed by violence.

Ukraine's presidential elections are the perfect opportunity. Hopefully, all Ukrainians, and particularly in the eastern half of the country, will be able to make a democratic choice – against violence and suppression at the hands of separatists.

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