billionaire oligarch Rinat Akhmetov – Ukraine’s richest man, who owns factories across the troubled east of the country – has called on his employees to hold peaceful protests in defiance of separatists who plan to disrupt Sunday’s presidential election.
In his strongest condemnation yet of the separatists, who have seized strategic points in towns in the heavily industrialised Russian-speaking east, Mr Akhmetov urged people to unite “for Donbass without weapons! For Donbass without masks!” Donbass is the colloquial name for the Donets Basin region, which extends into Russia; Donetsk is its unofficial capital.
Mr Akhmetov, 47, a coal and steel magnate who has an estimated 300,000 employees on his payroll, said Ukrainians should stage a “peaceful warning protest” at their companies from noon yesterday when sirens would sound across the region.
He said the action should continue every day “until peace is established”. He also urged motorists to join in the protest by sounding their horns.
The sharpness of Mr Akhmetov’s attack on the separatists – he has accused them of waging a “genocide of the Donbass” – appeared to confirm that he was committed to supporting the efforts of the struggling interim government in Kiev to stabilise the situation in Ukraine ahead of the election.
Mr Akhmetov, whose fortune is estimated at the equivalent of about £6.76 billion, is the most powerful person in the east because of the reach of his business empire. He also owns FC Shakhtar Donetsk football team.
However, his full support for the Kiev authorities had been in doubt until recently.
He was previously close to pro-Russia former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovich, who was ousted after mass street protests in Kiev in February.
Separatist rebellions erupted in the east after the Kiev “Euromaidan” uprising, fuelled by cross-border propaganda from Moscow critical of Kiev’s pro-Western authorities.
Earlier this month, Mr Akhmetov’s Metinvest company, one of the most powerful in the region, sent miners and metalworkers to the town of Mariupol to join police on patrol, a sign the tycoon had decided to enter the political fray.
In his latest statement, issued overnight on Monday, Mr Akhmetov sharply attacked separatists in Donetsk who have proclaimed an independent Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and have called for it be absorbed into Russia.
He said: “Does anyone in Donbass know at least one representative of this DPR? What have they done for our region? What jobs have they created?
“Does walking around Donbass towns with guns in hands defend the rights of Donetsk residents in front of the central government?
“Is looting in cities and taking peaceful citizens hostages a fight for the happiness of our region? No, it is not! It is genocide of Donbass!”
Meanwhile, Russia’s defence ministry said its units have started dismantling their camps in the border regions.
A day after Russian president Vladimir Putin issued the order in an apparent effort to ease tensions with the West over Ukraine, the ministry said forces in the Bryansk, Belgorod and Rostov regions are preparing to return to their home bases.
Nato, which estimates that Russia has 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, said it could not yet confirm a change. Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu challenged the Russians “to prove that they are doing what they are saying”.
The ministry said it would take time to dismantle the camps and prepare the move.