* Unarmed employees of oligarch Akhmetov join police patrols
* Separatist crisis threatens business interests
* Akhmetov takes bolder line to restore influence in region
By Matt Robinson and Richard Balmforth
MARIUPOL/KIEV, Ukraine, May 16 In their overalls
and hard hats, the latest additions to the heady mix of security
forces in Ukraine are the first tangible sign the rebel east's
richest son is entering the fray.
Multi-billionaire Rinat Akhmetov's miners and metalworkers
joined police on patrol on Mariupol on Wednesday, cleared
barricades of tyres and pallets with diggers and heavy loaders
and swept the debris from the gutted City Hall, ending the
turmoil unleashed by the armed takeover of much of the region.
The city seemed to return to normal; traffic flowed and the
men in masks driven out by the army last weekend stayed away as
police teamed up with the unarmed workmen of Metinvest, the most
powerful company in the industrialised east.
Though largely symbolic, the scene showed the extent to
which the crisis has come to threaten the interests of Ukraine's
richest man and the lengths he will go to to protect them.
Akhmetov, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine at
$11.4 billion, has acquired almost feudal status in the
industrial hub of Donetsk in the past 20 years - but the
separatist rebellions there have altered the dynamics of power.
As pro-Russian rebels declaring independence seized public
buildings across the steel and coal belt which is the basis of
his colossal fortune, he issued repeated written statements in
support of a united Ukraine.
But the media-shy 47-year-old Akhmetov, who has a workforce
of 300,000 people on his payroll in the Donbass, has to tread
carefully around local sensitivities and has avoided
specifically condemning the action of the separatists.
The rebels' 'declaration' of an independent Donetsk region
on Monday, however, and their appeal for Russian annexation pose
a major threat to Akhmetov's holdings and his fortune.
With no response from Moscow, the prospect of the Donetsk
region joining the likes of Moldova's Transdniestria or
Georgia's Abkhazia as largely unrecognised statelets, operating
in a legal and diplomatic limbo, can hardly sit well with a
business empire built on exports.
"No one wants the Donetsk region to become some kind of grey
zone unrecognised by the world. That would be very painful for
us," said Yuriy Zinchenko, general director of Mariupol's Ilyich
Iron and Steel Works, part of Metinvest, majority-owned by
Akhmetov's System Capital Management.
Metinvest supplies more than 100 countries, he told Reuters,
and export routes could be threatened if decisions about the
future of the east were taken outside the law.
"That's clear not just to us, to our group, its leadership
and individual companies, but to the workers too," he said.
"That's more 300,000 employees and their families - that's a
It is an army both the pro-Russian rebels and the government
in Kiev would be rash to ignore.
Independent analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said Akhmetov has now
recognised that his earlier passive tactics did not work in his
favour as the rebellion has continued to grip the region.
"He has understood that his tactic of passive neutrality no
longer works. He will have to become an active intermediary
between separatists and the government," Fesenko said.
Sending unarmed workers from Metinvest, Akhmetov's main
metals exports and mining conglomerate, to join patrols with
police is not the only sign that the oligarch has decided to
take a bolder line to protect the future of his business empire.
Akhmetov, who emerged as head of a private business empire
out of violent gang wars in the east in the 1990s after the
collapse of the Soviet Union, normally shuns media interviews
and public appearances.
But in a new departure for him on Wednesday, the usually
camera-shy oligarch made a four-minute video for Ukrainian TV
channels in which he declared: "I strongly believe that Donbass
can be happy only in a united Ukraine".
He threw his weight behind the Kiev government's plan to
devolve more powers to the regions to provide greater autonomy
and undercut separatist demands which Kiev fears will lead to
the break-up of Ukraine.
Soccer-mad, he owns the FC Shakhtar club, with its flying
saucer-like stadium and star-studded multinational squad. He
made headlines three years ago by buying a $200-million London
But in the violent upheaval of the past five months, the
overthrow of his ally, Moscow-backed President Viktor
Yanukovich, the shooting dead of more than 100 people in Kiev by
police, Russia's annexation of Crimea and now separatist
rebellions in the east, have made Akhmetov's wealth and status
count for less.
In the capital Kiev, well away from his eastern stronghold
and the popularity it assures him of, Akhmetov has always had a
chequered reputation because of his past support for Yanukovich.
He is a persona non grata on Kiev's Maidan - Independence
Square - which was the crucible of the mass action that drove
Yanukovich from power and where protesters still hold sway.
Just recently, some spray-painted windows of the Kiev
headquarters of System Capital Management, his holding company.
And anyone walking past the Kiev city centre building site
of a shopping mall Akhmetov is renovating can still see the
shadowy outline of graffiti painted on canvas. One piece of
graffiti reads: "Rinat, are you with Ukraine or with the
He has realised the time to act to re-establish himself is
now - before it's too late.
"Akhmetov does not play a key role in the Donbass at the
moment. This is really important," said Inna Bohoslovska, a
politician who once belonged to Yanukovich's Party of the
"At the beginning he tried to influence events to try to get
it under control to strengthen his position, but then he lost
KEY TO FATE OF REGION
Mariupol, a major port with mines and steel works that
account for a significant part of the region's industrial
output, has changed hands several times over the past two weeks,
from the rebels who seized city hall to the military that
cleared them out but immediately withdrew to the city edges.
Metinvest appeared to fill the void on Wednesday, clearing
the streets to allow traffic to flow and offering to pay for the
reconstruction of a police station strafed and burned in an
assault by the army on what it said were pro-Russian militants.
Metinvest said its patrols with police would be expanded to
other towns where the company has operations. It has urged the
army to stay out.
Control of Mariupol is key to the fate of the Donetsk region
and the ambitions of the separatist gunmen. Thousands of people
turned out here on Sunday to cast votes in a referendum on
self-rule, many of them saying they sought autonomy but not
necessarily divorce from Kiev.
Pro-Russian separatist leaders took that as a mandate the
next day to declare Donetsk a sovereign state and, following
Crimea, seek accession to Russia, which has yet to respond.
A test of how far Kiev still holds sway here will come on
May 25, when it tries to hold a nationwide presidential election
and draw a line under months of turmoil. As things stand, the
vote will go ahead in Mariupol, with Akhmetov's apparent
Both sides are courting him. "We meet now and again," Denis
Pushilin, the self-declared leader of the would-be Donetsk
republic, told Reuters when asked about his contacts with
But Metal baron Sergei Taruta, the Kiev-appointed governor
of the Donetsk region, said Akhmetov was not on the rebels'
side: "You can see what role he's playing by what's going on in
Mariupol. His workers are fighting against what's happening
"We'll demonstrate in Mariupol how to hold a fair election,"
he told a news conference on Tuesday.
As his workers stacked tyres and swept the streets under a
hot sun, Zinchenko said the company and Akhmetov spoke as one.
"We favour a united, whole Ukraine, a strong Ukraine with
Donetsk in it. Everyone agrees power needs to be decentralised.
But I repeat, that must be within a united state."
One worker, Nikolai, echoed the company line. "Thanks to the
Metinvest leadership for bringing out the people, together with
the police, in bringing order back to the city," he said,
declining to give his second name.
Yet Fesenko wondered if Akhmetov has missed his moment.
"He has become more active. For the first time he has spoken
out more concretely in the past few days. But the question is:
Is it too late?" the analyst said.
"It will be difficult for him to influence the situation
given what has happened in the past two weeks."
(Additional reporting by Natalya Zinets and Pavel Polityuk in
Kiev, Elizabeth Piper in Moscow; writing by Matt Robinson and
Richard Balmforth; editing by Philippa Fletcher)