A Tale of Two Oligarchs
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Western observers ponder Russia's "injustice" and lament Ukraine's chaos. Yet, it was Putin's Russia that took Western examples and applied it, while Orange Ukraine (emboldened by empty Western guarantees and promises) decided to hurl themselves out of their window of opportunity.
Russia's Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Ukraine's Rinat Akhmetov embody the evolution of their contemporary nations. Both oligarchs are remarkably similar in many ways, but the courses taken by their respective countrymen have largely dictated where they are today.
Rinat Akhmetov (left) is the richest man in Ukraine
When Russia's reformers made an example of their richest man and top white collar criminal and threw him into jail, Putin's approval ratings soared. A few years later, Ukraine's reformers campaigned on a platform of sending thieves to the slammer, won (eventually) and then failed to effectively prosecute a single transgressor leading to their coalition's popular support plummeting. Meanwhile, Ukraine's richest bankrolled an effective counter-campaign (including hiring foreign consultants and other USAID camp followers who cut their teeth working for Orange/Western democracy promotion agencies) that now shows signs of not only holding a plurality in Ukraine, but evolving into something respectable. (Although, ask the average citizen in the east or west and most will affirm that the entire spectrum of the Ukrainian political class is just one big clown-heavy circus.)
Khodorkovsky's story is best-known. He was one of the Russian oligarchs who made his fortune in petroleum and, like so many of his era, most likely had shady dealings that involved dishonesty, the occasional murder, and some light treason. Undoubtedly, his decision to court Western support and fund opposition parties such as Yabloko (Russian for "Apple"), Union of Right Forces (SPS), and the Communist Party led to him being selected to serve as an example to others that there were now limits to the games the Kremlin would let the oligarchs play. His conviction of fraud and tax evasion led to a nine year sentence (by comparison, Ken Lay of Enron-fame was expected to receive 20-30 years before he did the honorable thing and died). Khodorkovsky now languishes in a Siberian cell and his never dull attorney, Robert Amsterdam, is currently helping him spend his last half billion defending and defaming people of note.
Similarly, Prime Minister-in-waiting Akhmetov, a Tatar-Ukrainian oligarch made his fortune in steel and maneuvered (or actually vacationed) around a possible prosecution and imprisonment while the Orange Coalition spent all their time dithering over what chairs they were going to sit in. There is probably even more reason to believe that Akhmetov has an even murkier past than Khodorkovsky (even by CIS oligarch standards), but as time has moved on and while Tymoshenko has been braiding her hair, to most observers, Akhmetov and the other targets of her "re-privatization" (Ukrainian for "nationalization") have made the transition from robber barons to respectable industrialists.
Recent pieces by the Kyiv Post, Korrespondent, and Focus, took note that Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine, may well become the richest man in the former Soviet Union before the decade is out. Last year, using estimates from Forbes, Dragon Capital, and others who should know these things, he saw his wealth grow from $3.8 billion to $15.6 billion.
However, rather than Akhmetov actually raking in an extra $10 billion over the last 365 days (that would be an impressive money market account!), it is more likely that just as in the last few years it has been easier to gauge wealth in Russia (where Forbes also logged some significant increases and added billionaires who had not even been previously on the radar), that Ukraine is also now experiencing similar maturing in their financial and other markets, thus allowing for better access to information (and more of a willingness on the part of those who have wealth to allow it to be seen and accounted for.)
Still, (I begrudgingly write), Ukraine's increased wealth and transparency probably has more to do with a resurgent and ever more open Russian market dragging it into the world economy than anything Kyiv has done in the last millennium.
Nick Slepko, borscht lover and Galician nationalist is also Deputy Director of the Real Russia Project and has been working with law, investment, and aid agencies in Ukraine. He is currently based in Kyiv.