Over the past few days, Dnipropetrovsk Region Governor Igor Kolomoisky has suddenly made news headlines in a dispute over control of two companies – Ukrnafta and UkrTransNafta. Ukrnafta is Ukraine’s largest producer of oil and gas, while UkrTransNafta manages the transportation of oil and gas through Ukraine’s pipeline network. The scandal has resulted in Mr. Kolomoisky’s ouster as governor.
On Sunday, March 22nd, Kolomoisky sent a detachment of armed, private security guards to block entry to the Ukrnafta building and put a fence around it. Journalists and an MP from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc showed up to question the governor about what he was doing, and received the answer that he was guarding the building against a takeover by pro-Russian forces. Kolomoisky’s group of companies – the Privat Group – owns 42% of Ukrnafta, with 50% plus a share owned by the state. After parliament passed a bill on Thursday to reduce the quorum at joint stock companies from 60% to 50%, Kolomoisky’s control over Ukrnafta was threatened. This state of affairs is widely interpreted as the incentive for the attempted armed raid.
Also on Sunday, the government attempted to replace the UkrTransNafta’s manager, an ally of Kolomoisky, and the governor showed up in person with a squad of armed security personnel. When asked by the press and media what he was doing there, Kolomoisky erupted in a slew of expletives, saying he had come to protect the firm from seizure by agents of Russia.
The following day, accusations were leveled at Kolomoisky from prominent figures in the government. As the English-language Kyiv Post reported at midday on March 24th:
Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, head of Ukraine’s Security Service loyal to President Petro Poroshenko, suspects that Dnipropetrovsk Oblast deputy governors Gennady Korban and Svyatoslav Oliynyk are involved in an organized crime ring responsible for abducting law enforcement officials, a claim which would implicate Kolomoisky at least indirectly because the people named are close to him.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that the armed men outside the companies’ offices were actually private guards, and all of the volunteer battalions were accounted for at the front lines. ‘None of the private security companies, according to the laws of Ukraine, has the right to carry weapons,’ Avakov said on his Facebook page.
Late morning, Monday, March 23rd, President Petro Poroshenko, dressed in military fatigues, appeared in public flanked by the Minister of Defense and other senior military officials, declaring:
No governor shall have his own pocket armed forces.
The message was quickly becoming clear that Kolomoisky had become too much of a threat. Indeed, since his appointment as governor by the interim Ukrainian authorities almost immediately after the Maidan Revolution in March 2014, Kolomoisky’s power had seemed to loom out of proportion to his official role as regional governor. Suspicions immediately began to arise that this was simply another war between Ukraine’s rich men – ‘oligarchs’ – and that the more politically senior (Poroshenko) had had enough. By the evening of Tuesday, March 24th, the announcement had been made that Poroshenko had signed an official presidential degree ‘granting the request’ of Kolomoisky to be relieved of his official duties.
The news is worrying for many reasons. First, Kolomoisky had served as a kind of guarantor of security and stability in eastern Ukraine. Soon after the Maidan uprising, signs of separatist sentiment had begun to make themselves visible in Dnipropetrovsk, a serious worry for a fledgling, unstable regime. Kolomoisky financed and equipped several battalions, reputedly spending $10 million of his own money on the Dnipro-1 battalion (a de facto police force for Dnipropetrovsk Region), but also supporting other battalions, including Dnipro-2, Aidar, Azov and Donbas to fill the security void in the area and indeed in the country. Dnipropetrovsk – though bordering both Luhansk and Donetsk regions – has not witnessed separatism or pro-Russian insurgency with Kolomoisky as governor.
Now that Kolomoisky is gone, he has said publicly that there is a real possibility of an uprising in Dnipropetrovsk, and that he ‘wouldn’t want it,’ but ‘anything is possible.’ Whether this is a veiled threat remains to be seen. He still has many allies in the Verkhovna Rada (national parliament), and there is already talk of them forming a separate faction to defend their patron. Perhaps most unfortunately, the rift may play into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin. One MP from Poroshenko’s own party – Andrey Denysenko – has suggested that the sacking of Kolomoisky was part of a ‘secret protocol’ agreed to in Minsk between Putin and Poroshenko, whereby the Putin – who once described Kolomoisky as a ‘unique crook’ – would be willing to grant more concessions in exchange for Kolomoisky’s ouster. The world can only wait, watch and hope that this is not a sign of serious fracture in the nascent Ukrainian state, and a repeat of the historical split between Left-Bank (East) and Right-Bank (West) Ukraine.