Igor Kolomoïski, a billionaire who annoys Volodimir Zelenski

Igor Kolomoïski, a billionaire who annoys Volodimir Zelenski

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Dozens of raids were carried out in Ukraine on Wednesday to combat corruption. One of them targeted Igor Kolomoïski, a “very influential” and sulfurous billionaire who had helped popularize Volodimir Zelenski before his election in 2019. But the new president wants to distance himself from the political “old guard”.

It is the story of a sulphurous billionaire, an oligarch who helped make Volodymyr Zelensky famous… and now displayed as a symbol of the fight against corruption by the Ukrainian president. On Wednesday, February 1, the home of businessman Igor Kolomoïski was searched in Dnipro in connection with a case of embezzlement in two oil companies: Ukrtatnafta and Ukrnafta, two companies of which the billionaire was co-owner.

This media coup is part of a global initiative by the Ukrainian authorities to fight corruption in the country: former Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, senior officials from the Ministry of Defense and the Ukrainian tax authorities also received a visit from investigators on the same day. The raids come a week after several senior Ukrainian officials were ousted over corruption in army supplies.

“Igor Kolomoïski is accused of having been the de facto manager of a state company and of enriching himself in this way. But this has been an open secret for 20 years in Ukraine: everyone knows that 90% of Ukrainian public companies That’s how they work,” Ryhor Nizhnikau, a specialist in Ukrainian politics at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told France 24.

The shadow of Igor Kolomoïski after Ukrnafta and PrivatBank

At the center of the current investigations, the company Ukrnafta – the country’s largest oil producer – is considered one of the “most scandalous” state-owned companies in Ukraine, according to an article in the ‘Kyiv Post’ published in June 2020.

The Ukrainian newspaper explained that the company, controlled since 2003 by Igor Kolomoïski “using a legal loophole” although he only owned 42% of the company, “owes Ukraine 500 million dollars in unpaid taxes.” In addition, the National Anti-Corruption Office of Ukraine estimated that as of 2015, $600 million had been siphoned off the company through shell companies.

The name of Igor Kolomoïski also appears in another case: PrivatBank, the largest bank in Ukraine. The billionaire owned the banking group alongside Ukrainian oligarch Gennady Boholiubov before the state nationalized it to prevent a collapse of the banking system in 2016.

The Central Bank of Ukraine then discovered a $5.5 billion hole in the group’s coffers, almost 5% of Ukrainian GDP. “One of the biggest financial scandals of the 21st century”, estimated the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda in 2019.

“A raid for television” and a signal sent by Volodimir Zelensky

But despite these ongoing suspicious cases, the raid on Igor Kolomoïski’s house on Wednesday has a more political explanation, according to Ryhor Nizhnikau: “This raid is symbolically important for Volodimir Zelenski. He wants to show that he no longer depends on anyone and that he no longer does not need the old guard of the Ukrainian political elite to govern.”

The Ukrainian political expert continued: “From a judicial point of view, this raid led to nothing. It lasted thirty minutes, long enough for a TV episode. It was a TV raid. It is also not insignificant that it was carried out by the security services SBU, a political body that reports to Volodimir Zelenski, and not the anti-corruption brigade. This is not a raid to bring down Igor Kolomoïski, but to send a signal to the entire political landscape.”

The Ukrainian president stated on Thursday, February 2, that “justice will be served” in his daily Internet message, referring to “dozens of searches and other actions in different regions and against different people in criminal proceedings.” It is a way for Zelensky to present himself as the champion of the fight against corruption, something he was already doing before he was elected president of Ukraine in 2019.

It’s also a way for the Ukrainian president to keep Igor Kolomoïski at arm’s length: early in his term, Zelensky was dubbed “Kolomoïski’s puppet” by his detractors. The oligarch’s television network, 1 + 1, one of the main ones in the country, favorably covered his campaign when he was a comedian, broadcasting his comedy shows and later his series “Servant of the people.”

“Creating a new political landscape”

“They were never very close,” says Ryhor Nizhnikau. “Zelensky was part of Igor Kolomoïski’s media empire. He hated Petro Poroshenko (president of Ukraine from 2014 to 2019) above all else, and he supported several candidates who had a chance to beat him: Volodimir Zelensky, therefore, but also Yulia Tymoshenko”.

But the Ukrainian president’s relationship with the billionaire is not non-existent: when Igor Kolomoïski was sanctioned by the United States for “aggravated corruption” in March 2021, “the only place where he found refuge was in Ukraine,” says the specialist in Ukrainian politics. “So there is some kind of contract between the two men. Zelenski knows what he owes to Kolomoyski’s media machine and his money, and he has paid him well.”

But the current trend is not towards a rapprochement between the two, especially since the start of the war in Ukraine: Zelensky stripped eight political personalities of their citizenship -among them Igor Kolomoïski- by presidential decree in July 2022. However, this It does not mean that the billionaire now appears to be outside the Ukrainian political arena or that his influence has diminished.

“In the old political system, based on informal links between the actors in power, Igor Kolomoïski remains essential,” says Ryhor Nizhnikau. “He is still very influential for the vast majority of Ukrainian politicians. Only a few personalities – like Volodimir Zelensky – are currently above this system and no longer need it.”

“(The Ukrainian president) wants to create a new political landscape that is centered around him … and perhaps less corrupt.”

*Text adapted from its original French version

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