DNIPROPETROVSK — In the partition of the new Ukraine, billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskyi plays his game far from the capital. The oligarch is actively seeking his piece of business and political opportunities, and regularly goes to Kiev, but keeps his whereabouts rather quiet.
From his hometown of Dnipropetrovsk to Odessa on the Black Sea, he is busy building himself a kingdom in the southeast of Ukraine. A trained engineer, Kolomoyskyi, 51, is believed to be worth at least $3.5 billion, with a fortune built on oil, media and finance holdings.
Kiev named him governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region in March. Then on May 6, one of his close associates, Ihor Palytsia, was named governor of the Odessa region. The Kiev governement is currently too busy with the showdown with Russia to tame Kolomoyskyi's ambitions. Indeed, the government is grateful for the part he played earlier in keeping the peace at the Donbas border.
Still violence has continued to spread among armed separatists around the contested city of Donetsk. After Sunday's election to the presidency of another Ukranian oligarch, Petro Poroshenko, a major assault was unleashed by Kiev forces in the east, which led to the death of dozens of pro-Russian rebels.
Dnipropetrovsk belongs to the Russian-speaking minority in the East, just like Donbas. But in the regional capital, where Kolomoyskyi's Privat and PrivatBank group are headquartered, Ukrainian patriotism is stronger than in Donetsk. A vital industrial center of Ukraine, Dnipropetrovsk looks like an open skies shopping mall. Two other key figures have lived there: former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and businessman Victor Pinchuk.
"Small green man"
When he took office, Ihor Kolomoyskyi showed he would deal with the elites of the former regime. For instance, the director of the leading local television channel kept his job. Evgueny Oudod, former supporter of Viktor Yanukovych, stayed on as the head of the regional council. Kolomoyskyi says he is trying to "maintain peace."
On the other hand, Oleh Tsarov, former head of the Dnipropetrovsk regional branch of the Russian-speaking Party of Regions, left the country. This former presidential candidate was sanctioned by the European Union because he called for the creation of a Federal Republic of New Russia in the eastern Ukraine. Some Russian media accuse Kolomoyskyi of putting a $1 million price on Tsarov's head, though the sources quote a telephone recording which is of dubious authenticity.
But Kolomoyskyi's team did offer a reward: $10,000 for the capture of a certain "small green man," an apparent reference to the Russian-backed militants who took control of the official buildings in Donbas dressed in green fatigues.
Boris Filatov, deputy head of the Dnipropetrovsk region, works as a businessman who negotiates with the protestors in the streets on Kolomoyskyi's behalf. "In Ukraine, there's no state," Filatov said. "There is a network of patriots and a network of bastards." He offered a "headquarters" to the armed patriots on the first floor of the governate council. Kolomoyskyi also provided equipment to thousands of them in the region. But not weapons, he insisted.
For two months, 2,000 locals have joined the police and the army and thus have reinforced Kolomoyskyi's influence on these corps. The governor's assistants say to everyone that the new police chief who was named by Kiev is as "corrupt" as his predecessor.
Because he recruited and trained these volunteers, Kolomoyskyi is accused of having let criminal elements enter the police forces. On May 9, one of these battalion took part in the fights with separatists in Mariupol, a harbor town in Donbas. At least seven people were killed. The Human Rights Watch organisation is probing whether the army shot civilians, though the Department of Homeland Security denied such reports.
"Our New York"
On the business side, things are a bit different. Guennadi Korban, another ally of Kolomoyskyi, works these days as a salesman for the state enterprise that manufactures missiles and rockets. And right now, his exports to Russia are jeopardized. He also wants to build in his city the "largest convention center in Eastern Europe," where sectors such as mining, siderurgy and agriculture could meet.
In Odessa, governor Ihor Palytsia took office four days after the death of more than 40 people, who died mostly in pro-Russian protests, street fighting and the fire at the House of Trade Unions. The police forces are now the subject of two judicial inquiries as they are accused of inaction and collusion. The police chief left the country as Kolomoyskyi's opponents accused him of being involved in these events.
Kolomoyskyi considers Odessa as the "most competitive and capitalist" city in Ukraine. "It's our New York, the Ukrainian dream," he says.
His ally Boris Filatov has already contacted the pro-Kiev and pro-Russian movements of the city. He will have to buy the loyalty of the police and cope with the harbor mafia. "We know how to talk to the police and no mafia in the world wants to live under the heel of the Federal Security Service," Filatov says smiling.
Without any other choice, this city may have to put up with a new sheriff.