DONETSK, UKRAINE – In the roiling debate over eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatist attacks have turned increasingly bloody, neither the country’s richest man nor some of his dirt-poor compatriots have much time for patriotism, ethnic feuding or political parties.
Rinat Akhmetov, an industrialist whose companies employ 300,000 people, and who may be the single most powerful man in eastern Ukraine, focuses on one topic: money.
It is also the main concern of most of the men he employs — and that sentiment may turn into a force of unity as Ukraine voted in Sunday’s presidential election.
“You cannot feed people on guns,” Akhmetov said in a televised statement a few days ago, dismissing the gunmen as “savages” and calling for an end to the mutinies. “Nor can you ever build a strong economy without good jobs and salaries.”
“If some of you believe that (the separatists) are leading us to success, this is a mistake,” he said. “They are leading to collapse, poverty and hunger.”
The miners and steelworkers of eastern Ukraine have a long history of involvement in politics, including a series of strikes that helped hasten the fall of the Soviet Union.
This time their focus is economic. Fearful of losing their jobs, most industrial workers in this industrial region have steered well clear of politics, limiting support for the separatist movement.
After staying out of the debate for months, Akhmetov in recent days has become one of the loudest voices urging an end to the crisis. Clearly worried about his own empire if the unrest continues, his dominance in the region appears to have helped keep large numbers of blue-collar workers from turning to the separatists.
A little over a week ago, workers from Akhmetov’s steel factories, working with police, took government buildings away from pro-Moscow insurgents in Mariupol, an industrial port city on the Azov Sea, dealing a serious blow to the anti-Kiev forces that want to merge this part of Ukraine with Russia. Every day, workers at his factories are called together for pro-unity rallies.
The message at the rallies is straightforward and repetitive. “If we support the (separatist) ‘Donetsk Republic,’ no one will recognize us. We’ll be in a gray zone. No one will send us raw materials. We’ll have no one to export to,” Yuri Zinchenko, who runs a Mariupol steel factory in Akhmetov’s empire, told company workers this past week. “All of us will lose our jobs, even me,” he said.