Ukrainian protests follow oligarchs to London

Protesters rally with Ukrainian and Union flags in sympathy with the anti-government protesters in Kiev outside the Ukrainian embassy in London on January 25, 2014. 

Stepan  Shakhno - Ukrainian activist. " We want Akhmetov to know that he cannot hide here."

Crystyna Chimera " It makes my blood boil!"

When you’ve bought an apartment at Number One Hyde Park in central London, and you’ve forked out $225 million for it (the highest price ever for a London pad), you probably don’t expect to find a large group of angry protesters on your doorstep. But that has been the fate of Ukraine’s richest man – Rinat Akhmetov.  

"Because One Hyde Park is an icon of corruption in Ukraine," says Sergiy Burnus, a Ukrainian who lives and works in London. "This is the example of how the poorest country in Europe – Ukraine -- can have the richest oligarch, who buys the most expensive luxury flat in London."  

Akhmetov built his $15 billion fortune out of the scramble for state-owned assets in the 1990s, after the collapse of communism. Like many other oligarchs, he’s been accused of ripping off the country by snapping up its assets at rock bottom prices. But today he faces a more serious charge: that by financing the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, he is implicated in the killing of more than 80 people in last week’s violent clashes in Kiev.

Stepan Shakhno -- another London-based activist -- claims that the oligarch must bear some of blame for the massacre, and must be made to pay: "We want to put pressure on him and let him know that he cannot hide here. And this bloody money that he has stolen from the Ukranian people should be returned back to Ukraine."

A spokesman for Akhmetov rejected the allegations of theft and complicity in the killings, and denied that the businessman is in London at the moment. Akhmetov isn’t the only Ukranian oligarch with a foothold in the U.K. who is attracting the adverse attention of protestors. A gas tycoon – Dmitry Firtash – who has also been accused of plundering Ukraine and financing repression – has been targeted too. Demonstraters staged a protest outside the London Stock Exchange complaining that the Exchange had allowed Firtash to formally open a trading session. British born Ukrainian Crystyna Chimera –who took part in that protest - is angry with the British authorities for rolling out the red carpet for the oligarchs.

"It makes my blood boil that whilst people are dying on the streets of Kiev, the oligarchs are allowed to live in London, to live luxury lives with the most expensive flats. I think it’s time for government institutions to take a look at themselves, and ask themselves whether they have Ukrainian blood on their hands," Chimera says.

The activists want the British government to withdraw the oligarchs’ visas. But that seems unlikely to happen. The U.K. bends over backwards to attract rich foreigners, and over the past 5 years, 850 Russian oligarchs and Chinese multimillionaires have been given the right to live in Britain.

Nick Redman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies points out that enquiring into whether the oligarchs’ wealth is ill-gotten or not wouldn’t be easy. And he argues that the oligarchs are not that different from America’s Robber Barons. 

"If you look back into some of the big fortunes of the U.S. capitalists’ in the 19th century, those people then went on to endow museums and other things, and in a way that’s what Mr Akhmetov and Mr. Firtash are doing now," says Redman. The oligarchs have been recasting themselves as philanthropists. Late last year, Firtash paid for a Festival of Ukrainian music, art , literature and food in London. But – after the bloodshed in Kiev - laundering the image of the oligarchs may be impossible. 

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

Stepan  Shakhno - Ukrainian activist. " We want Akhmetov to know that he cannot hide here."

Crystyna Chimera " It makes my blood boil!"

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