Can one feel sorry for a multi-millionaire ($673M according to some, $2.3B according to alternative accounts, and $3.8B to others) suspected of bribery, who reportedly admitted consorting with wanted gangsters and once boasted of his close ties to Yanukovych? If so, then spare a thought for Ukrainian gas and titanium tycoon Dmytro Firtash, arrested in Vienna on a US warrant on bribery and organised crime charges. Why on earth might one feel any sympathy for him? Not for the philanthropy, not even for the massive donations to my alma mater at Cambridge to endow Ukrainian studies. Rather than Firtash would seem to be a businessman of the regular Ukrainian oligarchic variety. What does that mean? It means certainly not clean by Western standards, but nor, in any meaningful sense, an organised crime figure himself. So what might he have been?
When he first started building his energy empire, bringing Russian gas into Ukraine, the infamous financial crime lord Semen Mogilevich was a shadowy but indispensable fixer and broker. His involvement was pretty much essential to make any Russo-Ukrainian gas deals work. So, of course, I was entirely unsurprised when the accounts (subsequently denied) of an admitted connection arose. If nothing else, there had been widespread rumours beforehand. Furthermore, Mogilevich–who has an interestingly unique role as, in effect, the boutique personal banker of choice to post-Soviet crooks of every stripe–would conceivably also have been a useful contact and service provider for subsequent sub rosa activities such as moving money abroad discreetly, evading taxes or doing any of the other patriotic parlour games at which post-Soviet plutocrats excel.
That said, Firtash’s attempts to present himself really as a victim of Mogilevich, forced to placate a dangerous gangster who could neither be avoided nor denied, have also been challenged. Back in 2008, the US embassy in Kiev wrote in another cable that, “As co-owner of gas intermediary RosUkrEnergo (RUE), Firtash is widely believed to be serving as a front man for far broader interests.” The suggestion in the cable was that Firtash was a frontman or at least in business with Mogilevich, while other suggestions have presented Firtash as a Russian “agent” in both Ukraine and the wider world.
He could be; I do not know. He certainly has the opportunistic ability to identify useful allies, not least his magic epiphany as the Yanukovych regime crumbled and he suddenly realised what a bad egg his former patron was and instead reportedly transferred his allegiances to opposition leader Klitschko and his UDAR party. In fairness, though, I’ve seen no real evidence of a particular devotion to the Kremlin’s line over and above that required by anyone whose business depends still on Russian goodwill to a considerable degree. Likewise, part of the reason for his bitter feud with former Ukrainian Prime Minister Tymoshenko was his claim that she was cooperating with Moscow against RUE. More to the point, I do not see Firtash as anywhere near the worst of the Ukrainian oligarchs, let alone if we also add the Russians into the mix.
Firtash, who was already persona non grata in the USA, made several mistakes. Being linked with Mogilevich, a man who has acquired almost mythic status in many US government perspectives on Russian/Eurasian organised crime, was a major strike against him. He is high enough profile to be a tempting political target, even though he wasn’t on the EU’s list of oligarchs and major figures linked with Yanukovych’s kleptocracy. He didn’t move quickly enough to distance himself from Yanukovych and his distinctively inefficiently bloody regime (unlike, say, Viktor Pinchuk, son-in-law of previously dirty Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, the beneficiary of sweetheart deals aplenty, now rebranded as Westernising businessman).
But Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, who was once named by the Ukrainian authorities as connected with organised crime and whose possessions include a handsome crop of bought-and-paid-for parliamentarians, so far is doing fine. (But then, the US embassy generously if scarcely-recognisably described him as “a moderate within [Yanukovych's] Party of Regions who, with his interest in market-oriented reforms and promotion of a good investment climate, balances more hard-line elements within the party”.) And other, dirtier figures are also still free to travel, live life well and ingratiate themselves with the new regime in Kyiv, and with foreign governments and financial institutions for that matter. The point is not that Firtash ought not to be arrested: the warrant is legitimate and the charges ought to be proved or disproved in court. It is rather than Firtash is nothing special, as vastly rich oligarchs go. It seems to be that so long as you don’t directly commit a crime in a Western jurisdiction and hobnob with “real” gangsters, then you can be rich, dirty and safe.
And let’s also note one other thing. This has nothing to do with sanctions against Yanukovych’s people, nor relating to Crimea. It’s not going to cleanse Eurasian business, it’s not going to put a dent into organised crime (although if Firtash really was in bed with Mogilevich, the latter might well take a financial hit — but he himself is safe in no-extradition Russia and has fingers in so many pies he’s unlikely to notice the loss). It’s a good thing, yes. But it’s just one small step in the right direction. And no, I don’t feel sorry for him.