The crisis in Ukraine continues to grow with pro-Russian demonstrators now declaring an independence referendum in the city of Donetsk. Yet the members of that elite club who will help shape Ukraine’s future when this current crisis is over — the oligarchs — remain conspicuously quiet.
These highly influential figures, many of whom are billionaire owners of business empires forged as the Soviet Union collapsed, have long been the real driving force in Ukrainian politics. When the next election slated for May this year takes place they are expected to do what they have always done: fund rival political campaigns that further exacerbate the East-versus-West and Europe-versus-Eurasia divisions on which the foundations of today’s crisis are built.
For most in Europe or America, names of Ukrainian oligarchs such as Pinchuk, Kolomoisky, and Akhmetov are interchangeable with Russian counterparts such as Abramovich, Deripaska, and Khodorkovsky. Wealth they may have in common but the crucial difference is in Ukraine their interests are interwoven with politics. This appears to be a worthwhile pursuit for the wealthy: it provides the prospect of influencing decision-making for your own advantage. Holding your own seat in parliament offers handy immunity from prosecution. Their Russian equivalents are allowed no such role or benefits: Khodorkovsky spent his years in jail because he attempted involve himself in the affairs of government; another, Berezovsky was exiled and eventually ruined in part because of his attempts to stand up to the Kremlin.
But now, in the face of today’s crisis, Ukraine needs its oligarchs to disengage from politics. Their political involvement is what has helped drive their country to division and economic crisis, because of the way – unlike in Russia — the political pendulum is able to swing in favour of one group and then their opponents. Those oligarchs that have funded more Russian-facing candidates, because their business interests are dependent primarily on trade with Russia, benefited over the last four years during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovich. During that time their western-friendly rivals were confronted with court cases, tax demands and invasive audits, damaging their interests. When Yanukovich’s western-leaning predecessor Viktor Yushchenko was in office it was they who enjoyed the spoils of a friendly government while their more Russian-leaning rivals suffered.
Now, as Russia digs in in Crimea, some of Ukraine’s oligarchs have rallied to the cause of their country’s territorial integrity. They have publicly stated they stand for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and will help defend it. Yet this alone is insufficient unity to benefit to the country in the long-term, and smells of self-interest. After all, none would be able to engage in politics in any future Ukraine dominated by Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine’s oligarchs can and must do better than this: by taking a new, united stance they can help to shape the future of their country long after the crisis with Russia has abated. Firstly, they can stop fighting each other. They should and can impose upon themselves a ceasefire. Already vastly wealthy and powerful, they have the chance to ensure the political pendulum does not swing to punish them in the years when their political front men are out of office. Under such a truce there would be no more winners and no more losers as the political seasons turn.
Secondly, they should agree to stay out of politics. Through a collective accord not to fund political parties, or at least an agreement to cap contributions at a low level, the vast cost of Ukrainian election campaigns — already in the league of U.S. election spending — could fall, perhaps over time even allowing for the rise of political parties elected on policy-platforms, not on a geographical power base or depth of their pockets. This might seem a self-imposed version of the division between politics and oligarchs that exists in Putin’s Russia, but it would be of immense benefit to the country when their political proxy wars have only ever ended in expensive stalemates.