Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, won the latest round in his longstanding fight this week against iron-fisted billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, the governor of Dnepropetrovsk, the country’s stronghold in the war-torn east.
It was a crucial duel for the 49-year-old president and the 52-year-old oligarch for financial and military influence, which essentially means the power to rule Ukraine.
On Wednesday, in the latest stage of the battle, the two men sat down at the same table and looked each other in the eye. The president then sacked the tycoon from his post of regional governor. In response, four of Kolomoisky’s supporters from Bloc Petro Poroshenko quit the parliament in protest.
But Kolomoisky—who, until his firing, controlled the power and money in a region with over 1 million people—is apparently not inclined to leave his post without fighting back. Experts predict that Kolomoisky will become a critical figure in the opposition to Kiev’s current government—which could signal the beginning of a much bigger internecine political war.
At the news that their boss had been fired, Kolomoisky’s team in Dnepropetrovsk stood up and quit their jobs in solidarity. “We left,” wrote Kolomoisky’s righthand man, Borys Filatov, on Facebook. “We took with us maps, files…Grad rockets and anti-mine armor.”
“And we took Yarosh with us,” Filatov wrote, hinting that Kolomoisky and his supporters might align themselves with Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Right Sector party, which boasts its own militia.
Since last spring, when pro-Russian rebels established control of dozens of cities in eastern Ukraine, Kolomoisky and his influential team have provided security and ensured loyalty to Ukraine in the Dnepropetrovsk region. The tycoon reportedly funded Dnipro-1, a battalion of about 2,000 well-equipped and well-trained fighters, to oppose the rebels.
In an effort to fan the flames of strife between Poroshenko and the oligarch, the leader of the rebellious Donetsk People Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, suggested this week that Kolomoisky—one of Ukraine’s richest tycoons, worth over $1.3 billion—would create his own breakaway Dnepropetrovsk Republic of Kolomoisky.
“He is de facto the master of that territory, the real power, and Kiev has to agree with him,” Zakharchenko said at a press briefing in Donetsk.
Although Kiev’s elite appreciated Kolomoisky’s patriotic efforts during the war, he has increasingly been seen as a ticking time bomb by his opponents. Ultimately, many Maidan revolutionaries saw themselves as fighting to get rid of the billionaires running the country and there is a sense that authorities should bring Ukraine’s oligarchs to heel.
“Kolomoisky and his private army are extremely dangerous, as one day, if there is a conflict with Poroshenko, he might command his militia to turn their guns against the Rada [parliament],” fellow billionaire and deputy from the opposition block Sergei Levochkin told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. (Levochkin was also the former head of deposed president Victor Yanukovich’s administration.)
Meanwhile, charismatic war commanders, including Yarosh, seemed to sympathize with the ruthless governor of Dnepropetrovsk.
There have been many reasons for Poroshenko to punish Kolomoisky. In the past week the tycoon was accused of raiding a state-owned oil company, UkrNafta, together with his militiamen, who allegedly sported masks, camouflage, and clubs.
That night, Kolomoisky also attacked and cursed a reporter from Radio Svoboda, who asked the governor what he was doing in the office of UkrNafta so late. “Radio Svoboda, you helped ruin the USSR,” Kolomoisky yelled, using dirty language.
“It was uncool and reminded one of the wild 1990s,” when oligarchs operated without impunity, said editor-in-chief and co-founder of International Hromadske TV channel, Natalya Gumenyuk, on Thursday.
A reporter for Rain TV, Timur Olevsky, said that Kolomoisky reminded him of another dangerous warlord: “Kolomoisky is Ukraine’s Ramzan Kadyrov,” he said, referring to Chechnya’s pro-Putin leader. “They both control armed militia forces, they are both popular, influential and both claim that they lead the war on terror.”
From the fragile truce in eastern Ukraine to economic crises and local wars with the oligarchs, President Poroshenko has had his tough moments this year. To put the end to speculations about any continuation of the conflict with Kolomoisky, Poroshenko promised on Thursday that there would be no further destabilization for the country. “As for Kolomoisky,” Poroshenko said, “I have no doubts about his patriotism.”