Behind the scenes, football tycoon pulls strings in Ukraine crisis

He rarely appears in public and don't expect him to give a news conference to outline his position. But Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov, the owner of the Shakhtar Donetsk football club, is having a possibly decisive influence on Ukraine's standoff between the security forces and protesters. Akhmetov has long been seen as a leading ally of President Viktor Yanukovych. He has bankrolled the ruling Regions Party which he formerly represented in parliament as an MP, and harks from the eastern Donetsk region that is the president's stronghold. But in a possible turning point in a crisis that has raised fears of a prolonged civil conflict, Akhmetov on Saturday issued a strong statement warning that the use of force against protesters was unacceptable and the only way forward was negotiations. "The only way out is to move from street confrontation to negotiations," he added in the statement released by his holding company System Capital Management (SCM) . By coincidence or design, the statement was published only minutes after hawkish Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko had warned that the mass protests risked being broken up by force. Tensions in Kiev have since eased, with Yanukovych giving ground to protesters by accepting the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and paving the way for parliament to scrap anti-protest laws. Although the crisis is far from resolved, parliament is now debating concessions to the protesters rather than considering a state of emergency. "Rinat Akhmetov showed in his announcement that he is against the use of force. Now he is the guarantor of the status-quo and the inadmissibility of the use of force," said Ukrainian political analyst Taras Berezovets. He said that Akhmetov was able to control a group of at least 40 MPs from the ruling Regions Party in the Verkhovna Rada parliament, enough to block any motion to impose a state of emergency. 'I am for the truth' Akhmetov, 47, according to the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine is the country's richest man with a $15.4 billion fortune that was built on interests in metals, mining, banking and media. Even more significantly for many in Ukraine, Akhmetov is the owner of the powerhouse football team Shakhtar Donetsk -- winner of the 2009 UEFA Cup, Ukrainian domestic league champions for the last four seasons and widely seen as the finest football outfit anywhere in the former USSR. Akhmetov is a backer of Ukraine's European integration within the ruling Regions Party and free trade with the EU would clearly be a huge boon for his company. However his reasons for being so strongly against the use of a state of emergency to forcefully end the protests may not be entirely altruistic. According to the influential news site Ukrainska Pravda, visiting US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland warned Akhmetov at a secret meeting when she visited Kiev in December that he and other wealthy backers of the Regions Party could face EU and US sanctions if the police used force against the protesters. For a businessman with an international reputation and properties outside of Ukraine, including a luxury town house in London, this was clearly an unwelcome prospect. Aside from two astutely-timed statements on December 13 and January 25, Akhmetov has largely maintained a characteristic silence on events and kept media and commentators guessing about his intentions. But in an entirely unusual intervention, the tycoon appeared in front of a group of activists and journalists in Donetsk on December 31 who had claimed that he had fled the country amid the crisis. Akhmetov drove up to the activists in his black Mercedes and strode out wearing a tracksuit and white trainers, to prove he was really still in Donetsk. "If you come with the truth, then I am with you," he told the startled demonstrators. "But if you come with lies I am not... I am for the truth." And after wishing everyone a happy new year, he drove off. The incident is viewable on:

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