It is a story about a sulphurous billionaire, an oligarch who helped make Volodymyr Zelensky famous… and who is now displayed as a symbol of the fight against corruption by the Ukrainian president. On Wednesday, February 1, the home of businessman Igor Kolomoïski in Dnipro was searched in connection with a case of bias in two oil companies: Ukrtatnafta and Ukrnafta, two companies that the billionaire co-owned.
This media coup is part of a global initiative by the Ukrainian authorities to fight corruption in the country: former Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, senior officials from the Ministry of Defense and the Ukrainian tax authorities were also visited by investigators on the same day. The raids come a week after several senior officials were expelled from Ukraine over corruption in military supplies.
“Igor Kolomoïski is accused of being the de facto manager of a state company and of enriching himself in this way. But this has been an open secret for 20 years in Ukraine: everyone knows that 90% of Ukrainian public companies that’s how they work,” Ryhor Nizhnikau, a specialist in Ukrainian politics at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told France 24.
Shadow of Igor Kolomoiski after Ukrnafta and PrivatBank
At the center of the current investigations, the company Ukrnafta – the country’s largest oil producer – is considered one of the “most scandalous” state-owned companies in Ukraine, according to an article in the ‘Kyiv Post’ published in June 2020.
The Ukrainian newspaper explained that the company, controlled since 2003 by Igor Kolomoïski “is using a legal loophole” although he owned only 42% of the company, “Ukraine owes 500 million dollars in unpaid taxes.” In addition, the National Anti-Corruption Office of Ukraine estimated that, since 2015, $600 million had been siphoned from the company through shell companies.
Igor Kolomoïski’s name also appears in another case: PrivatBank, the largest bank in Ukraine. The billionaire owned the banking group together with Ukrainian oligarch Gennady Boholiubov before it was nationalized by the state to prevent the collapse of the banking system in 2016.
The Central Bank of Ukraine then discovered a $5.5 billion hole in the group’s coffers, nearly 5% of Ukraine’s GDP. “One of the biggest financial scandals of the 21st century”, considered the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda in 2019.
“Raid for TV” and signal launched by Volodimir Zelensky
But despite these ongoing suspicious cases, the raid on Igor Kolomoïski’s house on Wednesday has a more political explanation, according to Ryhor Nizhnikau: “This raid is symbolically important for Volodimir Zelenski. He wants to show that he is not rely on anyone anymore and that it is no longer necessary to control the old guard of the Ukrainian political elite.”
The Ukrainian political expert continued: “From a judicial point of view, nothing came of this raid. It lasted thirty minutes, long enough for a TV episode. It was a TV raid. It is also not insignificant that it was done by the Defense Forces. the SBU security services, a political body that reports to Volodimir Zelenski, and not the anti-corruption brigade. This is not a raid to bring down Igor Kolomoïski, but to send a signal to the entire political landscape. “
The president of Ukraine said on Thursday, February 2, that “justice will be served” in his daily Internet message, referring to “dozens of searches and other actions in different regions and against different people in criminal proceedings.” It is a way for Zelensky to present himself as a champion of the fight against corruption, which he was already doing before he was elected president of Ukraine in 2019.
It is also a way to keep Ukrainian president Igor Kolomoïski at arm’s length: early in his term, his detractors called Zelensky a “Kolomoïski puppet”. The oligarch’s television network, 1+1, one of the largest in the country, covered his campaign when he was a comedian, airing his comedy shows and later his series “Servido del pueblo.”
“Creating a new political landscape”
“They were never very close,” says Ryhor Nizhnikau. “Zelensky was part of Igor Kolomoïski’s media empire. He hated Petro Poroshenko (president of Ukraine from 2014 to 2019) above all, and supported several candidates who had a chance to beat him: Volodimir Zelensky, as that, but also Yulia Tymoshenko “.
But the relationship of the president of Ukraine with the billionaire does not exist: when the United States sanctioned Igor Kolomoïski due to “aggravated corruption” in March 2021, “the only place he found asylum is in Ukraine,” says the specialist in Ukraine. politics. “So there is some kind of contract between the two men. Zelenski knows what he owes to Kolomoyski’s media machine and his money, and he has paid him well.”
But the current trend is not towards a rapprochement between the two, especially since the beginning of the war in Ukraine: Zelensky stripped eight political personalities of their citizenship – among them Igor Kolomoïski- with a presidential decree in July 2022. However, not it does. This means that the billionaire now seems to be outside the political sphere of Ukraine or that his influence has decreased.
“In the old political system, based on informal ties between the actors in power, Igor Kolomoïski is still essential,” says Ryhor Nizhnikau. “He still has a lot of influence on the vast majority of Ukrainian politicians. Only a handful of personalities – like Volodimir Zelensky – are currently above this system and they don’t need it anymore.”
“(Ukraine’s president) wants to create a new political landscape centered around him … and perhaps less corrupt.”
* Text adapted from its original version in French