Kiev: Ukraine`s richest man Rinat Akhmetov may have just swung the tide in favour of Kiev`s beleaguered Western-backed leaders by denouncing pro-Russian rebels who have run riot over his industrial base in the east.
The 47-year-old coal miner`s son with a fortune Forbes puts at $12.2 billion (8.9 billion euros) made his career by shrewdly navigating through the turmoil that exploded during the Soviet Union`s breakup and the cut-throat politics that followed in Ukraine ever since.
Akhmetov, an ethnic Tartar, was the power behind the corruption-stained regime of president Viktor Yanukovych -- a Moscow ally whose concern for the oligarchs` interests made him a hate figure among many voters.
Now he is the man whose backing the fledgeling Kiev authorities are most eager to win in their stuttering bid to protect the integrity of their crisis-hit state.
The industrialist and title-winning owner of the Shakhtar football club obliged with flying colours on Tuesday by comparing the separatists to bandits and warning that their uprising could lead to "genocide".
"What have the (separatists) done for our regions? What have they created?" Akhmetov demanded in a statement.
He called for a peace rally ahead of Sunday`s crunch presidential election and accused the guerrillas -- many of them ethnic Russians -- of waging "a fight against the citizens of our region".
The call was cheered almost instantly by Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.
"Finally -- some energy from Rinat Akhmetov!" said Avakov, one of the architects of Ukraine`s largely futile military push into the east.
Akhmetov`s intervention "will help (Ukrainians) settle our differences and let our rifles gather dust," the interior minister said on Facebook.
The US-based Atlantic Council -- a respected Washington think-tank that called Akhmetov Ukraine`s "oligarch-in-chief" -- said the billionaire was probably trying to "reconcile his political position" with the knowledge that a pro-Western leader was all but certain to win Sunday`s vote.
It also noted that Akhmetov was probably most worried about the prospect of devastating Western sanctions being imposed not only on his vital trade partners in Russia but also on the coal and steel producers that he oversees in the turmoil-hit regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.
But the question asked by many is whether Akhmetov still wields the same influence over his power base now that it is overrun by gunmen who often fly the Russian tricolour and are willing to openly challenge not only the Ukrainian army but also the country`s entire political elite.
Akhmetov played the role of behind-the-scenes mediator in the early days of the eastern resistance by trying to coax the separatists out of the dozen or so government buildings they seized in early April.
But his efforts proved futile and he was forced into far more decisive action after violence in the southeastern industrial hub of Mariupol killed some 20 people and the two separatist regions proclaimed independence in May 11 referendums that Kiev and the West denounced as a sham.
Akhmetov then began arming the burly workers of his Metinvest steelmaker in Mariupol -- a decision that underscored both the Ukrainian army`s futility and his impatience with the Kremlin-sanctioned separatist push.
His imposing force regained control over much of the city of half-a-million people without bloodshed and dealt the militias their most humiliating setback to date.
But the lingering threat to his business interests was made clear when the self-declared leader of the separatist "People`s Republic of Donetsk" announced plans to nationalise the many mills and coalmines that Akhmetov owns.Akhmetov`s beginnings in Donetsk are secretive and a subject he prefers to avoid.
A diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks revealed that former US ambassador John Herbst once referred to the pro-Russian former ruling Regions Party that Akhmetov funded "a haven for Donetsk-based mobsters and oligarchs".
It called Akhmetov himself the "godfather" of the Donetsk clan.
A spokesman for the tycoon denounced the accusations as "slander" and the charges have had little affect on either Akhmetov`s business dealings or his crucial ties to the Western business world.
He enjoys a globe-trotting lifestyle, with lavish lodgings in London`s One Hyde Park residential complex and friendly relations with world diplomats.
His entire banking and industrial empire is now managed by Systems Capital Management (SKM) -- a holding company whose interest range from real estate and insurance to petroleum and agriculture.