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A Ukrainian governor’s billions couldn’t save him from being fired

Ukrainian billionaire Igor Kolomoisky speaks during the Ukrainian Football Federation session in Kiev. (Vladyslav Musienko/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine's most powerful oligarchs and a staunch backer of Kiev during the last year of conflict in the east, resigned his position as governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region Wednesday after confrontations over his interests in the country's energy sector. He spoke to The Washington Post at his offices in Kiev on Wednesday, in his first interview after being dismissed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Here are some excerpts.

Did you expect to become the focus of this push against oligarchs?

I started to expect it after the elections at the end of October… when you have a coalition that consists of two gigantic factions and three tiny ones, you get coalition fights.

Now, we have local elections that are coming. Naturally, to up their ratings and get new voters, they have to find a new subject on which they can promote themselves…and the best clients to make a sacrifice of for the electorate are the oligarchs.

When [former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych] left, I was one of the richest people in the country – and I was a patriot. Nevertheless, I became the biggest trigger for society. And since I’ve been the biggest trigger for the whole population, and the politicians cannot promote themselves based on war, they decided to promote themselves based on me.

But you have been accused of using your minority stake in oil extraction company Ukrnafta to block the government’s decisions.

It’s 100 percent a lie that Kolomoisky didn’t pay dividends and that there were problems inside of the company.

This is a conflict between insiders. Naftogaz owns 51 percent of Ukrnafta, but for many years, they stole the natural gas Ukrnafta produced. They took our gas into the pipeline and didn’t document it, writing in their books that it’s gas from an “unknown” origin – we’re talking about 10.5 billion cubic meters, worth about $4 billion.

The case went all the way up to the high court, and we won everything.

If you were winning in the courts, why start marching into buildings with armed guards?

Last week, while the prime minister and the director of Naftogaz were in Brussels, [Oleksandr] Pasichnik, who works for deputy [Igor] Yeremeyev, and [Oleksandr] Savchenko made an illegal order, without any decision of the cabinet of ministers. And with some well-equipped security guys – not politicians and not special police but private security – they entered Ukrtransnafta and started making changes. [Oleksandr] Lazorko was locked down in his office; he was a hostage. He called the police, and they didn’t lift a finger, so he called me. And I went over there with four private security guys.

I recommended Lazorko for this position, and he was in a bad situation, so I knew what I had to do. They wanted to steal oil resources that were in the company…and when I asked where are the documents from the cabinet of ministers to be there, they couldn’t show me anything.

That didn’t go so well for you in the press. So why bring out more-heavily armed guards just a few days later?

On Sunday night, the deputy security director of Ukrnafta said a group of unknown people, approximately 100, had gathered around Ukrnafta, preparing for something. And there was a TV crew.

I called my personal deputy director and said I need support. The private security unit came – no battalions, no militias, just a private security company working for Ukrnafta – they came, and workers started to close the fence.

[Sergei] Leshchenko and Mustafa [Nayyem] saw the support teams and started this scandal that Kolomoisky is taking over Ukrnafta. But, really now, Kolomoisky shouldn’t need to take it over because he’s already part of Ukrnafta! And I can go inside the building -- I’m a member of the board of directors. Why would I need to take it over?

And then Poroshenko asked you to resign?

There was a big public information bacchanalia, and I started to think, I don’t want to be a target anymore. I’ve always thought of myself more as a businessman than a politician.

I thought the situation came too far, that the next step would be me accused of separatism, and I made this decision in order to calm down this situation, and to show the nation that I’m not holding this position if public opinion thinks I need to resign.

Do you have any regrets about how you handled this?

No. I don’t regret the time I came to the governorship. I don’t regret the decisions I made.

A large number of people think Kolomoisky’s great, and the only patriot in the country. I’m not saying I think that – everyone has his own decision and his own destiny. What happened, happened. If it wasn’t Ukrnafta and Ukrtransnafta, they would have found something else to come after me with.

What about advice for other oligarchs, at a time when parliamentarians are calling for a “war” against them?

No one knows what the war with oligarchs is. What kind of a war was there with me?

I’m not saying it’s okay to illegally privatize, like [Rinat] Akhmetov and [Dmytro] Firtash did during the previous administration. And [Leonid] Kuchma and [Viktor] Pinchuk took bribes. But that was 10 years ago. And I don’t trust the sincerity of Mustafa [Nayyem] when he says, "We will fight with oligarchs." He is just creating his own PR, because he’s inside of the president’s political faction, and you know, in that faction there are some small oligarchs, too.

What do you think of Poroshenko now?

I cannot say that Poroshenko did something bad … Maybe some of my deputies, and myself, we did something bad because we had such an independent position. I’m his employee, but I acted as an equal to him. And that was a discomfort for him.

From my side I can’t do anything differently. I’m not a professional politician. But from the other side, I understand that I’m an example to others, and if everyone acts independently, then the president is not needed. Now there is vertical presidential power. I’m not good in that kind of scheme; I’m a foreign object in that system. Poroshenko was patient with me for quite a while. If I were in his position, I would have kicked myself out in three months, because the person who is a superior cannot be an equal with a person who works for him … you can’t be in power and also criticize it.

But you’re not working for him anymore. So should we expect to see you go after Poroshenko more openly now?

Poroshenko is building a new country. We will support him in many ways, and I want everything to succeed. But the biggest danger for him is not outside enemies. It’s his inner circle. He needs to look carefully after that because the entourage makes the king.

So, what’s next?

I have no future plans in politics. We will calm down the people, we will present the new governor, we will just say that this is a political change. And we will try to convince them that everything will be fine.

People need to understand that there is a system of power in the country, and the main thing is that there is law. It shouldn’t depend on who is sitting in that position. There shouldn’t be any idols.

Natalie Gryvnyak contributed to this report.

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