Crisis in Ukraine

Ukraine’s Elections: The Battle of the Billionaires

Oligarchs aren’t the only candidates as Ukraine votes Sunday for a new parliament, but they do set the tone. An exclusive interview with one of the most controversial.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

KIEV, Ukraine—The Opposition Bloc has emerged as a serious challenge to the government of billionaire President Petro Poroshenko in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, and it is led by Sergei Lyovochkin—also a billionaire. In a country where “oligarch” is a dirty word, people who seem to have many oligarchic characteristics—one might say billions of them—still dominate the political scene.

Lyovochkin, 42, was famous locally even before this campaign began. He was the chief of staff of ousted Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. But he says now that he despised his boss, at least from the time a year ago that the Maidan revolution began, with its demands for an end to old patterns of corruption and a deepening of ties to Europe. Lyovochkin resigned and left for the United States once Yanukovych adopted laws cracking down on protesters without consulting him.

In an exclusive interview with the The Daily Beast, the tall, intellectually nimble Lyovochkin laid out several reasons he said he wanted to enter the electoral fray now, rather than sunning somewhere on a tropical beach.

As things stand, his Opposition Bloc is the only party firmly against President Poroshenko in Ukraine’s electoral (as opposed to insurrectional) universe. He has promised to end the country’s civil war by getting rid of today's corrupt politicians, by replacing private—as he described them, “semi-criminal”—militias with a professional army, and by defending the interests of the pro-Russian eastern regions that have tried to establish their own breakaway republics.

Lyvochkin created the party together with other heavyweight former state bureaucrats and businessmen, including Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, and the billionaire currently fighting charges in the United States, Dmitry Firtash. A former minister of energy, Yuriy Boiko, tops the Opposition Bloc's list for Sunday elections. Both Akhmetov and Firtash owned big companies in the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, where they say they are determined to return with investment to help the reconstruction of devastated rebel-controlled cities.The Opposition billionaires have positioned themselves as the resistance against the political clan led by Ukrainian tycoon Igor Kolomoisky, governor of Dnipropetrovsk, who financed several militia battalions fighting against pro-Russian rebel forces in the eastern regions.

"Kolomoisky intends to falsify election results with the help of his gunmen guarding more than a dozen election polling stations in Donetsk, Luhansk and Dnipropetrovsk regions this weekend,” said Lyovochkin. “We demand that Kolomoisky be fired and punished." As evidence, he refers to a leaked telephone recording supposedly of Kolomoisky discussing his plot to rig election results for candidates loyal to him and President Poroshenko."It might sound banal but I want fairness and balance for Ukraine,” said Lyovochkin. “I want my country to be successful." He insisted that the current leadership under a president nicknamed Willy Wonka, because Poroshenko made his fortune with chocolate factories, is to blame for national chaos and a civil conflict that has become essentially a war between Kiev and Moscow.Relaxed in his armchair in a spacious office high on the Parus skyscraper in Kiev, the opposition billionaire Lyovochkin blamed the blood, ruin and thousands of lost lives in eastern Ukraine on his nemesis among the other billionaires, the powerful Kolomoisky.

A poll conducted early in the three-week election campaign showed Poroshenko’s Bloc well ahead of other contenders, with about 20 percent support, while the Opposition Bloc trailed behind at least five other parties and coalitions, and looked like it might not cross the threshold to enter parliament at all. But politics are volatile in Ukraine and Opposition Bloc is pushing hard.

The challenge for the moment is not to take control of parliament, but to get into it. A plurality of the country still supports Poroshenko's bloc, and Poroshenko, unlike Lyovochkin, risked his life on the Maidan Square for several months of the revolution. People don’t forget that.

Now Lyovochkin complains that several of the Opposition Bloc members have suffered attacks while on the election trail. In Odessa, a crowd angry with former bureaucrats of Yanukovych's government beat up Nestor Shufrich, who is also a critic of Kiev's military campaign against pro-Russian rebels in the east.

But Lyovochkin says he’s confident his Opposition Bloc will enter the parliament after Sunday’s vote. Personally, he says, he feels "more than ready" to occupy one the country's leading positions. But he recognizes that some time has to pass before that’s likely. "I was on the very top of the old power tower, which collapsed too recently,” he says. “I need time to wait until the dust comes down and people see the true picture of the current leadership.”

Was Lyovochkin blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin for carving off Crimea, splitting Ukraine and pushing it into the turmoil of civil war? Absolutely not.

"Putin was betrayed by our irresponsible leaders too many times, until he stopped taking Ukraine seriously," said Lyovochkin, who was, of course, in a position to know all about that when he was chief of staff. He met often with Putin in the old days, he said.

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No, the problem is Poroshenko, insists Mr. Opposition. Willy Wonka and his supporters are “a party of war," he says.