Hedging their bets, Ukraine's oligarchs sit above the fray

Hedging their bets, Ukraine's oligarchs sit above the fray

KIEV - With 350,000 anti-government protesters packed into the capital Kiev on Sunday, the anchor on Ukraine's top television channel, firmly aligned with President Viktor Yanukovich, appeared to go off script.

"History is being made today," he said. "There is a feeling of having woken up in a different country."

The opposition was enraged by Yanukovich's decision last month to ditch a landmark accord to deepen relations with the European Union - under Russian pressure - and by the brutal police crackdown against protests that followed.

But the TV anchor's apparent sympathy for their cause seemed out of place at Inter, the channel owned by Yanukovich's chief of staff, Serhiy Lyovochkin, and wealthy industrialist Dmytro Firtash.

An energy and chemicals magnate, 48-year-old Firtash is one of Ukraine's richest men and, as a major player in Ukraine's gas imports from Russia, close to the government.

Coupled with reports that Lyovochkin had resigned as presidential consigliere, Inter's uncensored coverage of the challenge to Yanukovich, mirrored in other media controlled by the oligarchs, had some suggesting the ground was shifting beneath the president.

With vast swathes of the economy in their hands, Ukraine's oligarchs wield huge political power. Their fortunes, however, are wedded to those of whomever holds office.

The crisis unleashed by Yanukovich's rejection of EU overtures in favour of closer ties with former master Moscow has cast fresh light on the intrigue and promiscuous politics of Ukraine's post-Orange Revolution elite; like all good businessmen, oligarchs hedge their bets.

"By providing an information platform for the opposition, they are buying insurance for themselves for the future," said Volodymyr Fesenko, an independent Ukrainian analyst.

"Right now, the strategy of the oligarchs is clear - they will not seek conflict with the president." But they "can run with the opposition, too," he added.

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