KIEV (Reuters) - A raid by a group of armed men in combat fatigues on a state-owned oil company in the Ukrainian capital Kiev caused uproar in parliament on Friday and thrust banking billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky into the spotlight.
Two parliamentary deputies accused Kolomoisky of sending the masked men into the offices of UkrTransNafta late on Thursday night after it was announced that its chairman, an ally of the 52-year-old oligarch, had been sacked.
Kolomoisky, governor of the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region and one of Ukraine’s richest men with a net worth of about $3 billion according to Forbes, later came out of the building and clashed angrily with journalists.
“I came to free the building from Russian saboteurs,” he could be heard saying on a YouTube video clip in which he swore several times at reporters.
The affair turned a spotlight on the role of Ukraine’s super-rich and the future of their business empires as the country grapples with an economic crisis and a separatist war.
It risks embarrassing President Petro Poroshenko, who himself built a billion-dollar empire in the confectionery business and who has been bolstered by support from Kolomoisky in the conflict with pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
A robust defender of Ukrainian unity, Kolomoisky is widely credited with financing the setting-up of a battalion of volunteer fighters which stopped the big city of Dnipropetrovsk from slipping into the hands of the separatists.
Replying to a question at a joint news conference with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Poroshenko said the oligarch would be issued with a “reprimand” for his behavior.
Kolomoisky, co-founder of the banking chain Privatbank, has interests in energy, media, aviation and metals. He has no direct business connection with UkrTransNafta, which is under full state ownership.
But Serhiy Leshchenko, one of two deputies leading criticism of the tycoon, said Kolomoisky had interests to defend in the energy sector and accused him of personally sending in his men to restore his own ally as head of UkrTransNafta.
“The president must put Kolomoisky in his place. The seizure of a state firm in the center of Kiev by armed people is a personal challenge to Poroshenko and his legitimacy,” Leshchenko told parliament.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook that the building was back under the control of the police and that the armed men had left.
Commentators suggested Kolomoisky may have over-reacted after suffering a setback when the Ukrainian parliament passed a law reforming Ukraine’s state-owned joint stock companies.
The new law, which lowers the numbers of shareholders required to be present for a vote at a meeting, directly hits the interests of Kolomoisky’s Privat Group, which owns 43 percent of shares in the oil extraction company UkrNafta and until now had been able to block voting.
TV channels had a field day replaying his clash with journalists, with bleeps censoring his most colourful turns of phrase.
His camp did not immediately respond to written questions from Reuters. But in comments to online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, Kolomoisky said he had agreed with Poroshenko that Yury Miroshnyk, named on Thursday to take over as temporary company chairman, would not be carrying out any investigations of its finances.
He defended Oleksander Lazorko, who was dismissed as director of UkrTransNafta on Thursday night, as a “patriot” who would be hard to replace.
Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets; Editing by Mark Trevelyan