VIENNA (Reuters) - Ukrainian billionaire Dmytro Firtash said the Ukrainian government is politically bankrupt and will probably fall early next year, his most outspoken criticism of the pro-Western leadership in Kiev since it came to power almost two years ago.
Firtash, a former supporter of ousted Moscow-friendly president Viktor Yanukovich, shelved a plan to return to Ukraine this week after officials there said they would act on a U.S. warrant for his arrest on suspicion of bribery and money-laundering.
Speaking from his base in the Austrian capital, Firtash said he had lost faith in the ability of the government to conduct meaningful reform, and had decided Ukraine needed a movement which would push for political change.
If he decides to mount a political challenge to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, he would be a formidable foe. Though he has limited popular support in Ukraine, his wealth and his ownership of a major television station give him influence.
“The current government is politically bankrupt. The quicker they leave power the better for the people,” Firtash, who denies the U.S. allegations, told Reuters in an interview.
“If the government does not fail today, then it will probably occur in the spring,” he said. “We need to support a movement and give the people of Ukraine something to believe in.”
Firtash has described the U.S. allegation against him as purely political and has challenged the warrant in the courts.
The industrialist, who owns substantial interests in Ukraine’s gas distribution and fertilizer industries, was a long-standing supporter of Yanukovich, who was forced to flee last year by street protests.
Firtash had been muted in his criticism of the new pro-Western Poroshenko. The two men even had a private meeting in Vienna last year.
But in the interview on Wednesday, conducted in offices arranged over three floors of a grand 19th century building, he said he now realized it would be impossible to work with the government.
“To say the country is unstable is to put it mildly,” Firtash, 50, said in a room with gilt mouldings on the ceiling and crystal chandeliers. “If by 2016 we don’t start do anything to help the economy, there will be series of catastrophic events and the country will fall apart.”
Firtash has for more than a decade been one of an elite group of billionaire businessmen, many with close business ties with Russia, who have wielded huge influence over Ukraine.
A former fireman and soldier, he made a fortune as an intermediary between Russia and Ukraine at a time when his ex-Soviet state was still firmly in Moscow’s orbit.
His company bought gas from Russian gas monopoly Gazprom and sold it at a higher price to the Ukrainian state gas company, according to government records reviewed by Reuters last year.
Meanwhile, other documents seen by Reuters show, bankers close to Russian President Vladimir Putin granted Firtash credit lines of up to $11 billion. In 2010, Firtash backed Yanukovich’s successful campaign for the Ukrainian presidency.
A spokesman for Firtash last year declined to answer Reuters questions about the documents.
Speaking to Reuters on Wednesday, he said of his past role as gas intermediary: “Yes we were partners with Gazprom, but the partnership was of benefit to everyone.”
“It resolved all the issues. During its existence there were no issues with the delivery of gas to Europe, there was no shortfall, nobody went cold. On top of that Ukraine received gas at the cheapest price in Europe at that time.”
Less than a month after Yanukovich fled the Ukrainian capital, and pro-Western opposition leaders took over, Firtash was detained in Vienna. His was the highest profile arrest to follow the turmoil in Ukraine.
The Austrian authorities arrested him on the basis of a request from U.S. prosecutors, who allege he had conspired to bribe government officials in India.
Firtash was released from detention after a few weeks, having posted a bail of 125 million euros. In April this year, an Austrian court ruled to reject the U.S. extradition request.
After the businessman announced plans to come to Kiev, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said police officers would meet him at the bottom of the steps when his plane landed in Ukraine, and would escort him to meet investigators.
Firtash told Reuters about that warning: “This is just part of a wider campaign”, adding, “What is happening is the authorities in Kiev are panicking.”
Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Philippa Fletcher