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Mar 25, 2015 | 22:39 GMT

4 mins read

A Ukrainian Oligarch Casts Doubts on Unity in Kiev

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

On March 25, the Ukrainian government dismissed billionaire tycoon Igor Kolomoisky from his post as governor of Dnipropetrovsk province. The dismissal came just two days after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered the removal of armed men loyal to Kolomoisky from the Kiev offices of oil and natural gas company Ukrnafta. The men took control of the offices following a dispute late last week between Kolomoisky and the government over ownership of the firm.

Kolomoisky is one of Ukraine's richest men and most powerful oligarchs. His influence within Ukraine has grown substantially over the past year as he amassed a volunteer militia numbering in the tens of thousands to defend Dnipropetrovsk, an important industrial hub on the Dnieper River, and fight Russia-backed forces in Donbas. Kolomoisky's wealth and his willingness to deploy that wealth in the struggle against separatist forces made him a critical ally of the embattled Ukrainian government. But it also makes him a potential threat, especially as economic and political stresses lay bare growing fragmentation within Poroshenko's government. As Kolomoisky boasted, his signal could bring more than 2,000 soldiers to the streets of Kiev in hours.

Kolomoisky's first move following his dismissal from the Dnipropetrovsk governorship was to set up his own Facebook page. Apparently, this will form the basis for a campaign to challenge and replace Poroshenko as president. If the campaign fails, it is unclear how Kolomoisky will respond — whether he will exit politics altogether, allow himself to be reincorporated into the existing framework, or attempt something bolder. Whatever happens to Kolomoisky, the episode makes clear just how far Ukraine's government has to go in its struggle to gain what Max Weber famously called a "monopoly on legitimate violence" over the country.

The Kolomoisky affair provides a stark reminder of what many in the West tend to forget. A fundamental problem of modern Western politics is how best to limit the state, in large part because the existence of a strong state is taken for granted. But at many times and in many parts of the world, Ukraine included, the problem of limiting power is preceded by the more fundamental question of how to concentrate power. Building an administrative apparatus with the capacity to protect its borders, regulate commerce and provide basic social services is no small feat.

Ukraine may be an exceptional case: It emerged from the collapse of one government, faces an armed rebellion backed by Russia in the east, and finds its economy in free fall. But the kind of vacuum of state power that formed in the wake of Viktor Yanukovich's ouster, and which Kolomoisky has exploited to expand his influence in the country in relation to the Ukrainian government (even as he helped Kiev solidify its control in eastern Ukraine), is by no means unique to Ukraine.

Kolomoisky is an oligarch, but he is also more than that. He financed a volunteer militia and used that militia for an essentially public cause. He ascended to the governorship of Dnipropetrovsk, occupied the offices of a majority state-owned company and has now opened what could become a political campaign to challenge Poroshenko (himself an oligarch). All of these things combined show how Kolomoisky operates in the grey area between public and private spheres, between political legitimacy and its absence.

In this sense, his trajectory faintly echoes the Italian Mafia's search for legitimacy in early-to-mid 20th century America, a search crystallized in Mario Puzo's Godfather trilogy. Like the Corleone family, which provided protection and opportunity for largely disenfranchised immigrants in 1920s and 1930s New York City, Kolomoisky is not merely a private citizen or parasite but a provider of public services that reach far beyond simple protection. In essence, his role is a potential alternative state to the state. It is in this function that he is emerging as a challenger to a government whose capacity to provide public services becomes more questionable by the day.

The future of the Ukrainian government rests on its ability to maintain a semblance of political cohesion in the face of extreme political, economic and security constraints. The events of the past few days represent a significant, though not yet decisive, threat to that cohesion, and in turn to Kiev's capacity to continue drawing financial support from the West while preventing armed rebellion in the east. But more fundamentally, they point to a problem that often goes unrecognized in the West: that power, before it can be checked, must be secured. 

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