WASHINGTON, D.C. March 26, 2015
TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties
FROM: Stephen M. Greenberg, NCSEJ Chairman;
Alexander Smukler, NCSEJ President;
Mark B. Levin, NCSEJ Executive Director
Ukraine Update #65
Early yesterday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko dismissed Dnipropetrovsk governor Ihor Kolomoisky, who has been an avid supporter of the Kyiv authorities and Ukraine's territorial integrity.
The dismissal came after a dispute between Kolomoisky and President Poroshenko over the future of two state-owned energy companies Ukrtransnafta and Ukrnafta, in which Kolomoisky owns minority shares. On March 20, the Ukrtransnafta board fired its CEO Oleksandr Lazorko, who has close ties to Kolomoisky. Lazorko refused to leave and occupied the Ukrtransnafta building. Kolomoisky and his armed guards later entered the Ukrtransnafta premises, reportedly in an attempt to seize control of the company.
The incident unleashed a scandal in Ukraine, with many in the media and civil society calling for Kolomoisky's resignation. Kolomoisky had already drawn criticism for amassing too much political power, which some saw incompatible with the new Ukrainian government's commitment to transparency, democracy, and elimination of corruption.
Some observers are worried that Kolomoisky's dismissal might fracture Ukraine's government, at a time when it cannot afford to alienate supporters, and that his firing may touch off a war among Ukraine's oligarchs, creating further chaos during an already fragile time.
Kolomoisky's dismissal may also endanger the Dnipropetrovsk region as a whole. Unlike the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, Dnipropetrovsk has been able to withstand assaults by pro-Russian rebels, partly due to Kolomoisky's efforts. He funds several volunteer battalions, which have been instrumental in defending Eastern Ukraine. One such volunteer battalion, the Azov, has been at the forefront of defending the city of Mariupol, a strategic seaport that would give Russia a land bridge to Crimea. If Kolomoisky and his supporters withdraw their private financial support for the volunteer battalions, it is unclear whether the Ukrainian army could repel attacks by the separatists in Mariupol and elsewhere.
Kolomoisky enjoys a great deal of popular support among Dnipropetrovsk residents, industrial workers, and business owners. His support for Kyiv authorities in part ensured that pro-Russian sentiments have not taken hold in the region. With his dismissal, the popular mood in the region could change, allowing pro-Russian separatists to exploit any potential public disgruntlement with the Ukrainian government.
Another concern is the relative lack of government experience by Kolomoisky's temporary replacement, Vitaliy Reznychenko, who has virtually no track record in Zaporozhye, where he has served as governor since February.
The Dnipropetrovsk region is a key center of industrial production in Ukraine. It is also home to a vibrant Jewish community, numbering between 15,000 -30,000 Jews. Among his other philanthropic activities, Kolomoisky, who is Jewish, provides generous support to the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community. Any loss of funding for the community would hurt, as the community continues to confront many challenges, including the economic crisis, rising unemployment, increasing costs, and an influx of refugees from the war-torn regions.
Kolomoisky's dismissal and extensive media coverage of his attempt to take over the state-owned energy companies could also reawaken dormant anti-Semitic sentiments among the Ukrainian population.
NCSEJ spoke with one of the leaders of the Kyiv Jewish community who downplayed the development, saying that Kolomoisky's resignation is unlikely to have a significant impact on the Jewish community of Dnipropetrovsk and Ukraine, and that Kolomoisky's influence in Dnepropetrovsk region is unlikely to dramatically diminish.
According to this Kyiv Jewish community leader, Kolomoisky's dismissal could herald the beginning of the Ukrainian state's struggle against the oligarchs, aimed at diminishing their control over state resources, and reducing the concentration of political power in the hands of a few. It could also lead to the consolidation of control over privately-sponsored armed militias and volunteer fighters by the government, aiding its efforts to protect Ukraine's territorial integrity.
NCSEJ also spoke with one of the leaders of the Jewish Community of Dnipropetrovsk who said that Kolomoisky's resignation is unlikely to have a negative impact on the community. He identified Dnipropetrovsk's newly appointed acting governor, Vitaliy Reznychenko, as a member and supporter of the Jewish community. He acknowledged that Kolomoisky's support of Ukraine's territorial integrity remains essential, and expressed hope that Kolomoisky will continue to support the Ukrainian government and the Dnipropetrovsk region.
NCSEJ will continue to reach out to all parts of the Ukrainian Jewish community to better understand the immediate and long-term impact of Kolomoisky's dismissal on Ukraine and its Jewish community. This development adds another level of uncertainty to an already turbulent situation in the country.