Breaking his silence for the first time since demonstrations erupted in late November, Rinat Akhmetov, a long-time ally of President Viktor Yanukovich, in a carefully worded statement appeared to be voicing solidarity with the anti-government protesters on Kiev’s streets.
Hours after Mr Akhmetov’s statement, opposition politicians leading the protests announced that they would take part in a first round of talks with Mr Yanukovich later on Friday.
The breakthrough came after more than a dozen demonstrators were released from custody, one of their preconditions for negotiations.
Mr Akhmetov, the owner of a diversified business empire valued by Forbes at $15.4bn and with assets spanning Ukraine, Europe and the US, questioned why the government backed out of a historic agreement with the EU in favour of pursuing closer economic ties with Russia.
“Ukraine and the president have been going along the European road for three and a half years and much has been achieved over this time,” Mr Akhmetov said.
“The agreement was not signed” as scheduled at an EU summit held late last month “in Vilnius. And everybody asked, what happened? Did Ukraine take a pause? Did Ukraine stop? Or did Ukraine take another road? Everyone wants clarity.”
Coming two days after Ukraine’s second richest man, Victor Pinchuk, backed the protests, Mr Akhmetov’s statement added to speculation that the country’s influential oligarchs are on the brink of turning against Mr Yanukovich, whom they have backed in the past.
Calling for the president and opposition party-led protesters to seek a compromise, Mr Akhmetov said “politicians, government officials, opposition, and moral leaders . . . must sit down at the negotiating table”.
“I would describe this negotiating table as a table for peace, compromise and the future of our country.
The outcome should be a decision that will benefit Ukraine and every Ukrainian in the short, medium and long term,” he added.
Mr Akhmetov, the owner of nearly half of Ukraine’s vast steel, ore mining, coal and electricity business, was speaking weeks after rating agencies sharply downgraded Ukraine’s sovereign and corporate credit ratings, citing the escalating domestic political crisis and geopolitical tussle over Ukraine’s future between Russia and the EU.
“While politicians may lose their ratings at this table, the most important thing is to ensure that the rating of Ukraine goes up,” he said.
Diplomats and the business community in Kiev welcomed signs that Mr Akhmetov and other oligarchs were commenting publicly to put pressure on Mr Yanukovich to end the stalemate with protesters.
“It’s a good sign. Let’s hope this helps to prevent an escalation of violence,” one western banker in Kiev said.
Mr Akhmetov praised the peaceful nature of the massive protests in Kiev and other cities, while condemning the November 30 violent crackdown on demonstrators by riot police.
“The fact that peaceful people took to the streets for peaceful demonstrations means that Ukraine is a free democratic country.
Ukraine will not turn off this road.
But the fact that people suffered is unacceptable,” Mr Akhmetov said.
His comments come amid growing calls in Ukraine and abroad for the EU and the US to target Mr Yanukovich and his inner circle with sanctions and travel bans for the crackdown on peaceful protests.
Earlier in the week, members of the Ukrainian community in the UK gathered outside Mr Akhmetov’s £136.6 million ($222.5 million) flat at London’s ultra-chic One Hyde Park, chanting “Akhmetov, discipline your pet Yanukovich!”.
Another protest at his London residence is planned for later on Friday.
Without specifically referring to the events in London, Mr Akhmetov said: “many people want to know my personal attitude . . . I believe that now, at this challenging moment for our country, it is important to keep a cool head and take a balanced approach”.
Mr Akhmetov did not directly refer to Russia, which has put pressure on Ukraine to back out of the far-reaching EU association and trade agreements.
But he stressed: “I am for a strong, independent and united Ukraine. We are one country and should not be divided.”