Assassinations, Football and Trump: The Story of Shakhtar Donetsk’s Rinat Akhmetov

The arrival of a new owner can be precipitated
by any number of seemingly random events. Take Sir Alex Ferguson’s legal battle with
two Manchester United shareholders over the stud rights for a racehorse, which in turn
opened the door for the Glazers to take control of the club. Or even former Thai prime minister Thaksin
Shinawatra who, whilst he was owner of Manchester City, had his assets frozen by the military
junta after being removed in a coup d’etat, paving the way for Sheikh Mansour’s takeover. But Rinat Akhmetov came in to possession of
Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk thanks to a far darker turn of fate. In 1995, his predecessor
was assassinated when a bomb was detonated at the club’s stadium. Back then Ukraine was, like much of the post-Soviet
world, a wild east where corruption, violence, organised crime and laissez fair capitalism
mixed. Vast fortunes were built by men who took advantage of the anarchy, usually in
the realm of natural resources privatised at a fraction of the cost Like Roman Abramovich in Russia, Akhmetov
was in the right place at the right time to capitalise. He is one of Ukraine’s most famous
and most infamous men, not to mention the country’s richest man. He has been, at various
times, Ukraine’s biggest taxpayer and private employer. His assets have fluctuated wildly
over the past few years (more on that later) thanks largely to interests in coal mining
and power generation. As the owner of Shakhtar he has overseen the
club’s transformation from Ukrainian also-rans into Champions League regulars. Since winning
their first league title in 2000, Shakhtar has reached at least the group stages 12 times
and became the first Ukrainian team since independence to win a European trophy when
they lifted the last ever UEFA Cup in 2009. Nine more Ukrainian league titles and ten
Ukrainian Cups have followed. Akhmetov invested heavily in the team and
the club’s infrastructure, constructing the state of the art Donbass Arena that would
open in 2009 and host several games during the 2012 European Championships hosted in
Ukraine and Poland. The money and Champions League success also
helped Shakhtar to develop a successful business model that saw the club set up a scouting
network in South America and bring over some of its brightest talents (especially from
Brazil) and polish them up in the Ukrainian and Champions League before selling them on
for huge profits. Chelsea’s Willian made his first steps in
European football at Shakhtar, as did Manchester City’s Fernandinho, Bayern Munich’s Douglas
Costa and Jiangsu Suning’s Alex Teixeira. His 50 million transfer to the Chinese Super
League in 2016 remains an Asian transfer record. There are currently eight Brazilian players
in Shakhtar’s squad. The club made Akhmetov wildly popular in Eastern
Ukraine. But Shakhtar is only part of the story, one that involves political intrigue,
allegations of corruption and organised crime, a coup and, down the line, a former advisor
to Donald Trump. Rinat Leonidovych [LEO-NEEDO-VICH] Akhmetov
was born in Donetsk in 1966, back when Ukraine was still in the Soviet Union. His mother
was a cleaner, his father a coal miner, by far the biggest industry in the East of the
country to this day. Such has been the economic importance of mining to eastern Ukraine that
Shakhtar’s badge is crowned by two crossed coal hammers. His family were Tatar Muslims,
a tiny minority outside of the Crimean peninsular. But the east and south of the country has
strong linguistic and cultural ties to neighbouring Russia. Crimea, for example, was only given
to Ukraine as a gift by Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev [CREWSS-CHEF] in 1954. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union,
Ukraine followed much the same path as Russia when it came to business. Oligarchs rose to
power and wealth with one in particular taking charge of the vast mineral wealth in the east
of the county. Akhat Bragin, known as Alik the Greek, was a feared man and head of the
so called “Donetsk Clan”, making him the region’s Godfather. By 1995 he was arguably the most powerful,
influential and feared man in Eastern Ukraine. He was also crazy about Shakhtar Donetsk,
who he bankrolled. But, the club would also be the death of him. Before a game at the
Shakhtar municipal stadium, a huge bomb was detonated killing him and five bodyguards.
The blast was so large that nothing was left of Alik the Greek. He was identified by the
only thing the police could find: a gold watch still attached to a severed arm. Years later,
a member of a rival organised crime clan admitted to the murder, and a policeman was later convicted
of being involved in the crime (although he later claimed he was innocent). Still, Rinat Akhmetov was a young protege
and it was he who ended up acquiring much of his vast business empire, as well as Shakhtar
Donetsk. “I earned my first million by trading coal and coke, and spent the money on assets
that no one wanted to buy,” he said in a rare interview with the Ukrainian press, denying
that he was involved with organised crime. “It was a risk but it was worth it.” Akhmetov took a far more polished approach
to his affairs. As well as owning half of Ukraine’s steel mills and coal mines, he diversified
into real estate and media, built the Donbass Arena, and became much more involved in politics.
He was a major funder of the Party of the Regions, a pro-Russian political party, and
helped bankroll Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency. Yanukovych had been a petty thug who had spent
time in jail as a young man for assault. Yet, with the help of an American political consultant
called Paul Manafort and funded by Akhmetov, Yanukovych was given a political makeover.
He was in need of the help. In 2004 the Orange Revolution swept Ukraine after Yanukovych
had won the presidential election thanks to massive electoral fraud. His opponent Viktor
Yushenko had fallen ill after being poisoned. Still, Yanukovych returned in a sharp suit
and a cleaned up image and, thanks to Manafort and Akhmetov, made a stunning political comeback
by winning the 2010 presidential election. Akhmetov and Manafort were close and would
later be pictured at Davos together. Akhmetov told a Ukrainian journalist that he considered
a Manafort a “friend”. Manafort would later become Donald Trump’s chief advisor
during his US presidential campaign, but would later resign because of his links to Ukraine.
Last year he was also indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller looking into the Trump
campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia over the 2016 US presidential election. Akhmetov meanwhile, became an MP in the Ukrainian
parliament. This brought with it immunity from prosecution, a handy shield given the
persistent accusations of corruption against him (Accusations he has always strenuously
denied). A 2006 cable from the US embassy in Kiev,
released by Wikileaks, revealed remarks from the then prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko,
who had been the face of the Orange Revolution, witnessing Akhmetov making his first speech
after entering parliament: ‘While Akhmetov was popular in Donetsk due
to “local boy patriotism” the rest of the country perceived him as a criminal; this
was even true in Luhansk and Crimea, two strongly pro-Regions provinces. Thus, most people watching
Akhmetov would not have concluded “good speaker” but, in contrast, would have thought,
“A major criminal is poised to enter the Rada [parliament]. ” Tymoshenko opined that
any effort by government authorities to go after Yanukovych for his misdeeds would boomerang,
boosting Yanukovych’s political standing, but that the authorities should pursue Akhmetov
for his crimes.’ Later, president Yanukovych would have Tymoshenko
arrested and imprisoned over an alleged corrupt Russia gas deal. It was her imprisonment and
poor treatment in jail that lead to almost all heads of state in the west to boycott
the 2012 European Championships. But Ukraine had at least one powerful ally.
Yanukovych was seen as Vladimir Putin’s man in Kiev. So, when the president moved to sign
an association agreement with the EU in 2013, a furious Putin put pressure on Yanukovych
to reject it. When he did, protests erupted in Kiev’s central square. The so called Euromaiden
uprising swept Yanukovych from power and revealed his vast fortune plundered during his time,
which included gold golf clubs, a gold loaf of bread and a personal zoo. He fled to Russia,
where he remains today under Putin’s protection. Russia subsequently invaded Ukraine and annexed
Crimea, sparking a bloody conflict in the east of the country that has taken thousands
of lives. Akhmetov stayed in Ukraine, torn between the
forces in the east who once hailed him as a hero and those in the rest of Ukraine who
view him very differently. Many in Kiev were furious with him for his role in bringing
Yanukovych to power. Whilst the separatist forces claimed Akhmetov had initially bankrolled
them in the early days of the conflict (something again strenuously denied by Akhmetov, who
has pointed out how he raised his workers to successfully defend the port city of Mariupol,
kept the mines open, raised wages for his quarter of a million strong workforce and
sent millions of dollars of aid, usually in Shakhtar branded lorries, to the beleaguered
east. The Donbass arena has been shelled several
times and Shakhtar now lives in internal exile, playing their games in Kiev. Many of Akhmetov’s
mines and businesses have been “nationalised” by separatist forces. Where as once he was
worth as much as $31billion dollars, his fortune has fallen to $5.5billion. “In a way, he really loves football, and
has a genuine interest in the game. It [the bankrolling of Shakhtar] was done to project
soft power in the region. To show how much he cares about the community,’ said Orysia
Lutsevych [AURISSA LOOTS-E-VICH], a research fellow on Russia and Ukraine for the Chatham
House policy institute. Akhmetov has survived and Shakhtar continues
to thrive, again reached the knockout phase of the Champions League this season. But the
war continues, and Akhmetov doesn’t hold the same power or sway that he used to. “In Kiev the thinking is that he should
pay a price and it should be high,” said Lutsevych. “The question is how high should
the price be for creating Yanukovych as a political animal?”