KYIV — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is claiming there’s a danger of a Russia-backed coup against him next week involving one of Ukraine’s top oligarchs — Rinat Akhmetov.
Zelenskiy laid out the charges at a rapidly scheduled press conference Friday, saying he had recordings of people from Akhmetov’s circle, in Ukraine and Russia, discussing a coup with $1 billion price tag.
“It’s not only intelligence that we have, it’s also audio intercepts, where representatives of Ukraine, so to speak, discuss with representatives of Russia Rinat Akhmetov’s participation in the coup in Ukraine,” the president said.
Zelenskiy mentioned no other names and said that Akhmetov was “being drawn into a war against the Ukrainian state.”
Akhmetov called the allegations “an absolute lie.”
“I am outraged by the spread of this lie, no matter what the president’s motives are,” he said in a statement. “I will continue to defend a free Ukraine, a free economy, democracy and freedom of speech.”
One person close to Zelenskiy said the U.S. had provided Ukraine with intelligence in recent weeks indicating there would be “an internal destabilization effort,” with the possibility that one or more Ukrainian oligarchs could be involved.
“From a Ukrainian point of view, it would be very prudent for all internal political games to stop,” the adviser said. “At least until we understand the nature of the Russian threat.”
Zelenskiy’s claim comes in the context of high tensions with Russia. The U.S. and NATO warn Moscow may be planning a full-fledged invasion as it builds up troops on Ukraine’s war-torn eastern border and in Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden said he would “in all probability” be speaking to Zelenskiy and Russian leader Vladimir Putin about the coup allegations. He voiced U.S. objections to “anything remotely approaching” talk of a coup. “I am concerned,” Biden told reporters. “We support Ukraine’s territorial integrity. We support Ukraine’s ability to govern itself.”
Moscow denied any involvement in a coup plot.”Russia has never had any plans to take part,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov.
At home, Zelenskiy is in the midst of a battle with Akhmetov, the country’s wealthiest man, with freedom of the media at stake.
After his decisive victory in the 2019 elections, Zelenskiy has seen his poll ratings slip to an all-time low among disenchanted Ukrainians. One of his unfulfilled election promises was to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, mired in war with Russian proxies since 2014.
His other promise — to clean up corruption and break the stranglehold wealthy oligarchs exercise over Ukraine’s economy, politics and media — had also seen little progress, until he signed a so-called anti-oligarch bill in early November.
Due to come into force next year, the bill defines an oligarch using several criteria including wealth, political activity, industrial monopoly and mass media assets. Those who meet the definition will be banned from owning media, taking part in privatization processes and political activities, including financing political parties.
With a net worth of more than $10 billion, according to Bloomberg, Akhmetov meets not only the wealth criteria. His holding company System Capital Management owns DTEK, which controls 70 percent of Ukraine’s power output, as well as telecoms and media companies including the country’s fourth most popular TV channel, Ukraina. The other three are also owned by oligarchs, including Igor Kolomoisky, who is widely credited with getting Zelenskiy elected, in part through his TV channel 1+1.
Akhmetov’s channel Ukraina backed one of Zelenskiy’s opponents in the 2019 election. Ukraina’s coverage has grown increasingly critical of Zelenskiy and his party, Servant of the People, since the government failed to reimburse DTEK for green energy purchased by state companies.
“I believe that DTEK’s media is not about freedom of speech,” Zelenskiy told Friday’s news conference. “I believe that this is a fight with me against one simple law on deoligarchization.”
Critics of the anti-oligarch law say it is populist, does nothing to tackle systemic causes of corruption and can easily be manipulated in the president’s favor. It stipulates that the final decision on who is an ‘oligarch’ is taken by the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), which is appointed directly by the president.
Free speech worries
Earlier this year, the NSDC slapped sanctions on other wealthy media owners including Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian politician, whose TV channels were closed down for allegedly promoting , anti-Ukrainian propaganda. While many welcomed the move as finally tackling Russian influence in Ukrainian media, there were also concerns that it set a dangerous precedent for free speech.
There are other indications Zelenskiy’s government is strengthening control over the media.
Suspilne, the country’s public broadcaster, is consistently underfunded and has faced government pressure. This month, the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s independent English-language newspaper, abruptly shut down in the face of what its staff say is growing pressure to conform.
Zelenskiy’s Friday press conference was criticized by journalists as, instead of an open accreditation process, only invited media representatives could attend.
Zelenskiy also addressed the threat of Russian invasion during the conference, saying that Ukraine was “entirely prepared for an escalation” but his government was ready to talk with the Kremlin.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan talked Friday with Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential administration.
“They discussed their shared concerns about ongoing Russian military activities near Ukraine’s border and its harsh rhetoric towards Ukraine.” said a U.S. statement.
Russia has accused Ukraine and the West of provoking the crisis by stepping up military activity and Western support for Ukraine’s army.
Paul McLeary contgributed reporting from Washington.