Behind Scenes, Ukraine’s Rich and Powerful Battle Over the Future

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The New York Times - 12/06/13, Andrew E. Kramer

Ukrainians passed under a religious icon Friday at a rally against integration with Europe. Protests have grown since President Viktor F. Yanukovich halted free trade talks with Europe. (Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times)

Protesters may be occupying government buildings and staging loud rallies calling for the government to step down, but behind the scenes an equally fierce — and perhaps more decisive — tug of war is being waged among a very small and very rich group of oligarchical clans here, some of whom see their future with Europe and others with Russia. That conflict was ignited, along with the street protests, by Mr. Yanukovich’s decision to halt free trade talks with the European Union last week.

Like other tycoons scattered throughout post-Soviet countries, Ukraine’s rich capitalized on the flawed privatization of publicly held assets to establish enormous fortunes, presiding over news media, banking, telecommunications, steel, coal and heavy industry empires. But in contrast to Russia, where President Vladimir V. Putin has barred the oligarchs from politics, Ukraine’s wealthy clans retain enormous influence, acting as a shadow cabinet with identifiable factions in Parliament. Mr. Poroshenko is himself a member of Parliament.