A Game of Thrones: How the Ukrainian Premier League explains Ukrainian politics

Ukrainian football

 by Manuel Veth

In many respects Ukraine is the most exemplary country when it comes to the interconnection of the rich, politics, media and football. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the country became subject to a struggle over ownership of factories, farms, shops, and also football clubs. As in Russia a small group of oligarchs benefited the most from the uncertainty that came with the fall of the USSR.

In Russia the newly rich became known as Novyi Russkiy (New Russians) these were people who benefited from the privatisation of state owned companies under then President Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s. The same process can be observed in Ukraine, and just as in Russia the newly rich were given the term Novyi Ukrainets (New Ukrainians).

In Ukraine, however, the power struggle over property was even more violent. Technically Ukraine was an independent country within the Soviet Union, it had it’s own army and police service, but in truth everything was run from Moscow. Therefore, with the end of the Soviet Union there was no authoritarian body that could keep the struggle over property in check.

The early 1990s were therefore dominated by the violent power struggle of different clans for power and money. These struggles were often centred in certain regions and football was not unaffected by the politics.

Ukrainian Premier League and the Novyi Ukrainets

The Donbass region is the home of Shakhtar Donetsk, which today is one of Ukraine’s most successful clubs, and has a budget that can compete with most teams from Western Europe. In the early 1990s, however, the Donbass was subject to one of the most violent struggles for the ownership of markets, retail, coalmines and factories of the region.

After the fall of the Soviet Union Shakhtar came under the control of Akhat Bragin, also known as Alek the Greek. Bragin was a controversial figure. He had left school early and worked as a butcher at the Donetsk Oktiabr Rinok (October Market).

A former convict, Bragin moved fast after the fall of the Soviet Union to take control of the market, and other retail sectors of Donetsk. Alek the Greek became a sort of underworld celebrity, when he took control over Shakhtar Donetsk the most popular club of the region.

Bragin was not without enemies, he survived one assassination attempt in 1994 in his hometown Pisky. One year later a bomb detonated in his VIP-Box at the Olimpiyskiy stadium killing Bragin and his bodyguards. The blast was so violent that identification of his body was confirmed by the golden watch that was found on a torn off arm.

Shakhtar was then taken over by the right hand of Bragin, Rinat Akhmetov. Akhmetov moved fast to secure Bragin’s possessions, which included Shakhtar Donetsk. Akhmetov was also able to bring stability to the region that was formerly scene of a violent power struggle. As stability increased in the Donbass so did the success of Shakhtar Donetsk.

Akhmetov was able to unite the most powerful men of the region behind him. These men all support the Partiia Regionov (Party of the Regions), which very much represents the Russian speaking business interests of the eastern half of the country.

The party is completely supported by the so-called Donetsk-Clan, which is centred on Rinat Akhmetov’s businesses. The current Ukraine President Yanukovich is the head of the party and a frequent visitor to Shakhtar home games as well as title celebrations.

This bizarre situation is a sort of barometer for the overall political situation in Ukraine

The big counter weight to the Donetsk-Clan in Ukraine is the so-called Dnepropetrovsk-Clan, which is based in the city of Dnepropetrovsk. This is a city that is dominated by the skyscrapers of Ukraine’s biggest banks, a sort of Ukrainian Frankfurt. At the centre of the Dnepropetrovsk-Clan are two men Viktor Pinchuk and Igor Kolomoiskii.

According to Ukrainian Forbes Pinchuk (US$ 3.8 billion) is the second richest man in Ukraine followed by Kolomoiskii (US$ 2.4 billion). Both men have made their fortunes through banking and television.

Kolomoiskii is the owner of the Ukrainian Bank PrivatBank as well as Ukraine’s largest television stations 1+1 and 2+2. In recent years the business interests of Pinchuk and Kolomoiskii have also clashed and right now there is an uneasy stalemate between the two groups within the Dnepropetrovsk-Clan.

The Dnepropetrovsk-Clan, and especially Kolomoiskii, were also major supporters of the former Prime Minister and now imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko. Kolomoiskii, however, officially has withdrawn his support, and now backs Vitali Klitschko’s party UDAR (an acronym that means Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, but Udar is also the Ukrainian term for punch).

Power struggle

Both his support of Bloc Tymoshenko as well as currently UDAR places Kolomoiskii in direct opposition to the Donetsk-Clan and the Partiia Regionov. Both clans dominate Ukrainian politics and have major influence on the financial and political situation of Ukrainian football.

In 2010 Partiia Regionov became the largest political force in Ukraine and since then Kolomoiskii and his business operations have come under political and economic attack. His previously successful airline Aerosvit had to declare bankruptcy after the government refused licence agreements for planes to land on some of Ukraine’s major airports.

Recently his television stations 1+1 and 2+2 lost the rights to broadcast Ukrainian Premier League (UPL) matches. Instead UPL signed a deal with Akhmetov’s television station Futbol+. In a bizarre turn of events, however, some teams boycotted the new television station by refusing to have their home games broadcasted by Futbol+.

This led to a political compromise of sort in that the clubs whose owners either support or don’t oppose the Partiia Regionov and the Donetsk-Clan remained with 1+1 and 2+2. Clubs that supported the Donetsk-Clan and Partiia Regionov moved to show their home games at Futbol+. As an official partner of the Ukrainian Premier League however, players are forced to give interviews with Futbol+ but can refuse interviews with Kolomoiskii’s television stations.

This bizarre situation is a sort of barometer for the overall political situation in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s game of thrones

Metalist Kharkiv for example had their home games televised by 2+2 as their previous owner Oleksandr Yaroslavsky was embedded in the political camp of the Kolomoiskii-Clan. In a surprise move, however, Yaroslavsky sold Metalist this summer stating that he could no longer deal with the pressure of owning the club.

Several sources claimed that Yaroslavsky came under political pressure and was forced to sell the club.

Yaroslavsky was apparently made an offer he could not refuse. The club was then sold to Serhiy Kurchenko who was loosely associated with a company called GasUkrainia.

But even more telling is Kurchenko’s close friendship with the son of President Yanukovich. GasUkraina has since been rebranded as VETEK, and next year’s Metalist home games will be shown on Futbol+ which leaves no doubt about the club’s political affiliation.

The power struggle that has ensued in Ukrainian politics and business had an even greater impact on Ukrainian football as a whole.

As mentioned, Kolomoiskii’s businesses have more frequently come under attack. But Kolomoiskii through business partners controlled many of the smaller Ukrainian clubs in the UPL. Recently, however, he has withdrawn his business interests outside of Dnepropetrovsk leaving several clubs without financial backing.

One such club was Arsenal Kiev, which was owned by Vadim Rabinovich a business partner of Kolomoiskii.

Arsenal Kiev was eventually sold in April 2013 to Oleksandr Onyschenko a millionaire and self-declared Olympic athlete who competed at the 2012 Olympic Games in in equestrian events with little success. Most importantly, however, Onyschenko is a member of the Partiia Regionov and is therefore able to bring yet another club into the political camp of the Donetsk-Clan.

Dinamo Kiev also felt the withdrawal of Kolomoiskii as PrivatBank withdrew their sponsorship of both Arsenal and Dinamo Kiev. Pinchuk, however, has since announced a deal with Dinamo making his NadraBank the new main sponsor of the club.

In other parts of Ukraine, the retreat of Kolomoiskii had disastrous effects. Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih for example had to declare bankruptcy and the club might leave Kryvyi Rih. This city with a population of 600,000 people will most likely be without any professional football for years to come.

The third political force in Ukraine is the right-wing organisation Svoboda Partiia (Freedom Party). Oligarchs do not support this party, but has a major following among the fans of the Lviv based club Karpaty. Lviv is in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains in the very west of the country a place that is dominated by a Ukrainian-speaking majority.

Svoboda is very much a grass roots party and has developed enough standing with the fans of Karpaty that the oligarch and owner of the club Petro Dyminskyi, has given up his political ambitions. Dyminskyi was previously a member of the Partiia Regionov and was even elected to the Verkhovna Rada (parliament). But Svoboda’s dominance in the region, however, has buried his political ambitions.

Football is an essential key to understanding Ukraine’s political alignments. Clubs and their owners are part of certain political blocks. One can take a map of Ukraine and draw invisible borders of alignment.

There are regions that are deeply committed to with one political party or another, some are neutral, and some switch sides. The emblems of football clubs placed on a map of Ukraine are like medieval shields, which demonstrate allegiances to one master or another.

Manuel Veth is a new contributor to Just Football specialising in the economics and politics of Soviet and post-Soviet football. Read more from him at Futbolgrad and follow him on Twitter @homosovieticus

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3 Responses to “A Game of Thrones: How the Ukrainian Premier League explains Ukrainian politics”

  1. Darko
    August 21, 2013 at 10:44 pm #

    A fascinating read.I also like the website Futbolgrad.

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