The billionaire under house arrest in Vienna

Ukrainian billionaire Dmitry Firtash was arrested on an FBI warrant in Vienna in March and is currently under house arrest in the Austrian capital, awaiting extradition to the US. Here’s a closer look at the tangled story behind what may be his downfall.

The billionaire under house arrest in Vienna
Photo: APA/epa

Who is Firtash?

Firtash has been indicted on bribery and corruption charges in the United States, with his bail set at a whopping €125 million.

He claims to be a “victim” of the power struggle in Ukraine between the US and Russia – insisting his arrest is illegal and that the US has fallen for disinformation about him supplied by his enemies in Ukraine.

He only planned to be in Vienna for two days and was due to fly to his home in London. Unluckily for him, Austria has an extradition agreement with the US. According to his bail conditions, he must remain in Austria.

Why has he been in the news?

He is constantly surrounded by bodyguards, and according to a recent report in Die Presse newspaper was until recently the target of a Romanian-Hungarian ‘hit squad’ who moved into an apartment in Vienna’s Landstrasse with the aim of assassinating him.

Investigators believe the murder plot originated in Hungary, where Firtash lost control of his gas trading company Emfesz in 2009 in what he claims was a “fraudulent transfer”. He has since been trying to recoup €200 million from the former managers of Emfesz – something they apparently didn't take kindly to. 

Why was he arrested by FBI agents?

The US Department of Justice accuses him of overseeing the payment of bribes to Indian officials to secure mining licences for his Group DF empire in the province of Andhra Pradesh.

He also has strong business connections with Russia, and some believe this may be the main reason for his arrest on March 12th, almost a year after the US Department of Justice drew up the charges against him. At this point, tensions between Moscow and the West were rapidly rising to Cold War levels.

Tell me more about him

49-year-old Firtash is a mysterious figure about whom you hear two very different stories. According to one version, he’s a benign self-made businessman and philanthropist who supports charities around the world, and has the power to steer Ukraine towards stability and prosperity.

The other version, which he denies, is that he is another crooked oligarch who made his money through corrupt means.

He was born in the Ukrainian village of Sinkov, of humble parentage – his father was a driving instructor, his mother an accountant. At vocational school, he learned how to drive steam trains. At that time Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

Firtash made his fortune by exploiting the instability and chaos which followed the Soviet collapse – by acting as the middleman trading Ukrainian food supplies for Central Asian gas.

He is now one of the biggest players in the Central and Eastern European chemical and energy industry, with plants in Ukraine, Germany, Italy, Cyprus, Tajikistan, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria and Estonia.

How did he become so successful?

He has said that he works 16 or 17 hours day, has few weekends off and only sees his children when they go on holiday together. He has also said that his approach to business combines the capitalism of the West with the social conscience he learned as a worker in the days of the Soviet Union. "If you want people to work well for you, you have to look after them."

Is he still a player in Ukraine?

Last year he was one of the most powerful men in Ukraine and an ally of former president Viktor Yanukovych. When Yanukovych fled Ukraine after months of violent protests, Firtash and other oligarchs became personae non gratae in Kiev. The interim government alleged that some of them siphoned billions of dollars from the country. Firtash said he did no such thing.

Some observers have said that he could help hammer out the kind of deal that might offer Ukraine an independent, even prosperous, future.

Robert Shetler-Jones, deputy chairman of Group DF and one of Mr Firtash’s senior advisers, has said that “it is not a coincidence that the US is trying to extradite our chairman at the moment when Mr Firtash is needed for the economic and political reconstruction of Ukraine. This is an abuse of the Austrian justice system for ulterior political motives.”

Firtash stands to lose his billions if he goes to trial in the United States, and he can’t count on his allies in Ukraine to provide him with cover.

While he has distanced himself from Yanukovych, and insists he supported his removal from the president’s office, some Ukrainians still associate him with the kleptomaniac strongman.

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