An Austrian court has ruled that billionaire Dmytro Firtash can be extradited to the US on corruption charges. The case has attracted particular attention because of his ties to the Kremlin.
Dmytro Firtash and his lawyers were visibly shocked when the judge of Vienna’s Upper State Court announced the ruling on Tuesday afternoon. After three years of legal back and forth on the case, the judge declared that the Ukrainian businessman can be extradited to the United States. The FBI has accused Firtash of plotting to bribe Indian officials to win contracts to mine titanium. If convicted, his assets could be seized, and he could face up to 50 years in prison.
Enthusiastic reaction in Ukraine
The Austrian court ruling was received enthusiastically by many people in Ukraine. "God bless the American investigators and prosecutors," anti-corruption activist Daria Kaleniuk posted a short time later on Facebook. Posts about Firtash’s arrest in Vienna have garnered thousands of likes. For many Ukrainians, the dodgy business dealings of the oligarch and media magnate are an example of the corrupt way money and politics are intertwined in their country - his extradition would be a sign that justice is being served.
Dmytro Firtash gained much of his wealth more than 10 years ago through dubious deals with Russian energy giant Gazprom. In 2006, his shell company RosUkrEnergo became the exclusive supplier of Russian gas in Ukraine overnight. Until 2009, billions of US dollars flowed annually to Firtash’s overseas accounts, as well as those of other co-owners of RosUkrEnergo - mainly influential Russians with close links to the Kremlin. Testifying in court, Firtash was unable to explain how exactly he made this business deal. Critics say his massive wealth would have been impossible without his Kremlin backers. Within a few years, Firtash used the money from his gas deals to buy up entire business sectors in his home country, mainly in the chemicals sector. His holding company is based in Vienna; the money flows through a network of more than a hundred shell companies spread around the globe to Cyprus, and also to Austria.
With the money Firtash accrued with Russian help, he also supported Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. He helped the pro-Russian politician not just financially, but also with his influence as a media magnate. In 2014, that all came to an end: Yanukovych fled to Russia in the wake of the Maidan protests, and a few days later, Firtash was arrested in Vienna. The decision by the Americans to arrest Firtash in the midst of the Ukraine crisis fed speculation that the extradition attempt also had political motives. "Firtash is of enormous interest to the US. He could testify as a witness in a possible corruption trial against the leadership of Gazprom," said American energy expert Michail Kortschemkin in an interview with DW.
Firtash’s fate clearly has his friends in Moscow worried: His record bail of 125 million euros ($132 million) following his first arrest in Vienna was paid by Russian oligarch Vasily Anisimov. Anisimov is a long-time friend and judo partner of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Legal turnaround in Vienna
Initially, things went well for the billionaire during his trial in Vienna. In April 2015, a judge ruled that the US case was politically motivated, and extradition was denied. According to testimony, US investigators and intelligence officials have been interested in the background to Firtash’s business dealings and ties to Moscow since 2006. Investigations into his dealings in India started around the same time.
But during the appeal on Tuesday the judge didn’t want to know about any US-Russian power games. As to the question of possible political motivation, the Upper State Court said that this consideration only came into effect with relation to politically motivated crimes, not criminal acts.
"The crimes Firtash is accused of are not of a political nature," a court spokesperson told DW.
Dmytro Firtash himself likely contributed to this legal turnaround. At the end of January, civil servants from the regional office of criminal investigation in Schleswig-Holstein who had received hundreds of thousands of euros from Firtash were given prison sentences. They were accused of betraying official secrets and tapping into international police databanks to inform Firtash’s defense team about the US investigation. Then, in November of last year, an extradition request came from Spanish authorities who accused Firtash of money laundering. That seemed to have turned the page for the Austrian judges. "Are we to believe that the Spanish request is also politically motivated?" asked the judge before delivering the verdict.
Politics has the last word
But now, after all that, the case is becoming political. According to the extradition agreement between Austria and the United States, the justice minister will have the last word. That means that he will decide whether Firtash is to be extradited to the US or to Spain. All signs are pointing to the US. Otherwise, the justice minister could have immediately granted Spain’s request and have extradited Firtash last year already, legal experts say. "It seems clear that the justice minister decided to wait for the outcome of the American case," said Professor Hubert Hinterhofer of the University of Salzburg.
After the long, drawn-out trial in Vienna, it’s not just Dmytro Firtash whose life is in tatters. The government coalition in Ukraine is also damaged. In the hope of saving himself from the Americans, Firtash testified as to the true extent of his influence on Ukrainian politics. Over the years, he didn’t just support former President Yanukovych, but also the Western-oriented UDAR party under the leadership of former boxing star Vitali Klitschko. It was Firtash who secured a deal between Klitschko and future President Petro Poroshenko at a secret meeting in the spring of 2014. A few months later, Klitschko became the mayor of Kyiv, and Poroshenko assumed the presidency.