Dyma’s Choice

09.01.2015 | Hares Youssef

Dmytro Firtash is known around the world as the “gas king of Ukraine.” To judge from Google searches, his name has become synonymous with everything that people hate about what they call “the oligarchs.

For me, he is first of all a friend, a very dear friend, with whom I developed the habit, since his unfair arrest 
in Vienna, of taking long walks in town. In the course of those walks we have had conversations about everything and nothing. 

The event that I am going to relate occurred during one of those walks. 

It is Christmas Eve. 

We are finishing our stroll in Schönbrunn Park heading quietly toward the Hotel Imperial, where we are going to have a cup of tea. 

The telephone rings. 

Andrei, his bodyguard, hands the phone to him.

I begin to move away, to give him privacy.

He gestures that I should stay, as if to signify that he keeps no secrets from me. 

On the other end of the line is a top executive of Gazprom Bank with whom he has been making gas deals for many years. 

I overhear bits of the conversation. 

I put the rest of it together from the account he gives me after the conversation ends and we reach the tea room of the Imperial. 

To understand the story, you have to know that Dyma, who is Gazprom’s biggest customer in Ukraine, each year buys billions of cubic meters of gas financed by a credit extended by Gazprom Bank. 

You also have to know that his last purchase, stored in the same underground reservoirs as Ukraine’s national supplies, was confiscated in September 2014 by the Yatsenyuk government, which, having not anticipated the harshness of the winter, could find no better solution for keeping Ukrainians warm. 

And finally you have to understand that at the time of our conversation an $800 million loan was falling due for the gas that he had not been able to use to power his chemical and fertilizer plants, which therefore had not been generating their usual level of revenue. 

How does one deal with such a tough situation? 

Under normal circumstances in a normal country with a normal partner, one seeks a fair compromise. 

And that is in fact what his associates had been doing in Kiev for several weeks: trying to extend the 
payment terms. 

Except that Russia is not a normal partner. 

After refusing any accommodation and demanding immediate payment of the $800 million on December 31, 2014, Russia now sends an emissary who arrives that day with a completely new proposal. 

“No more compromise,” the emissary tells him over the telephone. “No more deadline. We are erasing your debt, pure and simple.” 

“How so?” says Dyma, who I see is genuinely surprised.

“We understand your situation. You don´t have to repay the $800 million that you borrowed from us; you don’t owe it to us anymore; forget about it. But there is one condition …”

“What’s that?”

“We’re taking our gas back.”


“Impossible!” Dyma exclaims. “You can’t take it back! You know perfectly well that the gas isn’t there anymore. It’s what the Ukrainian people have been using for heat since the beginning of winter! Most of it has been consumed.”

“You don´t understand: We are reclaiming ownership of our gas. Formal ownership.”

In other words, as I understand, their intention is, now, to present the bill to the Ukrainian government. It will be up to the government to pay them. And if the government doesn’t pay, the debt will go up accordingly.

This is what I guess. Then, I hear him say, “I don’t have anything more to say to you. I can’t accept that offer; we have to look for other solutions…. Thanks, yes, I’ll be waiting. Goodbye.” 

At that point he ends the call and stands in silence for several minutes during which I do not dare interrupt him. 

Toward the end of those long minutes we arrive at the Imperial. As we enter he nods in greeting to the pianist, who is playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4. He looks like tame cat but with sharp claws and the eyes of a falcon. As if coming out of a reverie he speaks the following words to me: 

“See, my friend, Gaz is a power to unite nations, not to divide them”. 

And then, after another long silence:

“You know, it’s a matter of conscience. I never thought I would find myself in such a situation. On the one hand there’s my business, which is threatened by this huge debt, due in just a few days. On the other hand, there’s my country … 

“A country,” I say, “that let you down in a big way. It was your government that took your gas. And the least that one can say is that it isn’t giving you much help since you’ve had all those legal troubles with the United States.” 

“That doesn’t bother me,” he responds sadly. “I feel OK about that; I’m not worried. I know that the American legal system is the fairest in the world. There’s a clique that wants to create all this agitation around me to weaken me and steal my business, but they won’t get far. I’ll defend myself, and I’ll win, as usual. But my country …”

He pauses, as if he searching for the right words, or at least choosing them carefully. 

“My country is my country. It’s sacred. You know how much I’m ready to invest to help it out of this mess and break free from Russia. Well, with this gas business, it’s the same thing. I don’t have a choice. Whatever happens, I will be true to my country.” 

I hold my breath, not sure that I’m hearing him right. Seeing my incredulity, he goes on: 

“You heard me right, Hares. If I were to accept their offer, that amount of gas would be factored in to the contractual calculations between Ukraine and Russia. It would be considered as unpaid by Ukraine, not by me. And, in that case, the scandal would take on a completely new form.” 

“So?” I ask him, beginning to understand the magnitude of the choice he is facing.

“So I am a patriot above all. I took in patriotism with my mother’s milk. It flows through my veins like my own blood. So whatever harm that this or that government of my country may do to me, I’m not going to dump my burden on its shoulders. That’s why I hung up. I’m going to decline the offer. 

For me, this story is like a fable. 

A fable with two morals. 

First, people are seldom who you imagine them to be. Here is a man considered by the press around the world (including in my own country, which is what bothers me the most) to be a cynical and unscrupulous schemer. And now, faced with a choice between his business and his country, he makes a clear choice in favor of his country. 

And second, this tale provides new proof of what everyone already knows but of which we can’t be reminded too often: gas is a weapon of war. It is a terrible weapon that, in winter, can be worse then terrorism. Imagine if Ukraine were to find itself without gas next month: It would be like a fish out of water. It would die. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un makes war using hackers. Putin, dictator of the new Russia, makes war with gas as much as with the separatist bandits that he equips and funds. 

I urged Dyma to tell this story himself. I told him that his friends were fed up seeing his name smeared. His answer? “Why should I have to clear my name when I’ve done nothing wrong?” Then, after I insisted: “In my life, as in business, I usually choose silence. It’s my ethic. I am not a journalist. I don’t have the right to comment publicly on the words or actions of people connected with my business affairs.” 

And that is why I felt that I had to tell the story, so pregnant with meaning, of that strange late afternoon in Vienna. 


Ukrainian citizen with Syrian roots, Hares Youssef was special advisor of Président Victor Yuchshenko (2005-2010). He is a philanthropist who created the “Tesla Price” initiative and the “40 Foundation”

Printable version