Forbes magazine identifies Igor Kasaev as president of the Mercury group of companies that controls 70 percent of the Russian cigarette market
Lviv (Ukraine) (AFP) - Hundreds of activists in several Ukrainian cities blockaded on Tuesday the cigarette distribution centres owned by a Russian tycoon with alleged links to ousted pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.
Ukrainian lawmaker Sergiy Vystotskiy said the protest action was launched in Kiev and the Western city of Lviv and other locations around warehouses of a firm controlled by Moscow-based retail magnet Igor Kasaev.
Forbes magazine identifies Kasaev as president of the Mercury group of companies that controls 70 percent of the Russian cigarette market and more than 90 percent of those in Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
A Kiev police spokesman confirmed to AFP that "activists" had launched a protest action in the Ukrainian capital on Tuesday around a warehouse owned by Mercury.
He provided no other details and directed all questions to the organisers of the protests aimed at getting the government to break up the Russian-linked firm.
Vystotskiy claimed on Facebook that Kasaev had secretly split the Ukrainian branch of his company "50:50 with Yanukovych's family" -- an expression used by the ousted leader's critics to describe insiders who allegedly profitted from preferential deals.
Yanukovych fled to exile in Russia hours after his ouster by pro-European protesters in February 2014. His flight was followed weeks later by the Kremlin's annexaction of Crimea and a bloody separatist uprising in pro-Moscow regions of eastern Ukraine.
An AFP correspondent in the heavily pro-Western and nationalist city of Lviv saw around 300 protesters gather early Tuesday in an attempt to prevent employees of the Russian cigarette distribution company from driving up to their office.
"We will force Russian businesses not only to feel uncomfortable in Ukraine, but to actually leave our country," one protester, Mykhailo Siriy, told AFP.
"Those who sponsored our (eastern separatist) war have no place in Ukraine -- and especially not in Lviv."
Other organisers said they had no plans to resort to violence or to try to storm the company's premises by force.
- Frozen trade relations -
Economic relations between Russia and Ukraine have been effectively frozen since the moment Kiev entered a free trade agreement with the European Union at the start of the year.
Russia and Ukraine have launched mirror import bans against each other's food products that reflect those Moscow has already imposed on the West.
The United States and the European Union had earlier slapped economic sanctions on Russia for its supposed orchestration and involvement in eastern Ukraine's 20-month conflict in which more than 9,000 have died.
Neither Moscow nor the Russian oligarch issued an immediate comment on the protests.
Yanukovych in exile has largely avoided the limelight and said nothing in public on Tuesday about his reputed links to the Moscow tycoon.
Ukraine's pro-Western leadership that rose in his place has had trouble breaking oligarchs' grip on the struggling former Soviet country's financial flows and national politics.
President Petro Poroshenko's efforts to keep reins on tycoons who profited in the post-Soviet era of predominantly pro-Russian rule have been hampered by internal bickering within his own ranks.
Several of Ukraine's top new leaders are linked by the Kiev media to the very same oligarchs Poroshenko has vowed to fight.
They deny the charges but still face repeated urgings from the West to crack down on corruption with full force.