By Richard Balmforth
KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, has been forced to scrap plans to build a glitzy business centre at a historic tourist site in Kiev after a public outcry in which he was accused of "spitting on the soul" of the capital.
Protests by several hundred people brought a rare dose of bad publicity for the 45-year-old steel and coal tycoon who normally shuns the public limelight but is one of the most influential political players in the ex-Soviet republic.
Several hundred protesters, alerted by the social networking site Facebook, turned out to rally on Wednesday night against plans by the billionaire's System Capital Management (SCM) company to build a multi-storey business centre on "Andriyivsky Descent", a picturesque cobbled street and one of Ukraine's best-known tourist spots.
But the protests came too late to stop bulldozers from destroying at least one 19th century building and wrecking another built 40 years ago in mock 19th century style, cultural officials said.
Chanting "(Put) Akhmetov down a mine shaft !" and "Get Akhmetov out of town", several protesters dumped building material near SCM headquarters to signify their disgust.
"They have come here and brutally turned things into a pig-sty," said Olexander Serhiyenko, a member of a Kiev civic organisation. "They have spat on the soul of Kiev with their 'Andriyivsky Plaza'", he said.
"The ESTA company (a subsidiary of SCM), having examined the opinions of Kiev people, decided back in March to cancel the construction of the business centre," said Akhmetov in a statement issued by his press service.
"Unfortunately, after this decision, there were two bad errors. Firstly, the actions of the company were not coordinated. Secondly, they were not explained to the public," Akhmetov said.
Akhmetov, whose net worth Forbes puts at $16 billion, added: "I promise that SCM will return the original look to the destroyed facades. We will also help the town restore Andriyivsky Descent."
Akhmetov, whose power base is in the eastern city of Donetsk, made his fortune in steel and coal in the 1990s after a turbulent period in post-Soviet history marked by gangland-style shootings and bombings.
A big soccer enthusiast, he is the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk, one of Ukraine's most successful football clubs, and also has interests in construction, banking, media and property.
According to British media, he bought a penthouse at One Hyde Park in London a year ago for a price of about $220 million.
As a financial backer of President Viktor Yanukovich's election campaign in 2009 he is seen as a 'king-maker' in politics, but he is notoriously publicity-shy and rarely meets journalists.
In his power base of Donetsk he is revered as a benefactor and his critics say the protests in Kiev have clearly shaken him.
"They called the Berkut (Ukrainian special forces) to their headquarters as soon as they heard about the protest. They were afraid of a peaceful protest. But without this protest they would have just gone ahead with their plans," said Anna Putova, an archivist at Ukraine's national archives.
"I don't believe a word of his promises. I don't believe him and I don't think anyone in Kiev believes him," she said.
Andriyivsky Descent, a half-mile winding drop down from the administrative centre of Kiev to a riverside quarter, is a top tourist spot in season, with chic restaurants, street-side arts and crafts studios and souvenir stalls.
With Ukraine co-hosting the Euro-2012 soccer championships in June, the street would normally be heaving with traders preparing for a busy season ahead.
But eve-of-Euro reconstruction work to install new drainage and upgrade the quarter's infrastructure has reduced the cobbled street to a sea of building sand, bricks, mud and heavy machinery.
Most traders are sitting things out, hoping city authorities will complete the work by the target day of May 27.
(Writing By Richard Balmforth; editing by Stephen Nisbet)