Ukraine Needs Money, Not Revenge
About 18 months ago, I sat joking with colleagues at Forbes Magazine's Ukrainian website about how, one day, the people would storm President Viktor Yanukovych's residence, Mezhihirya. The estate, built with government funds but owned by a private company, was as heavily guarded as it was notorious. We teased one another about being out of shape and liable to shoot ourselves in the foot if handed an AK-47 rifle.
Everything we talked about that day seemed so far-fetched as to be ridiculous. Yanukovych was so firmly entrenched in the presidency that all our efforts to investigate and expose his regime's financial irregularities seemed pointless.
And yet, on Saturday, Yanukovych fled by helicopter and the doors of Mezhihirya were thrown open. After months of protests he had finally co-signed a one-page document calling for early elections and a constitutional reform that would curb presidential powers, but it was too late. Protesters ignored the deal, demanding his immediate resignation. Yanukovych must have realized that Kiev and its suburbs were no longer safe for him.
There was no final battle, no need to storm the sprawling country estate on a bank of the Dnieper river, which had its own zoo, a collection of Soviet-era classic cars and a flotilla of boats. First journalists and then thousands of ordinary citizens arrived to take a tour and marvel at Yanukovych's version of the good life. A picture is worth a thousand words, and dozens are available now. No, Yanukovych didn't have a golden urinal, as rumor had it, but the amount of gold in the decor does at times make one blink. Mezhihirya epitomizes the post-Soviet notion of luxury and the deposed president, who spent two spells in jail as a youth in the mining region of Donbas, remained a man of uncomplicated tastes. He and his girlfriend, Lyubov Povaliy, who lived with him at Mezhihirya while the first lady, Lyudmila, stayed behind in Donetsk, liked to watch Russian crime movies. Journalists found a copy of Alexandre Dumas's "History of Famous Crimes" in Yanukovych's study. The soap in the gilded bathrooms was cheap.
The first impulse of the victorious protesters was to turn Mezhihirya into an orphanage, but investigative journalist Dmytro Gnap argued against that idea in a blog post on Pravda.com.ua: "Unfortunately, there is no way to hand this house over to an orphanage or children's sanatorium. Every nail and every bit of air is permeated with evil, lies, graft and cynicism. It's better to pour wax over it all and leave it this way forever, as a museum of dictatorship and corruption."
The president and his small entourage took off in a hurry, leaving behind part of Povaliy's wardrobe, one old fur coat and the remains of a small feast. They managed to burn some paperwork that had been stored at the residence and dumped the rest in the river. Journalists fished the documents out and spread them on the floor of the boat hangar. Oleksandr Akymenko, who was in the room when we laughed about storming Mezhihirya, took part. As he went to bed after sorting the papers, he reported on Faceboook that they made up 147 volumes. "157 volumes," a colleague corrected him, and the exhausted Akymenko had to agree.
Much of the paperwork describes the funding and construction of Mezhihirya. Some documents directly mention bribes paid to win tenders: Apparently, the fact that the estate was meant for the president didn't render bribery unnecessary, in a country where it is a way of life. Cash donations toward the construction, made by unspecified persons and worth millions of dollars, were duly recorded, . Ukrainians, however, have been particularly angered by the lavish spending on creature comforts for Yanukovych. Compared with the average salary in Ukraine -- $400 per month in 2013 -- a sofa for 26,264 euros ($36,000), a 5,000-euro coat rack and a 4,900-euro pool cue stand seem monstrously extravagant.
"This is perhaps the most sensational find since the fall of the Fujimori dictatorship in Peru," wrote Vladimir Fedorin, who ran the print version of Forbes Ukraine when I worked on the website. Sergei Kurchenko, a businessman close to Yanukovych's family and the subject of one of our investigations, later bought the publishing company that employed us and Fedorin resigned in protest. For him, Yanukovych's defeat is a personal vindication, yet Fedorin cautioned against taking revenge: "The search for justice could freeze investment, without which the half-paralyzed economy will not be able to return to a fast growth trajectory."
So far, this voice of reason is drowned by calls for retribution. Lustration, the blacklisting of former regime officials, is a popular subject among protesters. Some of my former co-workers at Forbes have called for a ban on journalistic work for those who replaced them under the new, pro-Yanukovych management. Arsen Avakov, the opposition legislator appointed interim minister of the interior, is trying to hunt down Yanukovych, who is wandering the southeastern regions of Ukraine after apparently being barred from leaving the country by border guards. "I report to the Ukrainian people," Avakov wrote on Facebook. "Yanukovych has disappeared."
It is hard to imagine what might happen to the deposed president if he is caught. But then, my imagination also failed me back in 2012 when we talked about storming Mezhihirya.
Sweet as revenge may be, what Ukraine needs now isn't a Yanukovych trial or tourist destinations such as Mezhihirya (pictures of gold-laden interiors of the former prosecutor general's home are also popular on the social networks). Right now, the country needs $35 billion to avoid default, according to acting Finance Minister Yuri Kolobov, until recently a Yanukovych loyalist. If Ukraine is to get that money from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union the U.S. and, possibly, Russia, it needs to concentrate on finding ways to go forward, not look back at its ugly past. Otherwise, there will be plenty of politicians and bureaucrats hungry for a bite of the aid package, and their gnawing will go unheard in the revolutionary din.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him onTwitter at @Bershidsky.)
To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at firstname.lastname@example.org)