Yanukovych Residence- Katie Collins
For the last three years in Ukraine, 6 June has been known as journalist’s day. Journalists and activists have gathered outside the President Yanukovych’s residence, Mezhyhirya, to protest against media censorship. This year, though, is different.
On 22 February, Viktor Yanukovych fled after his presidency came to an end and his private estate in the countryside outside of Kiev was opened up. This year on 6 June, journalists and activists have come together once again, but this time inside the vast residence, where they have set up Mezhyhirya Festival to celebrate freedom of expression and the work of the Ukrainian journalists who fought hard to reveal the economic corruption that allowed Yanukovych to live in luxury.
In a state where the government and the civil service have been rife with corruption, it is the journalists who have been almost solely responsible for holding them to account. For years they did this facing persecution and with little success, but then when Yanukovych abandoned his compound and the journalists and activists entered and discovered incriminating documents floating in the lake.
THE YANUKOVYCH LEAKS PROJECT
“We were drying them on this very floor,” says journalist Denis Bigus referring to the corrugated steel hangar in which the Festival is taking place. Journalists and volunteers poured into Mezhyhirya to try and rescue the documents.
“From the first days [they] were working hard here with the documents, they were drying them, scanning them. At one time there were 120 journalists, divers, volunteers and Euromaidan activists in one place,” explains Tata Peklun, one of the journalists involved in organising the Yanukovych Leaks project.
The project saw nearly all of the 25,000 documents discovered at Mezhyhirya scanned, digitised and put online for Ukrainians to view and for other journalists to undertake their own investigations into what was going on within the lavish compound.
In order to recruit volunteers, the journalists ran a Facebook campaign asking for people to come along and bring any scanning equipment they had available. It was a massive success — a family printing company showed up bringing all the equipment they had; people who couldn’t come all day came by after work; restoration experts turned up with a huge fan to help make sure none of the information was lost.
“Of course we did not know the scale of Mezhyhirya,” says Peklun. “So for seven days we managed to go along the whole territory.” They used everything they had at their disposal including saunas to dry the documents out, and cameras and mobile phones to record the documents. There was some concern, she adds, as they had no idea how long they would be able to remain there and collect evidence; there was always a risk that prosecutors might turn up and cart the documents away.
They also had no internet access at the residence, so getting the files online was a huge challenge, but a local internet mogul made sure they were connected. As a result, the documents on the Yanukovych Leaks website have been viewed more than four million times. “We are working on adding some more functionalities,” says Peklun. But, she adds, “the main thing is that now each documents is scanned in a quality way.”
What then was in these documents that Yanukovych had been so keen to destroy before he fled? “The biggest majority were related to the area where we are now,” says journalist Natalie Sedletska, referring to the estate. As far as possible they have been split up into different categories from contracts with suppliers and bank bills to wage details and personnel information.
Some of the documents stand out as being particularly interesting: a handwritten bill for $12 million with no explanation of exactly what it relates to; financial reports about cash donations from 2006-2008, which were made by unknown people and brought to the residence; evidence that two people from local community who tried to break up Stop Censorship meetings were employees of estate.
Perhaps the most interesting document was found in the hut of Yanukovych’s personal bodyguard. Inside it were documents about Euromaidan, and notes about the tracks and movements of rebels and journalists around the city. One note about a journalist being attacked and beaten was accompanied by the remark that the “operation of cleaning up had been finished”. It also showed that to an extent some of the information being fed to Yanukovych came to him in a distorted form, but nevertheless he knew what was going on in the country.
The notebook also detailed many of the intricacies of Yanukovych’s private life that were unknown to Ukranians. The president gave the impression of being always busy, but in fact he spent much of his time receiving massages and cosmetic treatments. “What impressed most and what characterised our former president was this notebook of his former bodyguard,” says Peklun. “Yanukovych made an impression of a more powerful person, but not a person that enjoyed all these cosmetic procedures.”
The documents allowed the journalists to discover, if not exactly where the money was coming from, how the president was laundering it — using false charity foundations and real estate — and spending it (on elaborate chandeliers and his wife’s hobby of raising rare and expensive dogs, among other things). “This only proves that every sheet of paper from these files could become a specific piece of evidence in Yanukovych case. There is a case filed across Yanukovych for economic crimes and for stolen money and now we hope to bring this money back to Ukraine.”
This is reiterated by Carolyn Parisot from the FBI who has been working with the Ukrainians and with law enforcement across Europe in order to try and help with the investigation by analysing the evidence. “We want to identify the corruptly obtained assets in Ukraine,” she says. “Most importantly we want to return the assets to the citizens of Ukraine.”
INVESTIGATIONS AND PURSUING JUSTICE
What happens next, says Peklun, is “not just a question for journalists”. She does urge more journalists to get involved in the project — rightly pointing out that with 25,000 documents there are many stories to be discovered — but also urges them to work together with prosecutors. Parisot, too encourages journalists to continue working with law enforcement, who may have better access to financial and business records that will allow the investigations to be as thorough as possible.
Peklun would also like to see many more politicians associated with the corruption that took place during the Yanukovych regime be held to account in a similar way to the ex-president. “Maybe Yanukovych leaks is the project which will become the challenge to all politicians who believe their activities will never be punished. They believe the power they’ve got will be there power forever,” she says.
Commenting on the scale of the corruption, the first deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine Mykola Holomsha said: “The impression was that we had no organised crime in the economy, that there was no corruption that all civil servants were obeying the law.” Having examined the documents though, he adds that he has “never ever seen such a case of stealing — these are all agencies and ministries that all corrupt from the bottom up.”
There are ongoing investigations into many of the people involved in these organisations, but in accordance with the constitution, the prosecutor cannot name people before they are found guilty. Be assured though, he says, “The ministers and heads of different agencies are among them.”
“Without these materials… we wouldn’t have what we now have in Ukraine, we wouldn’t be here sitting in this place,” says Dmytro Gnap, another journalist who has played a huge part in unveiling corruption in Ukraine. “Maybe we would standing there by the fence. What happened in Ukraine what in the last months and in recent months and all our work prove that journalists have real powers. Journalists and investigators are the fourth power.”