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Monday, August 23, 2010

Like his predecessors, Yushchenko still uses cozy presidential residence

Yuriy Onyshkiv

The ex-president's dacha in Novi Bezradychi (Photo by Yaroslav Debelyi)

Ukrainians heroically propelled him to power in the 2004 Orange Revolution, believing in his promises to strip insiders, oligarchs and bureaucrats of their many privileges and to imprison the criminals among them.

Instead, Viktor Yushchenko’s chaotic presidential rule became one of the biggest disappointments in independent Ukrainian history, as corruption spread during his five-year reign while high-level impunity and immunity remained.

Now, the defeated third president of Ukraine continues to live in privileged luxury at the expense of millions of taxpayers, among the poorest in Europe.

A half-year after leaving office, Yushchenko continues to make use of the state-owned presidential residence – carrying on a tradition of sweetheart deals for the exclusive ex-presidents’ club whose only other members are Leonid Kravchuk (1991-1994) and Leonid Kuchma (1994-2005).

During an Aug. 17 visit to the estate in the well-guarded and posh Koncha Zaspa suburb, security guards protecting it were tight-lipped. But they admitted that this is the place to find Yushchenko for an interview, saying: “Yes, if you have permission ahead of time to enter.”

How much is all of this costing taxpayers?

Oleh Rybachuk, chief of staff in 2005-2006 under Yushchenko, says that keeping hold of the presidential residence after leaving office is “disgraceful.” “We are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ money being spent on a former president,” he said. Rybachuk could not give a specific figure on how much money is spent for such perks. Rybachuk said that even while serving as presidential chief of staff, he could not get a hold of information on how money was spent for such perks.

“This absolutely doesn’t correspond to the European practice according to which presidents and prime ministers move out of their residences after they no longer hold the positions,” Rybachuk said. Unlike in Ukraine, in the European Union, an offical can be forced to resign after being caught using a service vehicle for personal purposes.

Iryna Vannikova, Yushchenko’s press secretary, said her boss will not stay permanently. “Yushchenko lives in the residence only temporarily, until his house in Novi Bezradychi is being renovated after a fire last April. Should Ukrainian presidents live on the street? Let's treat a president of Ukraine with some respect,” Vannykova said, although she could not explain why the ex-president had not chosen to live in his Kyiv apartment or dacha near Yaremcha in western Ukraine.

Yushchenko is no exception in his desire to keep a soft nest.

A security guard keeps Kyiv Post staff writer Yuriy Onyshkiv away from ex-president Viktor Yushchenko's state owned residence in Koncha Zaspa (Photo by Yaroslav Debeliy)

Kuchma, whose corrupt and authoritarian reign left lawlessness deeply embedded, also has a state-owned dacha in Koncha Zaspa. Kravchuk, the onetime ideological chief for Soviet Ukraine’s Communist Party, also lives in a state-owned house in the elite suburb.
Hanna Herman, deputy head of President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration, gave a shrugging “why not?” response when asked why Yushchenko is still keeping his presidential digs.

“Leonid Kravchuk keeps his presidential residence, so does Leonid Kuchma,” Herman explained. “So why not let President Yushchenko stay at his residence as well? After all, this is a tradition of the country.”

Herman could not provide details. She directed further inquiries to the presidential administration's State Affairs department, better known by its Ukrainian acronym, DUSIA. Officials there said more than $2 million is spent annually to support state residencies in Koncha Zaspa, but could not elaborate.

While effectively privatizing a state palace may rank as small on the scale of official abuses in this nation, Yushchenko’s behavior only strengthens the historical view that – far from being a democratic reformer – the third president was part and parcel of the same rotten system he inherited from Kuchma, Kravchuk and, before them, the Soviet leaders who ruled Ukraine.

After gaining less than 5 percent of the vote in the Jan. 17 first round of the presidential election, a resounding repudiation from his constituents, Yushchenko essentially asked his successor for a favor: He would keep his residence if Yanukovych sanctioned it.

At the time, Yushchenko argued that he needed a place to live after a fire had damaged the big estate he owns outside of Kyiv in Novi Bezradychi, some 35 kilometers from Kyiv.

That place boasts lovely pastoral views and a stop sign on the road leading to his country home. Construction at the site, also heavily guarded, is seen from a distance.

Sources said Yushchenko currently spends much of his time traveling abroad.

Earlier this year, political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said that passage of a clear law on presidential entitlements is the only solution. “This is what we have left from the Soviet Union, where most top government members held their dachas for life,” Fesenko said. “Of course, this is not the case in any civilized country. Partly because of that, we are also among countries with the highest number of state residences.”

Kyiv Post staff writer Yuriy Onyshkiv can be reached at

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