By Florian Hassel, in Südeutsche Zeitung
Defenseless in Odessa
Anyone fighting against corruption or for civil rights in Ukraine lives dangerously: the attacks on activists are increasing throughout the country.
Odessa: Oleg Mihalik has escaped death for the second time in five years. On September 22, the 43-year-old local politician was returning from a rally to his home in the center of Odessa when an assassin shot him in the chest.
He was clinically dead.
The port city on the Black Sea is one of the richest cities in Ukraine – and one of the most corrupt and criminal ones. The mayor, Gennady Truchanov, according to an Italian police report from 1998, was part of a mafia group in Odessa. Today he is in court, charged by the Special Prosecutor’s Office against corruption, on suspicion of abuse of office and corruption. The mayor of Odessa is in control with other business people, some of whom are identified as mobsters.
And for years, Oleg Mihalik has been criticizing the questionable construction projects of the mayor and his entourage. As early as mid-December 2013, they tried to kill Mihalik: two unknowns tried to break his neck with a metal rod. “I had a guardian angel – the punch was not right, and after three weeks in hospital I was halfway okay,” says Mihalik. The owner of a small fire protection company, married, father of two children, bought a gun for rubber projectiles and persevered.
In Odessa, he represents the new reform party Sila Ludjej (People’s Force) and wants to become mayor.
On the day of the assassination in September, Mihalik had participated in a demonstration against an illegal construction that closed off a municipal beach. Then the shot. For days, the doctors fought for his life. The police arrested three Georgians who allegedly organized the murder attempt. Mihalik views the investigation skeptically because of inconsistencies. The contractor of the attack is – supposedly – unknown.
Four years after the Kiev Maidan revolution, Ukrainian activists fighting against corruption and environmental degradation or campaigning for civil rights are being attacked everywhere. Cars burn, offices are devastated, they are showered with acid – or murdered.
Tatyana Pechonchyk from the Kyiv Human Rights Information Center has registered at least 110 attacks since the beginning of 2017, most in 2018. “We have very few resources, some of the victims are afraid – we certainly do not solve all the attacks,” says Pechonchyk. Recent murders:
Activist Mmykola Bychka was hanged in the woods on June 5 in Ezhar, Kharkiv region.
On July 31, Vitaly Oleshko, who had demonstrated in front of the regional administration for allegedly corrupt land deals, was shot dead in Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov.
Pechonchyk sees reasons for the many attacks: “There are far more activists and civic groups in Ukraine today than before 2014. At the same time, authorities and elites rule just as corruptly as before, and: “They do not shy away from anything to defend their sinecure.” On the other hand, for Attorney-General Yuriy Lutsenko, activists are partly responsible for the attacks themselves since they create “an atmosphere of total hatred for the government.”
The two thugs shouted, “Watch where you stick your nose in, you whore!”
When in July the Kiev activist Vitaly Shabunin led the protest in front of the Special Prosecutor’s Office, because investigations were stopped against the son of the Interior Minister, he was splashed with caustic green slime. The media identified persons close to the Interior Minister as perpetrators.
But nowhere do activists live as dangerously as in Odessa.
Grigory Kosma and his colleagues are investigating a real estate business of the city on a former military airport, it is about hundreds of millions of euros. He reported about it in the Slidstvo Investigative Service. His colleague Mikhail Kozakon is a witness for the prosecution in the trial of Mayor Truchanov. He was warned in the spring that he would be murdered. “We are just about on the way with a gun,” said Kosma and Cossack to the SZ. On August 2, it wasn’t a gun: A truck rammed his car at high speed and turned the vehicle into scrap metal. “We only survived by a miracle,” says Kosakon. “The alleged assassins are under arrest and contractors and middlemen are allegedly unknown.”
Lilia Leonidova entered Odessa’s city council in late 2015. Soon, the civil engineer wondered about privatizations of urban property, cover companies, and the great haste even with millions of investments such as a new city hall and the new city district on the old military airport.
“I started asking questions in the committees: where is the money going, why the hurry, why are documents missing?” In late June 2017, two thugs beat up Leonidova, shouting, “Watch where you stick your nose in, you whore!”
Since then, the climate has not changed, says Leonidova. “Even after the mayor was formally charged with abuse of power, no one at Council meetings calls for his resignation, or asks if this or that business is legal, and whether mafiosi may be running the city.”
The mayor is well connected. A Kiev court refused to suspend Truchanov and released him. President Petro Poroshenko opened a children’s camp with Truchanov in 2017, Poroshenko’s wife visited this year. When SZ asks Truchanov for an interview, he says that his lawyers have advised him against making statements in view of the legal procedings.
“All information about Odessa’s development” can be found on the city’s website and in the media. Hardly any attack is cleared up, and that’s how things look about the attempted murder of Mihalik. There are security camera pictures of the attack at the police station. “But so far the police are not providing us with the recordings,” he says. The assassin’s bullet is still in his body. “I would like to have it surgically removed at a German clinic and examined by German criminal investigators. I no longer trust Ukrainian authorities.”