Ac­tivists, en­trepreneurs and law­mak­ers unite to pro­tect farm busi­nesses from raiders T

Kyiv Post Legal Quarterly - - Contents - By Melkoze­rova@kyiv­

ired of wait­ing for the govern­ment to pro­tect their rights, farm­ers are start­ing to take mat­ters into their own hands. Af­ter months of vi­o­lent raid­ing at­tacks on small- and medium-sized farm­ing busi­nesses, the Ukrainian govern­ment fi­nally es­tab­lished an Anti-raid­ing Com­mis­sion and has started cre­at­ing anti-raid­ing brigades. But farm­ers’ and en­trepreneurs’ trust in the govern­ment and law en­force­ment agen­cies is still low, and they have de­cided to form self-de­fense squads and civic or­ga­ni­za­tions to fight back against land raiders.

Since Jan­uary, the Anti-raid­ing Union of En­trepreneurs of Ukraine has reg­is­tered more than 70 cases of the armed seizure of farm­ing en­ter­prises — dou­ble the num­ber seen in the same pe­riod of 2016.

The cab­i­net’s Anti-raid­ing Com­mis­sion says it has al­ready set­tled more than 200 land plot dis­putes. Ac­cord­ing to the Econ­omy Min­istry, over 3,000 hectares of land has been seized by raiders in 2017.

But en­trepreneurs and ac­tivists claim that the govern­ment mech­a­nism is still in­ef­fec­tive, with law en­forcers from the Security Ser­vice of Ukraine, or SBU, po­lice and Pros­e­cu­tor Gen­eral’s Of­fice, as well as lo­cal of­fi­cials fail­ing to pro­tect farm­ers’ prop­erty rights, or worse, col­lud­ing in cor­po­rate raid­ing schemes headed by top-of­fi­cials.

SBU spokesper­son Olena Hytlyan­ska de­nied ac­cu­sa­tions

that the SBU has been fail­ing to tackle the prob­lem, and said the ser­vice has been ac­tively co­op­er­at­ing with busi­nesses. More­over, law en­forcers are putting less pres­sure on busi­nesses in 2017, she said. When asked about of­fi­cials al­leged in­volve­ment in land seizures, the Pros­e­cu­tor Gen­eral’s Of­fice said it re­fused to comment on ru­mors. “To ac­cuse some­body of cover­ing for the raiders, one must have iron-cast ev­i­dence of mis­con­duct,” Te­tiana Kozachenko, the lawyer of Cap­i­tal Law Firm and for­mer head of the Lus­tra­tion Depart­ment of Jus­tice Min­istry told the Kyiv Post on Dec. 12. “Law en­force­ment agen­cies must pro­vide in­stru­ments to find that ev­i­dence. In fact, they sel­dom ig­nore or help raiders. It’s just that they can’t in­ves­ti­gate their own in­volve­ment in crimes.” In Novem­ber, Kozachenko, to­gether with Samopomich Party law­mak­ers Ivan Mirosh­nichenko, Pavlo Kostenko and for­mer head of agri­cul­tural com­pany Risoil Ukraine Shota Kha­jishvili, reg­is­tered a civic or­ga­ni­za­tion called Busi­ness Varta. The ini­tia­tive aims to unite jour­nal­ists, law­mak­ers and busi­nesses in jointly op­pos­ing vi­o­lent armed cor­po­rate raids, and raid­ing in­volv­ing the au­thor­i­ties. Ye­gor Soboliev, for­mer head of the Rada’s Anti-cor­rup­tion Com­mit­tee, and for­mer deputy pros­e­cu­tor gen­eral David Sak­va­leridze have joined Busi­ness Varta.

“We only have those law­mak­ers and of­fi­cials, anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivists, vol­un­teer fight­ers, Don­bas war vet­er­ans, and jour­nal­ists who re­ally are fight­ing against cor­rup­tion and raid­ing,” Soboliev told the Kyiv Post on Dec. 15. “But not peo­ple from busi­nesses, as they pre­fer to watch the sit­u­a­tion and make deals.”

“But I joined the ini­tia­tive be­cause I think that only to­gether with busi­nesses we can stand for their prop­erty rights. They have the fi­nan­cial re­courses, as well as in­flu­ence and con­nec­tions,” he said.

The main prob­lem is that the raiders can move much faster than own­ers can mo­bi­lize to de­fend their rights, Mirosh­nichenko said.

“Raiders can seize a plant or a farm in one day. Just come up with forged doc­u­ments or armed men and throw the le­gal own­ers out, seize not only the busi­ness, but money and even the prod­ucts of an en­ter­prise.”

Le­gal own­ers then have to prove they have the rights to the prop­erty in the courts, a process that can some­times take years in Ukraine, he said.

Kozachenko added that in many cases, there was noth­ing left to fight for af­ter such long-last­ing tri­als: the prop­erty and prod­ucts had ei­ther been sold, de­stroyed or stolen.

“Can an en­trepreneur re­gain prop­erty and money seized by raiders in Ukraine? Yes. Can he do it quickly and ef­fec­tively? Un­for­tu­nately no,” Kozachenko said.

di­rec­tor of the in­ter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion Noble Group. He said cor­po­rate raid­ing had al­ways been a prob­lem in Ukraine.

Raiders in Ukraine at­tack mostly mid-sized busi­nesses worth $7–8 mil­lion, whereas larger busi­nesses are pro­tected bet­ter, he said.

“In the past raiders would search for a prob­lem in an en­ter­prise’s struc­ture. A po­ten­tial law vi­o­la­tion dur­ing the pri­va­ti­za­tion process or dur­ing own­er­ship changes,” Mirosh­nichenko said.

“Now, in 30–40 per­cent of cases, the raiders just change the own­er­ship by forg­ing sig­na­tures, stamps and doc­u­ments and court de­ci­sions, with the help of of­fi­cials from lo­cal gov­ern­ments or the land reg­is­ters.”

Self-de­fense Both Soboliev and Mirosh­nichenko told the Kyiv Post that de­spite Busi­ness Varta only ac­tu­ally be­ing reg­is­tered in Novem­ber, it al­ready started to form this spring, af­ter work­ers at eight small farms in May protested near the Pros­e­cu­tor Gen­eral’s Of­fice and Jus­tice Min­istry. They were com­pletely ig­nored.

A month af­ter the farm­ers protested in Kyiv, there were vi­o­lent clashes be­tween ac­tivists and po­lice in the vil­lage of Berezhynka in Kirovo­grad Oblast. Po­lice on June 27 ar­rested sev­eral Don­bas war vet­er­ans who had come to the vil­lage to pro­tect one of its farms from raid­ing at­tempts, Iev­gen Shevchenko, the owner of the lo­cal pri­vate security ser­vice Security For Busi­ness, wrote on Face­book.

Shevchenko said that shortly be­fore the raiders ar­rived, lo­cal farm own­ers dis­cov­ered that some­one “had passed the own­er­ship rights to an un­known per­son, who then in a short pe­riod of time changed the own­er­ship in the reg­istry and sold the farm to an­other per­son.”

But the head of the Kirovo­grad Oblast Po­lice Ser­hiy Kon­drashenko said on June 27 that nei­ther pri­vate security ser­vices nor vet­er­ans had the right to get in­volved in such land dis­putes. He called the ac­tions of the Na­tional Guard and po­lice com­pletely law­ful.

“I call for all sides in these con­flicts not to use vi­o­lence as a method to re­solve land dis­putes,” Kon­drashenko said.

Mirosh­nichenko said that was not the goal of Busi­ness Varta, which he said mostly helps en­trepreneurs by pro­vid­ing them le­gal help and pub­li­ciz­ing cases of raids.

“We can’t pro­vide phys­i­cal pro­tec­tion, but we are now think­ing how to pro­vide it in a le­gal man­ner,” Mirosh­nichenko said.

Busi­ness Varta still has lit­tle in the way of fund­ing, but plans to get fi­nan­cial sup­port from small- and medium-sized busi­nesses. Nev­er­the­less, it has al­ready had some suc­cesses.

Olga Matvi­iva, the head of Busi­ness Varta, said that more than 20 com­pa­nies have al­ready ap­plied for Busi­ness Varta’s help.

“We study ev­ery case very care­fully be­fore pass­ing it on to the An­tiRaid­ing Com­mis­sion,” Matvi­iva said. That’s be­cause not every­one who claims to have been at­tacked by raiders is ac­tu­ally the good guy.”

She added that ev­ery case needs an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Of the 20 cases that Busi­ness Varta’s ac­tivists and lawyers have ex­am­ined, only seven were passed to the govern­ment.

“Our main suc­cess is that these prob­lems were brought to the at­ten­tion of the high­est au­thor­i­ties and were made pub­lic. Dur­ing the closed meet­ings of the com­mis­sion we even meet with se­nior of­fi­cials such as (First Deputy Min­is­ter) Stepan Ku­biv, and other mem­bers of the com­mis­sion,” Matvi­iva said.

“We clearly have Ku­biv’s sup­port, and that is al­ready some­thing.” Govern­ment acts The Anti-raid­ing Com­mis­sion was first cre­ated back in 2007, but it was largely non-func­tion­ing un­til Ku­biv re­newed the com­mis­sion to­gether with Jus­tice Min­is­ter Pavlo Pe­trenko and other law­mak­ers in Septem­ber.

Pe­trenko wrote on Face­book that dur­ing a cab­i­net meet­ing on Dec. 6 he had pre­sented a de­tailed anal­y­sis of the most pop­u­lar raid­ing schemes in Ukraine and also a new res­o­lu­tion that, ac­cord­ing to the min­is­ter, would strengthen the pro­tec­tion of rights of own­ers and ten­ants from raid­ing, as well as elim­i­nate the pos­si­bil­ity of land plots be­ing il­le­gally seized.

“We made the dou­ble reg­is­tra­tion of land plots im­pos­si­ble. We ex­tended the Jus­tice Min­istry’s Mayak SMS ser­vice, which in­forms an owner about any at­tempts to change the own­er­ship of the prop­erty,” Pe­trenko wrote.

How­ever, the govern­ment also said last year that it was do­ing ev­ery­thing to stop cor­po­rate raid­ing.

In Oc­to­ber 2016, the Rada adopted the anti-raid­ing bill, aimed at stamp­ing out the prac­tice in Ukraine.

The bill made it a crime to tam­per with the state reg­is­ters, and made it a rule that sig­na­tures had to be at­tested by no­tary.

But it didn’t have much pos­i­tive im­pact. Kozachenko said that farm­ers are now suf­fer­ing from raider at­tacks at the high­est level since 2014.

“Due to the land mora­to­rium, peo­ple are not able to man­age their own land, and are forced to give it out for rent at a cheap rate. Lo­cal farms are forced to ex­ist in a chaotic mar­ket of (pa­per) rent agree­ments, which can be eas­ily forged,” Kozachenko said.

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