Be­sieged ac­tivists in Odesa hope for im­prove­ments un­der Ze­len­skiy

Kyiv Post - - Front Page - BY OKSANA GRYTSENKO [email protected]

ODESA, Ukraine — To the sounds of chil­dren’s laugh­ter, the me­ow­ing of kit­tens and dis­tant tunes of jazz, the an­gry ac­tivists ral­lied on May 12 in the City Gar­den in Odesa’s historic cen­ter. They were de­mand­ing that po­lice stop il­le­gal con­struc­tion at the site of the aban­doned Sum­mer Theater.

Sur­rounded by lush trees, this historic site has be­come the epi­cen­ter of the fights be­tween the lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and thugs hurl­ing fe­ces as a weapon.

In Odesa, the Black Sea port city of 1 mil­lion res­i­dents lo­cated 475 kilo­me­ters south of Kyiv, beauty of­ten co­ex­ists with ug­li­ness.

On May 7, at this con­struc­tion site, a man poured a bucket of fe­ces on environmen­tal ac­tivist Svit­lana Pid­pala. On April 19, the same hap­pened to law­maker Mustafa Nayyem. Both had crit­i­cized plans to build an eight-story trade cen­ter at this historic site by com­pany SP Sol­ing, which ac­tivists link to Vladimir Galanterni­k, an in­flu­en­tial yet se­cre­tive busi­ness­man, a crony of Alek­sander Angert, a lo­cal busi­ness­man with a crim­i­nal past, and Odesa Mayor Hen­nady Trukhanov.

Ac­tivists say this group owns a num­ber of ill-got­ten de­vel­op­ment projects in Odesa reg­is­tered to foreign off­shore en­ti­ties. A 1998 Ital­ian po­lice dossier pub­lished by the Or­ga­nized Crime and Cor­rup­tion Re­port­ing Pro­ject in 2016 iden­ti­fied Trukhanov and Angert as mem­bers of a mafia gang.

SP Sol­ing and pub­licly shy Galanterni­k weren’t avail­able for com­ment. Trukhanov’s press ser­vice didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

So far, the po­lice have failed to find the “fe­ces” at­tack­ers in Odesa. On May 4, Trukhanov called the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who crit­i­cize him “mo­rons and id­iots.”

The po­lice of­fi­cers showed lit­tle en­thu­si­asm on May 12, when the ac­tivists showed them a printed copy of an in­struc­tion from the Min­istry of Cul­ture, which urges a stop to any con­struc­tion work at the Sum­mer Theater un­til the min­istry sees the plans and ap­proves them. The po­lice of­fi­cers just checked the pa­pers of the builders and swiftly left.

In the even­ing of the same day, a poster fea­tur­ing the min­istry's in­struc­tion was torn down from the theater's wall. Con­struc­tion work re­sumed in the morn­ing. But the fight is not over.

Un­like most other Ukrainian cities, Odesa is known for its strong city ac­tivism and the high risks ac­tivists face for it. At least 14 lo­cal ac­tivists were at­tacked in the city last year. Most of them blamed Trukhanov and his cronies for or­der­ing or sanc­tion­ing the at­tacks. One of them, Oleg Mykhai­lyk, nearly died af­ter be­ing shot in his chest on a city street in late Septem­ber.

But with the elec­tion of a new pres­i­dent, power in Odesa is be­ing shaken up.

The lo­cal gov­er­nor was dis­missed and the oblast po­lice chief re­signed. The meth­ods used against ac­tivists have changed as well. Shoot­ings and beat­ings were re­placed with fe­ces, court hear­ings, and smear cam­paigns.

“Now the au­thor­i­ties, in­clud­ing Mayor Trukhanov, are hur­ry­ing up to snatch all they can,” Mykhai­lyk told the Kyiv Post. “They keep ex­ploit­ing law­less­ness, but they are afraid to act as rad­i­cally as they (pre­vi­ously) did.”

‘Toi­let scheme’

Peo­ple in Odesa like to re­call the story that the ter­ri­tory of the City Gar­den was granted to Odesa res­i­dents “in perpetual use” by Felix de Ribas, brother of the city's first mayor, Jose de Ribas, in the early 19th cen­tury.

When the City Gar­den un­der­went ma­jor re­con­struc­tion in 2007, the Sum­mer Theater, which is a part of it, re­mained aban­doned and closed. Then, in 2017, res­i­dents dis­cov­ered that the city au­thor­i­ties had al­lowed the trees on its ter­ri­tory to be chopped down, which in­di­cated the be­gin­ning of con­struc­tion work.

In Novem­ber 2017, hun­dreds of ac­tivists stormed the gates of the con­struc­tion site, which led to scuf­fles with the po­lice. Then lo­cal res­i­dents started reg­u­larly clean­ing the ter­ri­tory of the Sum­mer Theater and plant­ing trees there to pre­serve this site for the city.

A lo­cal deputy, Liliya Leonidova, pub­lished pa­pers from the City Coun­cil's ur­ban plan­ning depart­ment show­ing that, in 2016, the au­thor­i­ties leased the ter­ri­tory of the Sum­mer Theater — up to 0.7 hectares — to the SP Sol­ing firm for 49 years for the con­struc­tion of an eight-story trade and en­ter­tain­ment cen­ter. The stage, the cash-of­fice, a fence and a toi­let at the aban­doned theater were sold to the same firm back in 2003, ac­cord­ing to the same doc­u­ments pub­lished by Leonidova on Face­book.

Mykhai­lyk calls this a “toi­let scheme,” in which some mi­nor ob­ject is bought by a com­pany in or­der to later grab a lu­cra­tive piece of land around it and then build some­thing there. He said it has been com­monly used in Odesa in re­cent years.

Vi­taliy Usty­menko, head of the Odesa branch of the Au­toMaidan civic move­ment, said that Galanterni­k "sim­ply pur­chased SP Sol­ing with all its small houses and huts and re­ceived the land in lease from the City Coun­cil.”

In 2017, SP Sol­ing, which was reg­is­tered back in 1997, in­deed changed its owner to Cyprus-reg­is­tered firm Mare­se­nia In­vest­ment Lim­ited, ac­cord­ing to the YouCon­trol open data reg­istry.

Usty­menko said that the mass pub­lic protests in 2017 made the de­vel­op­ers and au­thor­i­ties change their strat­egy. Now the com­pany claims they plan just to re­con­struct the old Sum­mer Theater, whose pictures they even placed on the wall of the con­struc­tion site. But Usty­menko be­lieves a theater could be con­structed only tem­po­rar­ily in or­der tto later build a huge build­ing at that site as in­di­cated in the con­struc­tion plans.

“They will drive the ac­tivists from this process and then they will build what­ever they want,” he said.

New meth­ods

While a dozen ac­tivists ar­gued with po­lice of­fi­cers and con­struc­tion work­ers on May 12, a group of ath­letic young men ob­served this scene from a dis­tance, grin­ning and jok­ing about the re­cent “fe­ces at­tacks.”

Usty­menko said that they were paid thugs hired by SP Sol­ing to op­pose ac­tivists. Apart from the thugs, there are ac­tivists of Au­tomaidan Odesa, a group that broke off the Au­tomaidan move­ment and of­ten par­tic­i­pates in pub­lic ral­lies on the side of Trukhanov.

There are other ways to fight ac­tivists.

In March, SP Sol­ing filed law­suits against 13 ac­tivists, in­clud­ing Usty­menko and Pid­pala, de­mand­ing Hr 1 mil­lion ($38,000) from each of them. The firm accuses them of “dam­ag­ing prop­erty” of the com­pany at the con­struc­tion site.

The com­pany also lured a re­spected lo­cal show­man, Dmytro Sh­pinar­iov, and made his firm a sub­con­trac­tor in the ur­ban de­sign of the Sum­mer Theater, try­ing to at­tract more sup­port­ers to the pro­ject this way. On April 13, at a meet­ing with ac­tivists, Sh­pinar­iov as­sured them that there will be no trade cen­ter con­structed at this site. “I don’t know if he (Sh­pinar­iov) un­der­stands that he’s be­ing used,” Usty­menko said.

Sh­pinar­iov told the Kyiv Post he doesn’t know who is at­tack­ing the ac­tivists at the Sum­mer Theater, since its ter­ri­tory is now open and “any­body can come there.” He claimed the builders don’t vi­o­late the min­istry's in­struc­tion be­cause there’s "not con­struc­tion, but just a land de­vel­op­ment is be­ing done there."

Sh­pinar­iov also said he doesn’t know who owns SP Sol­ing, though he also heard that it could be Galanterni­k. Sh­pinar­iov said he held all the ne­go­ti­a­tions with SP Sol­ing in the build­ing of the City Coun­cil with me­di­a­tion by the city au­thor­i­ties. “I’ve never seen Galanterni­k, I’ve never met him,” he said. The first part of the Sum­mer Theater's re­con­struc­tion is planned to be fin­ished on June 1.

Po­lit­i­cal plans

On May 7, a group of ac­tivists made a pub­lic ad­dress to pres­i­dent-elect Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy, ask­ing him to en­sure a proper in­ves­ti­ga­tion of at­tacks on them and bring new faces to the city and oblast. The new pres­i­dent is sup­posed to ap­point a new per­son to the cur­rently va­cant of­fice of the Odesa Oblast gov­er­nor af­ter Maksym Stepanov was sacked from his post by Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko on April 10.

Mykhailo Kuza­kon, leader of the Nar­o­dny Rukh of Ukraine party in Odesa, told a press con­fer­ence that now all the branches of power in the city “serve the clan of Galanterni­kTrukhanov” but not the lo­cal res­i­dents. “The first steps of the newly elected pres­i­dent will show if he plans to make changes in the coun­try or not,” Kuza­kon said.

On April 15, Trukhanov ad­mit­ted in an in­ter­view with the Livy Bereh web­site to hav­ing “good hu­man re­la­tions” with Ze­len­skiy. Ze­len­skiy’s Kvar­tal 95 pro­duc­tion stu­dio has held con­certs and shot videos in Odesa sea­port in re­cent years.

Trukhanov also ad­mit­ted in an in­ter­view to hav­ing good re­la­tions with Ihor Pa­lyt­sia, the for­mer gov­er­nor of Odesa Oblast and a loy­al­ist to oli­garch Ihor Kolo­moisky, who has a busi­ness part­ner­ship with Ze­len­skiy. Trukhanov said he plans to cam­paign for re-elec­tion as a mayor in 2020.

Mykhai­lyk, who also plans to cam­paign for mayor, said it’s un­clear whether Ze­len­skiy will sup­port Trukhanov’s clan. “We will de­mand that Ze­len­skiy ap­point as gov­er­nor a per­son with an un­tainted rep­u­ta­tion,” he said. “If not, we will op­pose him as we did Poroshenko.”

Olek­siy Mel­nykov, a lawyer of the Au­toMaidan civic move­ment (L), talks with po­lice of­fi­cers at the con­struc­tion site of the Sum­mer Theater in Odesa on May 12, 2019. (Kostyan­tyn Ch­er­nichkin)

Anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivist Oleg Mykhai­lyk poses for a photo on May 11, 2019, on a street where he lives in Odesa down­town. Mykhai­lyk was shot on the same street in Septem­ber for his civic ac­tiv­ity as he be­lieves. (Kostyan­tyn Ch­er­nichkin)

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