The Pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych told the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps Friday, January 26, that Ukraine has a "strong democracy" and the potential to become "an economic powerhouse" between Western Europe and Russia. He even spoke of European Union membership, receiving a lukewarm response from his audience which included the EU’s enlargement commissioner, according to reporters who were there.
Yet here in Uzhhorod, located in a strategic region sandwiched between EU nations, a group of residents known as ‘The Concerned Citizens of Uzhhorod’, still await results from their appeal to stop corruption to the pro-Western President Victor Yushchenko. Analysts say however that the power struggle between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovich has made it difficult to tackle crime on a local level.
In last year’s open letter the ‘Concerned Citizens’, some of whom were beaten for questioning corruption practices, asked the president to expand the Orange Revolution to this key border area, which they claim has been ruled by corrupt officials supported by police, judges and prosecutors. They reminded him to pledges he made during the 2004 Orange Revolution for democracy, including stamping out corruption in border regions.
As an example, the letter mentioned 61-year-old Svetlana Milchevich, who in 2005 bought a piece of land to build a home from the money she earned with her life-long work as a clothing designer. Because her neighbor opposing the construction was a close friend of the apparently corrupt mayor, authorities and judges refused to allow Milchevich to continue the project.
The neighbor, identified as business man Josif Ivanovich Kostich, was able to confiscate parts of her land and plots of other neighbors with the support from the mayor and his police force, the letter writers claimed. "We all have similar experiences," the ‘Concerned Citizens’ said. Kostich has denied the charges.
It wasn’t the only controversy surrounding Mayor Sergei Ratushnyak, also spelled as Serhiy Ratushniak, and his friends. In June 2006 journalist Sergei Romanenko was "beaten up in downtown Uzhhorod" after reporting on shady business dealings of Mayor Ratushnyak, said news website www.ua-reporter.com of which Romaneko is Editor-in-Chief.
In an interview with BosNewsLife, Romanenko said he needed "medical treatment" following the attack. He was treated at Uzhhorod’s Regional Hospital with severe injuries, including a concussion of the brain, broken teeth, and torn lips, seen as a sign from the underworld that he should be silent.
The angry Deputy Major Vladimir Bobkov told BosNewsLife at the time refused to set-up an interview and said he "prohibits” any publication about the incident, although it was not clear how he could prevent foreign reporters of doing just that.
Besides Romanenko, several other independent local journalists in the Uzhhorod region have been beaten and even killed after apparently trying to cover the involvement of judges, police, municipality departments and nearby customs authorities in the criminal network of Ratushnyak and his allies, human rights watchers say. In 2004, cameraman Ishtvan Kotsanyk of Transcarpathian television channel M-Studio was killed. His murder was never solved.
Ratushnyak owned over 50 companies, including alcohol and soft drink production plants, as well as insurance and banking firms, many of whom he reportedly illegally privatized, either by giving bribes, falsifying documents, or by using violence. Under his previous leadership (from 1994 till 1998) many Uzhhorod citizens also lost properties, including lands and homes, BosNewsLife learned.
Critics claim Ratushnyak came back to power March 28, 2006, after being absent for four years, to reclaim companies and properties he lost during an investigation for economic crimes in Uzhhorod, seen as a major gateway for exports to, and imports from, the European Union. Locals have questioned whether the March local elections were free and fair because of the mayor’s reported violent behavior and attempts to control and dictate local media.
Evangelical church leaders in the area have expressed concerns about what they see as a lack of morals and norms in Ukraine. Yet Uzhhorod’s ‘Concerned Citizens’ still have hope. "Mr. President your [former] Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko once famously said: "Our government has come to the conclusion that Ukraine can never rise on her feet until she bows down her knees before the Almighty God," they wrote." Help us to renew our faith in our nation." Yet, as time passes by, residents are becoming increasingly restless. (This story is part of a BosNewsLife initiative to expand its coverage on freedom-of-expression and transparency issues in former and current Communist nations and other countries with autocratic rule. bosnewslife.com)
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