Back in June 2011, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych gave journalists a tour of his "official" Presidential residence just outside of Kiev. The residence that journalists were shown was a modest house featuring several perfectly adequate bedrooms and a cozy Presidential office. The office featured a large ceremonial-looking wooden desk and a small carpeted area, supposedly where his grandchildren play while Viktor runs the country. This is the type of residence you would expect to see when visiting a country where 25% of the citizens live well below the poverty line and the average annual income is $4800. So what's the problem? Well, a few pesky journalists just weren't buying the charade. These muckrakers just had to point out the fact that pretty much everyone in Ukraine is aware that President Yanukovych actually lives in a far more glamorous $100 million, 350 acre, lakefront palace. The estate, which is called Mezhyhirya, is a former public park a little smaller than the country of Monaco. It's luxurious enough to make Bill Gates blush and fortified like a top secret military compound. But something's not adding up. How does Viktor Yanukovych afford to own such a lavish property on his $115,000 per year Presidential salary? Hmmmm…
Ok, obviously we are being a little tongue in cheek here, but this is actually a pretty serious issue right now. This palatial estate, Mezhyhirya, has become a literal monument to the corruption that has inspired tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens to riot in the streets against President Yanukovych and his family's wide-spread mafia-like kleptocracy. Over 100 protesters died this week during riots that flooded the streets of Kiev. Meanwhile the only political opposition that has the nerve to oppose Yanukovych rots in jail on trumped up charges.
Mezhyhirya is actually a 350 acre park located 15 miles north of Kiev. The park was originally occupied by Orthodox Christian monks who were kicked out in the late 1700s. Their monastery was burned to the ground and remained ashes for decades. Towards the end of the 1800s, the park was occupied by a group of nuns who were eventually kicked out in the 1920s during the Bolshevik Revolution. Starting in 1935, the entire area was used as a home for the Ukrainian Communist Party's top leaders (it was also temporarily occupied by Nazi leaders during World War II). After Communism fell and Ukraine became an independent nation, Mezhyhirya was set aside to be used as public recreational land for everyone to enjoy.
Side note: We are going to post photos of what Mezhyhirya looks like today throughout this post, but keep in mind not many pictures actually exist of the property. Not only is the entire park surrounded by 16 foot high heavily guarded walls, but any Ukrainian who values their life would probably refrain from trying to snap high resolution photographs of the compound. Therefore we have to make do with what photos exist.
When Viktor Yanukovych was elected Prime Minister in 2002, he humbly requested to use one building on the property as his residence. The request was granted and Yanukovych was allowed to live in building #20 free of charge, for as long as he served as Prime Minister. In 2003, Yanukovych managed to win the right to rent building #20 for a term of 49 years at the fair market rental price of 3.14 hryvnia per month. That's the equivalent of 35 cents per month. He justified this deal by promising to use the property to help promote national programs that would improve the socio-economic status of all Ukrainian citizens. After signing his 49-year lease, Yanukovych immediately moved to demolish the old communist era building and replace it with several new modern houses and a sports club.
In 2004, the Orange Revolution installed a new dream team of leaders who promised to bring stability and equality to Ukraine. Yanukovych was soon evicted from his cushy digs by the newly elected President. Unfortunately, the Orange Revolution only lasted a year and by 2006 Yanukovych was back in power as Prime Minister and back living on his mini-compound in Mezhyhirya.
Yanukovych's third term as Prime Minister lasted from August 2006 to December 2007. During his last month in office, somehow Mezhyhirya was magically privatized. Yanukovych had the audacity to take private ownership of not just his small personal compound, but the entire 350 acre public park. Keep in mind that this property is little smaller than the entire country of Monaco. Yet, where Monaco is home to 30,000 people, starting in January 2008, Mezhyhirya became home to one person: Viktor Yanukovych.
No money was exchanged with this transaction. In order to make the exchange look mildly legitimate, Yanukovych generously agreed to give over two derelict apartment buildings on the outskirts of Kiev that appeared to already be crumbling to the ground. Just to re-iterate, the Prime Minister of Ukraine traded two crumbling city buildings for a sprawling 350 acre lakefront park.
In 2009, the Prime Minister at the time, Yulia Tymoshenko, unsuccessfully attempted to re-gain control of Mezhyhirya. Viktor pretty much just blew her off. By mid-February 2010, it didn't even matter anymore because by then, Viktor Yanukovych had finally been elected President. At this point, Viktor Yanukovych made sure that the ownership deeds to Mezhyhirya were transferred permanently to corporations that he secretly controlled. Oh, and he also threw Yulia Tymoshenko in prison for seven years. Furthermore, Yulia was banned from holding public office for life and ordered to pay the state $188 million dollars in restitution for her crimes.
It gets worse. As President, Viktor Yanukovych has used millions of dollars worth of government funds to build even more lavish properties in Mezhyhirya. During his first year in office, Yanukovych spent tens of millions of the state's money to transform the main residence into something that looks more like the French palace at Versailles. This new palace was emblazoned with gold decorations, marble floors and crystal chandeliers that cost $100,000 a piece.
Mezhyhirya now also features a zoo that is home to many exotic animals including Koalas and Kangaroos. Yanukovych further spent millions of state funds to construct an 18-hole luxury golf course, a horse riding club, tennis courts, bowling alleys, a helicopter pad, airplane hangar and an underground shooting range. Not surprisingly, the main residence also features a 70 car garage to house the President's fleet of exotic cars.
At the beginning of his Presidential term in 2010, Yanukovych announced that one of his main priorities would be to use millions of dollars worth of state funds to modernize Ukraine's highways to prepare the country for the Euro 2012 soccer championship. Fast Forward to 2012 and the state owned construction company had managed to build exactly one new highway. But that's not the worst part. The road that was built did not connect Ukraine to any other European nation as might be helpful during Euro 2012. Instead, the only road that was built happened to link the capital city Kiev, directly with Mezhyhirya. Keep in mind that the vast majority of the roads interconnecting Ukraine look more like crumbling abandoned slabs rather than a functional full scale transportation system. So you can imagine how out of place it must seem to have one perfectly constructed, gleaming concrete super-highway in the middle of it all. A road that runs from directly Kiev to a random estate out in the country. Convenient.
Mezhyhirya is a far cry from the modest "official" residence that Yanukovych showed reporters back in June 2011. But how does he afford this? His official Presidential salary is just $115,000 a year, on top of which he earns a $24,000 military pension. In 2013, Yanukovych's income was boosted by a $2 million book advance to write his memoirs. But even with that one time windfall, he's still a far cry from the kind of wealth required to own and maintain a property that most estimate to easily be worth north of $100 million.
As you might guess, the story of what has happened with Mezhyhirya is just one example of the wholesale corruption that has come to define the regime of Viktor Yanukovych. Viktor and his family members have been described as a mafia-like kleptocracy that is only in power to rob and pillage as many Ukrainian assets they can get their hands on. Meanwhile, as we mentioned, 25% of his citizens are basically starving to death. The rest aren't doing much better. Now you know why so many people are upset over there right now.
Oh, and by the way, did we mention that Viktor's oldest son, Oleksandr Yanukovych, has somehow managed to become one of the wealthiest people in Ukraine over the last few years? Oleksandr, who is a dentist by training, has seen his personal net worth magically rise from basically nothing prior to 2009, to more than $500 million today. Read this insane story in part two of this article: Five Years Ago The President of Ukraine's Son Was A Humble Dentist Making $14k A Year. Today He's Worth $500 Million.
Update! On February 22nd, 2014, Ukraine's Parliament unanimously voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovych from office, effective immediately. As of 12pm PST, Viktor is on the run and attempting to flee to Russia. When word got out that Yanukovych had fled the city, protesters immediately swarmed the gates of his palatial estate. When they discovered that the Presidential guards were gone as well, the protesters quickly seized the entire property and began opening the heavily-fortified barbed wire gates. Ordinary citizens, protesters and journalists soon began releasing the first images anyone has seen of the lavish Presidential compound in years:
Protesters found this gold coin featuring the President's face inscribed with with the words "It's Good to be King". Whoever ends up with this coin might consider adding these words to the coin's inscription: "…but just for a while."