- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
It appears that in his rush to get out of Kiev, embattled Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych left behind quite a paper trail. Protesters arriving at his opulent estate, the Mezhyhirya, a kind of Swiss chalet-meets-Neverland Ranch about 12 miles from Kiev, found hundreds pages of accounting files, receipts, and dossiers on Yanukovych’s political opponents floating in a river. The incriminating records were apparently dumped there by whomever was last at the palace before Yanukovych fled for parts unknown, according to multiple reports on social media Saturday and in the Ukrainian press.
Protesters retrieved the documents from the water and set them out to dry in what was described as an airplane hangar. There, they were eagerly perused by journalists looking for evidence that would bolster the longstanding allegations of political and financial corruption by Yanukovych and his family.
The most intriguing piece of paper may be a receipt for a cash transfer of $12 million dated September 2010, about seven months after Yanukovych took office. It’s not clear who gave the money, or whether Yanukovych was the recipient. Radio Svoboda, a Russian news organization that bills itself as an alternative to state-controlled media, reported that the receipt showed money unnamed "oligarchs" had given to Yanukovych, a claim that couldn’t be independently verified.
Also among the discarded files — some of which had pages torn out — were photographs and personal information about journalists and democracy activists opposed to the government. Alisa Ruban, the international secretary of Democratic Alliance, an opposition group, said some of the photos showed members of her organization. There were also lists of "political and civil society activists who [sic] Yanukovych was scared of," the group said on its Facebook page.
If the documents left behind are valid and were indeed thrown out by Yanukovych or his loyalists in an attempt to cover his political and financial tracks, they help to complete a picture of the paranoid splendor in which the Ukrainian leader lived. At the same time he was keeping tabs on political opponents, Yanukovych was also acquiring expensive works of art and paying carpenters $31 million for ornate woodwork at his colossal home. The property was once owned by the state, but Yanukovych recently "privatized" the house and the hundreds of acres around it and turned it into his residence.
Ukrainian citizens spent much of Saturday wandering through the sprawling grounds of the Mezhyhirya as if it were a public park, gawking in wonder and shock at Yanukovych’s collection of amusements, which includes a fleet of luxury cars, a full-size pirate galleon moored on a man-made lake, and a private zoo stocked with pigs, ostriches, and an ostentation of peacocks.
Elsewhere in Kiev, government officials were also reportedly trying to erase their paper trails as opposition forces took control of the capital and Yanukovych’s allies fled. Some government buildings were closed after reports that officials in the public prosecutor’s office were destroying documents, and rumors circulated that Yanukovych himself may have made off with a cache of files. The Financial Times quoted one protester in Kiev saying that opposition forces had secured a government building and were working with presidential guards to protect "secret documents" inside.
Yanukovych’s ties to Ukrainian businessmen and billionaires have long fueled public suspicions that he and his family were wrongly profiting from his control of the country. The ousted leader’s eldest son, Oleksander, is a dentist by training but has quickly become one of the richest men in Ukraine, in part through his ownership of businesses like a bank that reportedly increased its earning by an implausible 20 times in the last three quarters of 2011 and is among the country’s biggest recipients of government contracts.
U.S. officials have described Yanukovych and his government as a kleptocracy in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. Given the ousted president’s penchant for record keeping, it may be that among the soggy papers and printouts left behind at his plush pad is the evidence of his and his family’s corruption. No wonder he may have tried to drown it.