Businessman behind Ukrainian president plans largest ski area in Europe

These primeval forests have to make way for a mega-ski resort. Who benefits from the clear-cut?

© Xander Stockmans

In short

  • The businessman who launched the television career of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky wants to build Europe’s largest ski area in Europe’s last great wilderness: the Carpathians. The protected mountain range of Svydovets is one of the most unique natural areas in Europe. Is Zelensky the umpteenth president who allows the Ukrainian state to be occupied by private business interests?
  • Hundreds of hectares of forest would be logged, including primeval forest identified by WWF. A few days ago, the state forestry agency started logging in these primeval forests. Even though there is no environmental impact analysis yet, and even though these forests were awaiting official protection. That is unlawful. The state forestry agency therefore masks the operations as ‘forest management’. Will Ukraine succeed in complying with European environmental standards?
  • There is a strange entanglement between the regional authorities, the foresters, the private investors, and the scientists of the environmental impact analysis. They all defend the ski area with bizarre conspiracy theories. They call the opposition to the ski area ‘paid professional activism’, a ‘bad consequence of the Maidan uprising’. They seduce local residents with promises that the ski area is a panacea against high emigration and unemployment, which are nevertheless largely the result of their own corruption.
  • They are faced with unexpected civil activism. An owner of a sawmill in the small mountain village of Lopukhiv started a broad resistance, now united in the Free Svydovets movement. An ordinary citizen brings the most powerful people in his country to the Supreme Court. He is prepared to go to the European Court of Human Rights.

 

Evening falls. The eyes of mayor Ivan Pavlyuchok seem to be firing lightning. ‘What is the purpose of this interview? Stay out of our internal affairs’, he says. In a dark alley next to a roadside restaurant, along the road between the Carpathian Mountains and the capital of the province, he was waiting for us together with four of his councillors. The atmosphere is grim.

Last summer he attacked scientist Bohdan Prots. As a member of an official delegation of the Ministry of Ecology, Prots was in Pavlyuchok’s village of Chorna Tysa. The delegation came there to identify pristine primeval forests, close to the protected mountain range of Svydovets. Following an initiative of WWF Ukraine, these forests would come under a strict protection regime.

‘How should our farmers produce their typical cheese,’ roars mayor Pavlyuchok, ‘when they can’t reach the grasslands at the top of the mountain with their sheep? Because that’s what you get with these primeval forests.’

© Xander Stockmans

The mayor of Chorna Tysa is not happy with questions about the planned ski resort: ‘What is the purpose of this interview? Don’t interfere in our internal affairs.’

On the phone, Prots denies that this is the case: ‘The real reason for his resistance lies elsewhere. His threatening words left little to the imagination: “I know what you’re up to! You want to block the ski area!” They even threatened to set fire to our cars. We just had to get out of there.’

Pavlyuchok had called in local councillors and residents to deny the delegation access to the forest. Until the government sends a new delegation, logging is forbidden. But last week Prots was shocked: the state forestry agency had started logging in those primeval forests, of all places. And the parcels of land are just where the ski area is supposed to be.

Ihor Kolomoysky, the third richest man in Ukraine, wants to build Europe’s largest ski area in the Ukrainian Carpathians.

This is not just any ski area. The controversial businessman Ihor Kolomoysky, third richest man in Ukraine and owner of the television station that launched the career of President Volodymyr Zelensky, wants to build Europe’s largest ski area in the Ukrainian Carpathians. There is already one: Bukovel, in which he owns 91 percent of the shares. He wants to expand this area to the province of Transcarpathia, on the borders with Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

In 2016, the previous provincial governor published a triumphant message on his website: ‘We have reached an agreement with the owners of Bukovel. The ski area will be continued in our province. I gave the green light for the construction of 60 hotels, 390 apartments, 33 cable cars, 230 kilometres of ski slopes, 89 kilometres of new roads, 120 restaurants, and shops, fitness centres, bank offices, parking garages and a landing strip for airplanes.’

‘They are already preparing the permits,’ he continued. ‘It will be a large area called Svydovets, which will accommodate 28,000 tourists. It will create 5000 jobs for the local population, and give a boost to the local economy.’

President Zelensky spoke of the ‘Eastern European Alps’, without however referring to Svydovets.

The connecting road

Morning dew hangs between the forest-covered mountain ridges. The sun rises on the horizon and slowly makes the blue shine disappear. The sound of chainsaws from the countless sawmills, and the ringing of bells around the necks of cows grazing in the meadows: both are equally characteristic of life in Lopukhiv. Together with Chorna Tysa, this is one of the villages where the ski resort would be located.

Trucks loaded with logs drive back and forth, from the forest to the sawmills, and back again. On the side of the roads and in people’s gardens there are planks, tree trunks and firewood. In the background, clear-cut mountain flanks can be seen, as if a giant had taken a bite out of the forest.

You can only drive up with a military truck. Suddenly we find ourselves on a newly constructed forest road near the source of the Black Tysa River. Along the side there are tractors and cut down logs, for miles and miles.

‘The construction of this road will greatly improve the logistics for the ski area’, the governor wrote on his website two years ago.

‘The construction of this road will greatly improve the logistics for the ski resort.’

Over a period of twelve years, Kolomoysky’s company would invest $1.5 billion. Strangely enough, local authorities are financing this road, making the inhospitable nature reserve accessible. The protest movement Free Svydovets has a letter from the district government confirming this.

However, it is illegal to build if the investor has not yet been made public, and if there is the environmental impact analysis isn’t completed. ‘That’s why the state forestry agencies are masking the operations as “logging under forest management plans”, and as infrastructure works for nearby villages. They build private infrastructure with public funds’, says activist Oreste Del Sol of Free Svydovets.

© Xander Stockmans

‘The construction of this road will greatly improve the logistics for the ski resort’, the governor wrote on his website two years ago. The road makes an inhospitable nature area accessible for mass tourism.

© Xander Stockmans

‘The construction of this road will greatly improve the logistics for the ski resort’, the governor wrote on his website two years ago. The road makes an inhospitable nature area accessible for mass tourism.

Nature threatened

Eventually, more than 1400 hectares of forest and untouched primeval forest would turn into a complex for mass tourism. Not far from here is Unesco’s natural heritage of ‘Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians’.

This is where the largest continuous beech forests in Europe are located. At the 2007 nomination of the area, Unesco wrote: ‘Such forests once extended over 40 percent of the European continent, but the anthropogenic pressure led to their nearly entire elimination. Now their remnants are comprised mainly to the parts of the Carpathians. They provide habitats for large mammals, such as brown bear, wolf, lynx and wisent.’

From the same document of 2007: ‘In Svydovets, there is the richest flora within the Ukrainian Carpathians. It is not threatened by development because Ukrainian law provides strict protection. Local forest management plans respect that protection. Tourism is limited.’

‘They want to make artificial snow with the water from the Svydovets mountain range.’

Ten years later this could change. ‘Shall I reveal a secret’, says Yaroslavna Ivanova, advisor to the district and provincial government, sarcastically. ‘I personally took part in the preparation of the territorial plan. We will not build anything in the protected mountain range.’ However, Ivanova’s secret hides three other secrets.

The first: the primeval forests where the state forestry agency started logging this week under the legal category of ‘sanitary logging’ – logging of unhealthy trees – are not yet protected. But as long as the ministry’s procedure is on-going, all logging is prohibited.

If these forests were eventually added to the protected nature reserve, no form of mass tourism would be allowed. According to Bohdan Prots, this explains the aggressive attitude of the mayor. He wants to block this procedure.

© Xander Stockmans

On our way to the top of the Svydovets Mountain Range we regularly pass trucks loaded with cut logs.

The second secret is that, in addition, construction would indeed take place in protected natural areas which the Ukrainian government itself had included in the Council of Europe’s Emerald Network. The EU standards of the Natura 2000 network apply there.

And the third is that construction would take place right up to the Carpathian Biosphere Reserve. This is the buffer zone around the Unesco reserve. It also houses unique ecosystems, the best-preserved in all of Europe. That’s what biologist Fedir Hamor, deputy director of the biosphere reserve, says.

‘These phenomenal natural wonders are hotspots of biodiversity, with 93 endangered species from the Red Data Book. The 1992 UN Biodiversity Convention contains strict rules on development projects in areas adjacent to protected reserves. It will be difficult to build mass tourism infrastructure in these vulnerable nature areas without violating Ukrainian and international environmental laws.’

‘Ancient glacial lakes and entire areas will dry out. Biodiversity will disappear.’

Oksana Stankevych, botanist and director of the NGO Ekosfera, explains: ‘Kolomoysky wants the water from Svydovets. More than half of all Ukrainian glacial lakes are there, and the Black Tysa River originates there. They want to transport the water through irrigation to seven artificial lakes to produce artificial snow and provide water to a ski village of 28,000 tourists. Ancient glacial lakes and entire areas of the Black Tysa river basin will dry out. Biodiversity will disappear.’

The Ukrainian register of planned environmental impact assessments also states that the ski resort will produce six thousand cubic metres of wastewater every day. ‘Even though the plans provide for a water purification system, some of this water will end up in the river,’ says Fedir Hamor.

First analyse the environmental impact

Following the Maidan uprising of 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted new environmental legislation to comply with the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The then member of parliament Ostap Yednak was the author of the legislation. ‘This megalomaniacal project by Ihor KoIomojski is a test for Ukraine: is our country able to enforce modern environmental legislation effectively?’, he says.

A bad omen could be that the provincial government did not select a single scientist from the Carpathian Biosphere Reserve for the environmental impact analysis of the ski area, despite the fact that it’s Unesco’s official partner in Ukraine.

© Xander Stockmans

Coordinator of the environmental impact analysis Stepan Pop shows a picture of his visit to the area of the planned ski resort together with Yaroslavna Ivanova, the advisor to the provincial government who promotes the plans for the ski resort. This raises questions about the independence of the environmental impact assessment. Under his hand: the Red Data Book of endangered species in Ukraine. The ski resort threatens 93 plant and animal species included in the book.

The coordinator of the environmental impact analysis is physicist Stepan Pop. Behind his desk in the University of Uzhgorod is a large map of the ‘territorial plan of the Svydovets tourist and recreational complex’.

In order to emphasize his scientific neutrality, he fetches the Red Data Book of endangered species. But Pop visited the area together with Yaroslavna Ivanova, the district and province advisor who promotes the plans for the ski area. This raises questions about the independence of the environmental impact analysis.

Pop minimises all risks. ‘It will be a beautiful ski area, as beautiful as Courchevel in France’, he says. ‘Our role is not to prevent the project, but to make it possible with as little impact on nature as possible. For example, we are investigating how global warming could affect the future of the ski resort.’

‘All the hassle of these activists and journalists, it’s a propaganda campaign supported from abroad’, he adds. ‘They forget that people live here too, in poverty. Don’t they have a right to development?’

The promise of development

The Bukovel ski area is preparing for the coming ski season. The expansion is in full swing. Excavators are excavating new roads. Everywhere there is the smell of fresh asphalt and apartment blocks and hotels are rising from the ground like mushrooms.

© Xander Stockmans

The existing Bukovel ski resort is preparing for the coming ski season. The expansion is in full swing.

Behind the hotel town lies Polyanytsya. The sleepy, picturesque village seems to have been swallowed up by the ski area. Between the high-rise buildings you can see what remains of the meadows, the cows and the village roads.

Next to an old, traditional house, with a larger modern house next to it, a woman is milking a cow. ‘As a widow and single mother I raised seven children in this small one-storey house with beds in the living room’, says Sofia Bodnaruk with a big smile.

‘The ski resort? That has changed our lives. I worked there for ten years as a cook in an Italian restaurant. With the salary I could send my children to university and they were able to build new houses.’

‘Corrupt governments responsible for poverty promote mega-investment as a panacea, just because they benefit from it themselves.’

At the age of nine, Sofia’s daughter enrolled in the ski school of Bukovel. Ten years later she invariably makes it to the stage of snowboard championships. Sofia proudly brings out the collection of medals, after which she offers us fresh milk from her cow. ‘Almost all my children have university degrees,’ she says. ‘And all of them returned to the village.’

That makes Polyanytsya an exception. Emigration is gradually becoming a social disaster for Transcarpathia and is causing deep wounds to those left behind.

Half of the young people emigrate, to Poland or the Czech Republic, in search of work. ‘People are so desperate that they expect a miracle’, says Svetlana Dzhunzhyk, an active inhabitant of Yasinya. This underdeveloped village would be swallowed up by the expansion of the ski area, much like Polyanytsya.

‘They see Kolomoysky as a sorcerer who makes them rich from one day to the next. But the same governments that are responsible for the poverty and emigration, with their corruption and mismanagement, are promoting this mega-investment as a panacea, just because they benefit from it themselves. Not because they care about their people.’

Vassyl Telychuk is the director of Yasinya’s state forestry agency. He is one of the people who, according to Svetlana, would benefit from the arrival of Kolomoysky.

‘The land will be sold to the investor’, says Telychuk. ‘He decides where to log. They will compensate us for lost income. And they will buy about one thousand of our 27,000 hectares’.

© Xander Stockmans

Vassyl Telychuk is the director of the Yasinya state forestry agency: ‘The ski resort means an end to emigration; tourists to sell local products to and receive in hotels; tax revenues for the local budget; new schools, roads, a water purification system and sewerage’.

© Xander Stockmans

The peaceful village of Yasinya. The ski resort would be built on the territory of this village. Because the local government and the state forestry agency benefit from it (sometimes personally), they are strong advocates of its construction. Just like in Polyanytsya, which was swallowed up by the Bukovel ski resort, these rural scenes could soon become a thing of the past.

Telychuk also refers to the worrying emigration and unemployment: ‘The ski area means an end to emigration; the arrival of tourists to sell local products to and to receive in hotels; tax revenues for the local budget; new schools, roads, a water purification system and sewerage’.

But in Polyanytsya there has been a ski resort for ten years and the village still does not have a central sewerage system.

Telychuk also promotes the ski area as a means to stop illegal logging. ‘If you give people economic perspectives, they won’t have to illegally log trees any more’, he says.

This is quite surprising, as the British NGO Earth Sight revealed in a ground-breaking study last year that illegal logging is the work of the state forestry agencies themselves. Everywhere around Yasinya and Chorna Tysa you can see clear-cut mountain flanks.

‘Emigration, poverty, illegal logging: the ski area is like a magic solution to mask their own failure,’ says Svetlana Dzhunzhyk. She sees a different future for her village. She wants to make Yasinya a centre for sustainable ecotourism. The Carpathian Convention of 2003 obliges Ukraine to only promote sustainable development projects in the Carpathians and to preserve the unique ecosystems.

Former Member of Parliament Ostap Yednak says that the plans for this have been on the table for a long time: ‘But they are not being implemented because everyone is blinded. Local governments prefer to see the big money of an oligarch flow to their small villages.’

Who are Ihor Kolomoysky and Oleksandr Shevchenko?

The owner of the Bukovel ski area is the company Skorzonera. Ihor Kolomoysky owns 91 percent of the shares. Kolomoysky is the third richest man in Ukraine. His capital is estimated at 1.2 billion dollars. Since 2004 he has invested 500 million dollars in Bukovel. The family of former MP Oleksandr Shevchenko and five offshore companies in Cyprus hold the rest of the shares. 

‘Nobody knows who the investor of the Svydovets-ski area will be,’ says Yaroslavna Ivanova, advisor to the provincial government. ‘Candidate investors will be able to submit their tenders after the environmental impact assessment has been completed.’

This is how it should be, but there is evidence to the contrary. The company that will invest is already known: it is Skorzonera. On 21 April 2017, Skorzonera submitted an official application to the local district to draw up a territorial plan for the expansion of Bukovel. A year earlier, Skorzonera had set up a new department for this purpose. Kolomoysky’s PrivatBank bank quickly granted a loan to the director, who Kolomoysky himself had just appointed before his bank was nationalized for large-scale fraud. The renowned Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed this.

At the end of December 2017, Oleksandr Shevchenko launched a charm offensive with the state forestry agencies of the areas where he wants to expand the ski resort. The National State Forestry Agency published the following message with photos on their Facebook page: ‘Our deputy director met with member of parliament and investor Shevchenko to discuss the construction of the Svydovets ski area and its impact on the environment and the wood industry.’

On the photos, Shevchenko explains the map of the planned ski area. Standing next to him:

  • The director of Yasinya’s state forestry agency, Vassyl Telychuk;
  • The general director of the National State Forestry Agency, Volodymyr Bondar;
  • The director of another state forestry agency, who was dismissed for illegal logging in protected areas, Valery Moerga.

Playing judges

‘Do you really think a normal company would candidate for this public tender? For a construction that lasts twelve years, in a country with uncertain prospects,’ says NGO director Oksana Stankevych. ‘Only a corrupt oligarch with political connections can do that.’

The connections go directly to the president. Since Volodymyr Zelensky controls the presidency and parliament, the owners of the Bukovel ski resort have become even more entrenched in politics than before. Zelensky became president thanks to his popular television show on Kolomoysky’s television channel. Subsequently, many members of Kolomoysky’s political party UKROP switched to Zelensky’s new party.

The fact that Kolomoysky has little to fear was already evident from the fact that he returned from exile in London immediately after Zelensky’s election victory.

‘I do not think that Kolomoysky will work directly with President Zelensky to make the ski area possible, that would be too obvious,’ says former Member of Parliament Ostap Yednak. ‘But his companion Shevchenko is busy playing other institutions: judges, local authorities, state forestry agencies. Kolomoysky himself does everything he can to regain control of PrivatBank. The International Monetary Fund is urging the Ukrainian government to prevent this, but Kolomoysky can play judges. If he succeeds, he will immediately pump his money into the ski area.’

 

Activism

Ostap Yednak is in the final straight line to become national deputy director of the State Forestry Agency. ‘A few weeks ago, journalists from Kolomoysky’s media started to attack me,’ he says. ‘I assume that Kolomoysky would not be happy if I took over the leadership. I’m going to stop that ski resort.’

Yednak is giving Kolomoysky grey hair from the capital Kiev. In the small mountain village of Lopukhiv, it’s an ordinary man who started the resistance: Valera Pavlyuk, owner of a sawmill.

© Xander Stockmans

Valera Pavljuk, owner of a sawmill in the small mountain village of Lopukhiv, started the resistance against the plans for a megalomaniac ski resort close to a protected nature reserve in the Ukrainian Carpathians.

‘I took the district government to court because the ski area’s territorial plan has not been published,’ he explains during a tour of his sawmill. On 18 January 2018, the judge agreed with him. But the district government appealed.

Pavlyuk called in the help of Oreste Del Sol, a French-Italian farmer who emigrated to the Ukrainian Carpathians twenty-five years ago. Together they mobilized the local and international resistance against the planned ski resort of Svydovets.

Today, Free Svydovets is a movement of dozens of NGOs, cooperatives, scientists and foundations.

‘I understand that Kolomoysky would not be happy if I took over the leadership. I’m definitely going to stop that ski resort.’

During the court session in the Court of Appeal, activists filmed an absurd scene: Yaroslavna Ivanova gave the attendees no more than ten minutes to examine the territorial plan. But there was not a single courtroom large enough to fully roll out the document. It measures eight by ten metres. ‘She claimed this is why it cannot be published’, says Del Sol. ‘The whole planet is online, but not a document of eight by ten metres? According to Ukrainian law, such plans must be published.’

‘We did’, Ivanova reacts. ‘We presented the territorial plan during public hearings in Chorna Tysa, YasinYa and Lopukhiv. But only 33 of the 3317 inhabitants of Lopukhiv came to that hearing. It had not been not widely announced. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal agreed with Ivanova.

‘That’s why we went to the Supreme Court,’ says Pavlyuk. ‘And if necessary, we go to the European Court of Human Rights. But that doesn’t stop the state forestry agencies from cutting down primeval forests now and constructing connecting roads for the ski area.’

Threats

‘This is a test for the Ukrainian legal system,’ says Ostap Yednak. ‘Kolomoysky doesn’t care too much about civil activism. Only if the Supreme Court were to cancel the licences, he would get scared. So he will certainly spread his tentacles.’

A small entrepreneur from a small mountain village would thus frustrate the third richest man in the country. This is not an everyday occurrence in Ukraine.

‘I’m experiencing the consequences’, says Pavlyuk. ‘The day after we filed the lawsuit, the state forestry agency sent a financial audit mission to my company. The boss of a local state forestry agency has a lot of power over the inhabitants of his village. He can impose all kinds of controls on us. He threatened to ruin our businesses if we don’t drop the lawsuit. But I will never give up.’

‘Western conspiracy’

All supporters of the ski resort – advisor Yaroslavna Ivanova, scientist Stepan Pop, state forest agencies and mayors – used the same bizarre conspiracy theories: 

‘Western foundations and companies behind the Western European ski resorts are paying these pseudo activists and pseudo-scientists, because they fear competition from Ukraine. And Western European governments of countries where Ukrainians work at low wages, are paying them as well. If Ukraine develops economically, those countries will lose cheap labour. These activists are the enemies of their own country. This kind of professional activism has increased sharply in Ukraine since the Maidan uprising of 2014’.

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