KYIV -- An investigation by RFE/RL shows that Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko may have used his presidential influence to shut down investigations into damage to a protected historic site caused by unauthorized construction on his private property in central Kyiv.
Two reports broadcast on RFE/RL's Ukrainian-language television program, Schemes, reveal that over the course of seven years, Poroshenko quietly appropriated a plot of protected land in Kyiv's elite Pechera district and recently quashed an inquiry into the damage of an 18th-century structure caused by construction work on his plot.
The revelations come as Poroshenko, soon to mark his first year in office, faces growing criticism for failing to divest his billion-dollar business holdings and diminish the political influence of Ukrainian oligarchs like Dmytro Firtash, who last week claimed he personally orchestrated Poroshenko's rise to the presidency.
Supporters of Poroshenko -- still one of Ukraine's richest men, with an estimated fortune of $750 million -- defend him as a "president of de-oligarchization." But his failure to honor his campaign pledge to divest himself of his assets, as well as new findings about his property holdings, may add to questions about his commitment to separating politics from property and money.
Radialna Street is short, but it runs through some of the prettiest land in Kyiv. Located in the forested neighborhood known as Tsar's Village, it is part of the protected Pechera district that runs along the western bank of the winding Dnipro River.
The district is home to two of the city's best-known historical attractions, the St. Sophia Cathedral and the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, also known as the Monastery of the Caves. Both are recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and are protected under Kyiv city law, together with a 220-hectare buffer zone.
Within Tsar's Village, two plots share the address Radialna 5. One, undeveloped and strewn with debris, belongs to Poroshenko. The other, across the street, already boasts a fenced-in mansion and tennis court. It belongs to one of Poroshenko's closest friends and business partners, Ihor Kononenko.
Kononenko is a lawmaker who currently serves as deputy head of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc's faction in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament. Bald and solidly built, he is sometimes referred to as the bloc's "gray cardinal." But in 2009, he was a member of the Kyiv government and an ally of then-Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyy, who presided over a city vote handing the Radialna 5 plots to a company co-founded by Kononenko -- for free.
How does protected state land with a market value of more than $25 million get handed free of charge to a little-known company run by a city lawmaker?
Documents suggest that Kononenko had his eye on the Tsar's Village land as early as 2003. That was when he helped create Zelenbudservis-K, a private limited company that gradually laid claim to the grounds, which until then had housed the state landscaping service responsible for the St. Sophia and Pechersk grounds.
Within five years, the landscapers had been moved to their new location, far from the Pechera district in a dreary section of industrial Kyiv. Olha Krystovnikova, the facility's head agronomist, confirmed to Schemes that the landscapers had moved to the new greenhouse complex in 2008, and that they had previously been based at Radialna 5.
Google Earth images from 2008 show the landscapers' former greenhouses and storage units still standing on the Radialna plots. Now they're gone, replaced by Kononenko's mansion and Poroshenko's still-empty lot.
'Biggest' Land Scheme
In an interview with Schemes, Kononenko openly acknowledged his role in the transfer.
"I've really been dealing with this issue since 2004," he said, adding that he had acted at the behest of Chernovetskyy's mayoral predecessor, Oleksandr Omelchenko, in finding a new location for the landscapers.
With the Radialna grounds in the process of being vacated, Zelenbudservis-K -- which still held operating rights to the Tsar's Village plots -- quietly dropped its private status in 2007, reregistering as a housing cooperative society. That switch, under Ukraine's land code, allowed Zelenbudservis-K to receive ownership of the Radialna 5 land for free -- the transaction that was approved by a voting majority of Kyiv city lawmakers in April 2009.
Rights activist Oleksandr Dyadyuk says such land-acquisition schemes reached their peak under the notorious mayoralty of Chernovetskyy, a quirky millionaire who was nicknamed "Kosmos" after announcing plans to travel to space with his cat.
"Large lots of valuable land were transferred in precisely this way, through fake housing cooperative societies," Dyaduk says. Such acquisitions, including the plots at Radialna 5, were all conducted according to what he called "the biggest and most important free-appropriation land scheme in Kyiv."
There are numerous irregularities in Radialna 5's path from state greenhouse to luxury-home turf. None of the 12 members of the Zelenbudservis-K cooperative society was on the housing register, a legal step meant to ensure that free land is going to those in need. Of the 12, at least six have close ties to Poroshenko and Kononenko, including Kononenko's sister and a Poroshenko political adviser.
In addition, Oles Dovhy, the city council secretary who agreed to initiate the process of transferring the land to Zelenbudservis-K, has close ties to Poroshenko. And Ukrsel, the company that officially purchased the Radialna land from Zelenbudservis-K before selling it to Poroshenko and Kononenko, was an Odesa-based shell company liquidated shortly after the final transfer of the land in late 2009.
Most worrying to critics, however, are suggestions that Poroshenko may have since used his presidential imprimatur to shut down a probe into damage caused to a neighboring structure by unauthorized construction on his plot.
Destruction Of Relics
In 2012, employees at the Kyiv-Pechersk reserve were alarmed to see construction machinery begin excavation work at the Radialna 5 plot belonging to Poroshenko. In a letter to the Culture Ministry, the reserve's director Lubomyr Mykhaylyna expressed concern that the digging was taking place inside a UNESCO buffer zone and within meters of an early 18th-century earthen fortification that is part of the site's historic properties.
Construction is not prohibited on protected land, but it is strictly regulated. Building projects can only proceed after receiving two separate sets of approvals -- one from the Culture Ministry's cultural-heritage department, and one from archaeological experts at the National Academy of Sciences.
Preservation experts wrote directly to Poroshenko, informing him of the threat to the fortress. Construction work was finally suspended in early 2013, but not before one of the fortress's lunettes -- structural walls in the shape of a half-moon -- was partially destroyed.
At the time construction started, Poroshenko had not received permission from either the Culture Ministry or the National Academy of Science. (He ultimately received NAS approval, but only in December 2012, a month after excavation began.)
A Pechera district prosecutor quickly opened a criminal case into the lunette's destruction, citing national laws protecting monuments of cultural heritage. But on November 6, 2014 -- five months after Poroshenko's presidential inauguration -- the proceedings were closed. Olena Yakhno, a spokesperson for the Kyiv prosecutor's office, said no criminal violations were found. Eighteen days later, on November 24, Poroshenko signed off on a new declaration to resume construction at the Tsar's Village plot. (As of May, there has been no sign of work at the site.)
Poroshenko and his spokesman Svyatoslav Tseholko declined to speak to Schemes. Oleksandr Lutskyy, a former deputy mayor of Kyiv and Chernovetskyy ally authorized to speak on the president's behalf, provided RFE/RL with a copy of Poroshenko's construction declaration but later told a correspondent, "You're digging where there's nothing to dig."
* This article was corrected to clarify that the investigation into Poroshenko's actions was tied to construction-related damage to the neighboring historic structure, not his acquisition of the land. Changes were also made in order to properly describe the 18th-century structure and the relationship between Zelenbudservis-K and the landscaping group that previously occupied the plot at Radialna 5. Finally, Poroshenko's plot was incorrectly described as a hectare of land. It is 0.63 hectares; Kononenko's plot is 0.46.
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting in Kyiv by Maksym Savchuk