President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky leaves the helicopter after the inspection of illegal amber mining in the forests of Zhytomyr Oblast on Aug.12, 2019.
The Ukrainian city of Olevsk is hardly a happening place. But on Aug. 12 it became the epicenter of breaking news when President Volodymyr Zelensky decided to visit and clean house.
That’s because the region surrounding Olevsk – a provincial city of around 10,000 people located 240 kilometers northwest of Kyiv – is extremely rich in amber deposits and, by extension, illegal mining involving multiple state officials.
“Everyone involved in illegal amber mining in Ukraine will be punished,” Zelensky said during an official meeting at the Olevsk District State Administration. “We know all the names and everyone who is responsible for the theft of national mineral resources.”
Zelensky has made a reputation for himself by publicly calling out and firing officials he deems corrupt. His visit to Olevsk was no exception.
There, he fired the local heads of the police and the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, in several districts, including Olevsk, across Zhytomyr, Rivne and Volyn oblasts.
“Are you glad to hear that the police, which should be respected by Ukrainians, are also involved in these schemes? Why do we, Ukrainians, have to live with this? What kind of security are we talking about?” Zelensky asked Vyacheslav Pechenenko, the police chief of Zhytomyr Oblast.
“You’re incapable of doing anything about the amber pirates in Zhytomyr Oblast,” he added.
According to multiple estimates, the black market for amber in Ukraine is worth nearly $500 million per year. The market is fueled by growing demand in China and some Arab countries for the expensive mineral and jewelry produced from it.
Read more about illegal amber mining here.
As a result, Ukraine loses hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, which instead fall into the pockets of illegal miners and corrupt officials, Zelensky said.
Additionally, the illegal miners use pumps to extract the amber, a process which is extremely harmful for the environment. This mining method leaves giant pits in the local forests and destroys the roots of the trees, meaning the area has little chance of recovering.
“More than 6,900 hectares have been destroyed in Rivne Oblast alone, and forest management cannot defend the land,” said Ihor Yakovliev, acting head of the State Ecological Inspection of Ukraine.
However, some experts doubt that simply replacing top local law enforcement officials can stem the problem.
Andriy Vedrov, a lawyer and councilman of the Sarny District Council in Rivne Oblast, is skeptical.
“We’ve had so many officials changed and the problem is still the same,” he said. “It’s the system that needs to be changed.”
In 2014 and 2016, Sarny found itself at the center of protests when illegal amber miners blocked local roads and demanded the right to legalize their work.
“People wanted to work legally,” Vedrov said.
Any time the government tries to impose higher fines for illegal mining, it just makes the miners pay higher bribes to cover up their work, he added.
No top-level officials have been brought to justice for covering up the business.
In 2017, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) charged lawmaker Boryslav Rozenblat with abuse of office for involvement in the mining. The bureau published a video in which the lawmaker negotiated a bribe with an undercover NABU agent to help a foreign company with amber mining.
However, in 2018, a court ruled that NABU had violated the law while investigating Rozenblat. This year, in July, Rozenblat even ran for parliament in Zhytomyr single-member district, but lost to a candidate from Zelensky’s party.
“Rozenblat was arrested, and where’s he now?” Vedrov said.
New governor, old questions
During the meeting in Olevsk, Zelensky also introduced Zhytomyr Oblast’s new governor, Vitaliy Bunechko. Previously, he served as deputy head of the SBU’s main directorate in Donetsk Oblast.
Civil society organizations have repeatedly raised the amber issue, Bunechko said at the meeting, and he had even received a number of requests from them to stop the illegal mining.
“They talked about the bacchanalia and the corruption that is happening here,” he said.
The new governor announced a plan to inspect all forests in Zhytomyr Oblast.
“We will destroy corruption,” Bunechko loudly declared.
However, some media have already raised questions about Bunechko. They have indirectly linked the new governor to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky because his brother, Vyacheslav Bunechko, heads the legal department at Ukrnafta, a major oil and gas company in Ukraine which is partly owned by Kolomoisky.
Bunechko’s brother also represented Ukranafta’s interests when filing a complaint against NABU earlier this year, Ukrainska Pravda reported.