People & Power

The Odessa File

We investigate how a fight against corruption and pro-Russian oligarchs in Odessa may determine Ukraine’s future.

Over the past decade Ukraine has been battered by insurrection, economic crises, and the loss of Crimea to Russia. Now, with tension in the east continuing and millions driven from their homes by war, a new battle is under way – against deeply entrenched corruption and over mighty oligarchs, who still exercise such power and control over the country’s assets that many fear Ukraine’s very existence is under threat.

We sent filmmaker Glenn Ellis to the strategically vital Black Sea port of Odessa to investigate.


By Glenn Ellis and Katerina Barushka 

With two revolutions, the loss of Crimea and a war with Russian-backed separatists, surely no European country has suffered more upheaval in recent years than Ukraine. So it’s a shock today to find tourists, mime artists and revellers filling the Maidan, Kiev’s famous Freedom Square where both uprisings began. We’ve arranged to meet the acclaimed novelist Andrei Kurkov.

“The situation is very strange,” he agrees. “If you go to expensive restaurants, they are full. But in reality the country is at war. Yesterday one of my friends was killed and he will be buried tomorrow.”

Kurkov witnessed both revolutions.

“The first failed because people believed it was enough to have honest elections,” he says. “The second revolution was against corruption.”

He explains that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s state assets were systematically plundered by a nomenklatura, which then evolved seamlessly into a powerful oligarchy. These oligarchs still exercise huge control in the country today and the scale of the corruption resulting from their mafia-style endeavours is simply breathtaking. Billions of dollars simply disappear from state coffers every year. All that’s keeping Ukraine afloat are massive loans from the International Monetary Fund.

According to Victoria Voytsitkaya, an anti-corruption  MP we met in the parliament building, “state-owned enterprises were used and are still used by oligarchs as a source of free cash, where we’ve seen so-called management repositions, where oligarchs will put in their own management and they will pour the money out from these companies”.

Voytsitkaya survived an assassination attempt earlier this year. She is one of a new batch of brave parliamentarians who came to power after the last revolution, but such people are in the minority – most MPs belong to parties financed by oligarchs.

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Existential threat

But the government is trying to fight back.

Artem Sytnik heads the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, a rare independent body, set up at the insistence of the IMF by the government.

“Every case we investigate causes worries for some oligarch,” he says. “That’s why the challenges we face are huge.”

Sytnik walks to a window and points to two tanks parked outside his office in the capital.

“We have a special forces unit,” he says, “which provides security for our employees.”

Sytnyk sees Ukraine’s fight against corruption as existential.

“It is a second front for Ukraine, maybe even more dangerous than the one in the east of the country. Why? Because corruption is one of the main threats to our national sovereignty,” he says.

He’s a man in a hurry, he tells me. “If nothing changes in the next two years there will be very serious risks for the existence of the state itself.”

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Many believe if Odessa can be purged of corruption, then there's hope for the rest of Ukraine [Al Jazeera]
Many believe if Odessa can be purged of corruption, then there’s hope for the rest of Ukraine [Al Jazeera]

Odessa: strategically vital, famously lawless

It’s in the south of the country where this battle is being waged most bitterly. Last year, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shocked international observers by appointing former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of Odessa, Ukraine’s strategically vital – if famously lawless – Black Sea port.

Saakashvili, who fled Georgia after being charged with abuse of power in 2014, is nevertheless credited with bringing democracy to the post-Soviet state and going a long way towards ridding it of corruption.

Asked to do a similar job in Odessa, he has already begun to made inroads.

Take, for example, his appointment of Yulia Marushevskaya as his chief customs officer. Marushevskaya’s “I am Ukrainian” YouTube video was a rallying call during the revolution, catapulting her to international fame.

Now the 26-year-old is proving equally adept at fighting corruption, stamping out bribery at the port’s customs authority and overseeing the recruitment and training of new recruits to the service.  

Appropriately enough, we met by Odessa’s famous steps, where director Sergei Eisenstein once filmed a key sequence in his communist revolutionary epic Battleship Potemkin.

“For me,” she says, “this job is a continuation of a struggle that started two years ago, because we stood up against corruption two years ago.”

Mikheil Saakashvili, as governor of Odessa, appointed Yulia Marushevska, above, who became a poster girl of the revolution, as head of the customs office at the port of Odessa [Reuters]
Mikheil Saakashvili, as governor of Odessa, appointed Yulia Marushevska, above, who became a poster girl of the revolution, as head of the customs office at the port of Odessa [Reuters]

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Purging Odessa of corruption is key

Controversially, Saakashvili also appointed Giorgi Lortkipanidze, Georgia’s former deputy interior minister, as Odessa’s new police chief.

Lortkipanidze has wasted no time: raiding casinos, destroying contraband and jailing mobsters. He brushed aside an assassination attempt, focusing instead on the bigger picture.

“When we speak about fighting corruption,” he told us, “we must take into account the whole country, because you cannot fight it in one region while in other regions criminals walk free.”

Saakashvili also appointed Georgi Lortkipanidze, above, his compatriot and Georgia's former deputy interior minister, as Odessa's new police chief [Al Jazeera]
Saakashvili also appointed Georgi Lortkipanidze, above, his compatriot and Georgia’s former deputy interior minister, as Odessa’s new police chief [Al Jazeera]

Nonetheless, everyone here knows that if Odessa can be purged of corruption, then there is hope for the rest of Ukraine.

The port is hugely significant: It was here that Putin’s Ukrainian adventure came to an abrupt halt in May 2014. Crimea had been annexed and Donbass was in flames when pro-Russians attempted to seize control. They met stiff resistance from loyal Ukrainians, however, and were forced to retreat to Trades Union House, a landmark in the city centre. Following gunshots from inside the building and, some witnesses say, an exchange of petrol bombs, it caught fire and 48 people were killed – a dreadful outcome that still enrages many pro-Russians here today. But the clashes also marked a pivotal moment when Ukrainian nationalists drew a line in the sand against Russian expansion.   

When we meet Saakashvili, in the grounds of his official residence on the outskirts of the city, he outlines the importance of Odessa today.

“It’s the south flank of Ukraine without which not only Ukraine would fall, but the entire region would be destabilised,” he says.

Saakashvili believes the stakes are also high for Putin.

“This is the last predominantly Russian-speaking area under the control of Ukrainian government. If Ukraine manages not only to keep it but to stabilise and develop it, then it will have a very loud resonance in Moscow and I think that would be the principle fear of Putin,” he says.

The governor remains optimistic.

“It’s very important that we bring not only the idea of a Ukrainian state, but hope, a non-corrupt government and efficiency: all the things it has lacked historically. It’s very much a fight for the future, an ideological battle.”