ODESA, Ukraine – Dotted with Mediterranean-style cottages and modest low-rise houses, the winding descent to Golden Shore’s public beach could be charming – if it weren’t for the huge concrete carcass looming from ‘down.
Here on the southern outskirts of Ukraine’s Black Sea port city, beachgoers grab snacks and souvenirs under the looming presence of the unfinished 15-story Aura Apart housing complex, a towering gray skeleton that critics say , represents the rampant and often illegal development that ruins Odessa’s characteristic charm.
“This project is the most lawless,” said Oleh Mykhaylyk, a local anti-corruption activist. “It violates absolutely everything.”
Long cherished for its rich history, cultural eclecticism and sprawling beaches, Odessa enjoys a laid-back seaside atmosphere. In the historic center, stately buildings line leafy streets, with courtyards evoking the stories of Isaac Babel hidden in almost every block. Below, a labyrinth of tunnels – one of the largest underground labyrinths in the world – winds through the city.
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As Ukraine’s best-known coastal gem, Odessa is rivaled by Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula controlled by Moscow since Russia seized it in 2014, sending troops and holding a referendum dismissed as illegitimate by Kiev, the West and the majority. of country.
But the city is also plagued by particularly high levels of corruption, according to activists, investigative journalists and officials. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has indeed recognized Odessa’s reputation as a smuggling haven after authorities arrested a so-called âsmuggler godfatherâ, a prominent local businessman, last year. The mayor, Hennadiy Trukhanov, remains under investigation after being accused of lying about his fortune.
A particularly visible indicator of the scourge of corruption is the uncontrolled development of housing: many structures rise in flagrant violation of various building and land codes, thanks to dubious documents and complicit officials, and then lead to crimes. significant losses for investors if projects fail. -up.
For the proud inhabitants, as well as those who are fighting to rid their country of corruption and mismanagement, it is painful to watch.
âCorruption destroys the potential of a wonderful city,â said Oleksandr Stepanyuk, lawyer for Common Goal, an Odessa-based NGO that fights illegal development in court.
While not unique to Odessa, experts say the problem is particularly acute here. According to real estate lawyer Volodymyr Kopot, whose Kiev-based company monitors the housing market, 76% of new apartment buildings are considered âriskyâ investments, compared to around 55% in the Ukrainian capital.
This is because of the developers’ legal liability for offenses such as building without a permit, possession of faulty documents, indebtedness, or being linked to existing legal proceedings. In Aura’s case, the resort was originally approved as a ‘family style’ guesthouse – not multi-level apartments – and had been built on land designated as a recreation area, according to media reports. local.
Thanks to a petition from Mykhaylyk, his license was revoked by a regional court in July. But this decision is currently under appeal.
When projects like these collapse, investors – usually those looking to buy an apartment – are often the ones who suffer. A popular pattern, according to Mykhaylyk, involves potential owners being tricked into becoming “associate” members of a cooperative, the business entity created by the developer. This designation would deprive them of any real authority in the decision-making process and expose them financially, having voluntarily invested their money.
In cases where buildings are successfully completed, developers are known to increase various costs for investors to cover.
Mykhaylyk has experienced similar machinations: he has been in court for years for an apartment he invested in in 2006, but which was never delivered to him. He claims the company turned the apartment complex over to another developer, who changed the legal address in the process and left it empty-handed.
“They just took it from me,” he said, “and I can’t prove anything.”
What makes such projects possible, activists say, are networks of cooperation between influential developers and allegedly crooked officials. From approving bogus building plans to blocking investors’ attempts to reclaim ownership of their promised apartments, experts say builders, corrupt bureaucrats and judges on the ground have a powerful arsenal of resources at their disposal.
The corruption that activists say is affecting development in Odessa reflects the larger problem of corruption in Ukraine, a long-standing challenge for a country struggling with economic problems and a nearly seven-year war with backed separatists by Russia to the east.
Successive governments have pledged to tackle it and have failed to make as much progress as reformists and Western leaders, who say uprooting corruption is crucial to reducing Moscow’s influence, would like to see. According to Kopot, of the Kiev-based Monitor.Estate, the construction sector is an important arena where powerful business interests and a weak legal system converge.
âWho is going to sue these people when they are all partners? ” he said.
Two written requests for comment to the Department of Architecture and Construction Supervision of Odessa City Council went unanswered.
Fight for rights
Yet in this city of nearly a million people, activists against illegal construction are reaping what they see as minor but significant victories. Weeks after the ruling against Aura, Stepanyuk and his organization also found themselves in celebration after a judge issued a similar ruling against Graf U Morya, one of the many controversial projects just upstream from Aura.
This is an example of the pressure that civil society is able to exert on local elected representatives in a country where political power is largely decentralized. Calling a judge on Facebook with a call to âdon’t let us downâ can go a long way, according to Stepanyuk.
“We make them understand that it just won’t work if they break the law or make an illegal decision,” he said, adding that many judges sympathize with their plight but find it difficult to resist the pressure.
Yet despite this measured success, Stepanyuk and like-minded locals say the interconnected nature of these programs, along with the sums of money involved, make the battle difficult. If a lower court rules in their favor, he said, defending that decision will likely be more difficult at the appeals level.
And while activism is still possible, it comes with its own risks. Mykhaylyk, for example, believes his efforts to expose local corruption were what led to a brazen assault on his life in downtown Odessa in September 2018.
He barely survived a gunshot wound to his chest and is still struggling to regain the feel of an arm. But he is fighting, he said, because the rule of law in Odessa – and throughout Ukraine – is at stake.
âEverything is done in such a way that people’s money can be stolen,â he said.