(DUE TO A LARGE NUMBER OF CLICKS AND RECENT DEVELOPMENTS BOSNEWSLIFE DECIDED TO REPUBLISH THIS ARTICLE. IT APPEARED FOR THE FIRST TIME ON FEBRUARY 09, 2008). UZHHOROD, UKRAINE (BosNewsLife)-- The mayor of Uzhhorod, a key-border town in Ukraine, has fled after special police forces surrounded his headquarters as part of an investigation into his alleged involvement in persecuting citizens, including Christians fighting corruption, witnesses told BosNewsLife Saturday, February 9.
Mayor Sergey Ratushnyak, whose name is also spelled as Serhiy Ratushniak, has been under pressure since BosNewsLife News Agency reported in 2006 and last year that hundreds of Christians and other residents appealed to Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko to crackdown on corrupt officials, police, judges and prosecutors.
BosNewsLife established that the mayor, who will be 47 next week, owned over 50 companies,including alcohol and soft drink production plants, as well as insurance and banking firms, which he obtained either by giving bribes, falsifying documents, or by using violence.
Critics claim that Ratushnyak came back to power in March 28, 2006, after being absent for four years, to reclaim companies and properties he lost during an investigation for economic crimes in Uzhhorod, seen as a major gateway for exports to, and imports from, the European Union.
In addition, under his previous leadership (from 1994 till 1998) many Uzhhorod residents lost lands and homes. Several people, including elderly women, are forced to sleep in one of Uzhhorod's train stations at night because Ratushnyak and his allies apparently seized their houses.
Yet, revealing corruption practices remains difficult in Ukraine, where organized crime groups have flourished in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Several independent local journalists in the Uzhhorod region have been beaten and even killed after apparently trying to cover the involvement of judges, police, municipality departments and nearby customs authorities in the alleged criminal network of Ratushnyak, human rights watchers and locals told BosNewsLife. In 2004, cameraman Ishtvan Kotsanyk of Transcarpathian television channel M-Studio was killed. His murder was never solved.
Last year, 61-year old Svetlana Milchevich, the mother of BosNewsLife Senior International Correspondent Agnes R. Bos, received death threats from a close friend of the mayor. "If your daughter will once more write something on Internet I kill you and her," business man Josif Ivanovich Kostich was overheard saying.
Soon after, leaflets with Milchevich's photograph were distributed across Uzhhorod, accusing her and Bos of smuggling women for prostitution and "the porn industry of the Dutch man," a reference to Bos' Dutch husband, Stefan J. Bos.
Milchevich was among the initiators of the Christian-leaning unregistered group 'Concerned Citizens of Uzhhorod' who urged Yushchenko in an open letter to end corruption practices of Ratushnyak and his allies, including Kostich and several judges. Despite death threats, Milchevich also launched an unprecedented trial against them, demanding the return of "illegally privatized land" and the right to build a home there from the money she earned with her life-long work as a clothing designer.
The recently elected Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko made clear in a letter exchange with Agnes R. Bos that she closely monitors the case as part of efforts to crackdown on corruption among officials in this young and fragile democracy. Uzhhorod, a town of over 100,000 people and the administrative center of the Zakarpattia region, is also one of the last outposts before Ukrainians can enter the European Union, and security officials told reporters they want to restore the rule of law in this strategic area.
This week, heavily armed police raided the building where Ratushnyak and staff members worked amid concerns the mayor tried to destroy or confiscate documents that could prove his involvement in wrongdoing, several reports said. He had earlier asked colleagues to take a few days off "for sanitary reasons" as the building would be cleaned of rats. In addition, several high ranking bureaucrats dealing with land registration issues were reportedly detained on suspicion of corruption.
"Prosecutors opened criminal cases against the mayor and his team because of abuse of power and illegal deals involving properties, such as lands, houses and apartments," said Regional Police Chief Viktor Cherpak in a statement. "There was also stealing and illegal privatization." He said prosecutors repeatedly asked for documents about these cases, but the Mayor's Office ignored those requests. "When a prosecutor arrived to obtain those documents he was not allowed to enter the office."
Before fleeing Uzhhorod, a furious Ratushnyak accused police forces of political tricks. He said he has complained to the president, prime minister, Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor’s General Office and the speaker of parliament. "The regional and city police are involved in arbitrary actions that violate the Ukrainian laws - following direct orders from the deputy head of the Zakarpattia State Administration," he said. The police raid was believed to have been coordinated however with national authorities and Ukraine's main security service the SBU, seen as the successor of the Soviet-era KGB.
It was not immediately clear when, and if, Ratushnyak would return to Uzhhorod. He leaves behind a city of water shortages, where wild dogs roam streets filled with holes, unheated hospitals run out of medicines and working equipment, and rundown cemeteries are quickly filled. Residents told BosNewsLife they have faith that one day the pro-democracy Orange Revolution launched in late 2004 will arrive in their city as well. (This story is part of a BosNewsLife initiative to expand coverage on freedom of expression issues in for instance ex-Communist nations).