- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005

KOZYN, Ukraine — The front line in President Viktor Yushchenko’s promise to establish the rule of law in this county runs through Kozyn, a sleepy village of 4,000 inhabitants a 30-minute drive from downtown Kiev, the capital.

For months now, the country has been gripped by reports of corruption and a land grab by the rich and powerful.

“For Mr. Yushchenko and his government, this is a huge chance to make an example of Kozyn that the law works,” said Irina Sahach, who registers the town’s land holdings.

The dispute is over some real estate that was acquired for next to nothing and is now being developed into multimillion-dollar housing estates and upscale hotels.

On one side, Mayor Valentyna Horobets, who was elected in 2003 after her predecessor died, has demanded a moratorium on land transfers to sort out who owns what. On the other side, a group of deputies, many elected before 2003, accuse the mayor of corruption and secretly transferring land ownership while in office.

“She said there needed to be an inventory of land,” said Mykola Tymchenko, a deputy. “There has been lots of disorganization. We believed her.”

The dispute has become so bitter and complicated that Mr. Yushchenko has appointed a special representative to help resolve the situation.

Mr. Yushchenko was swept to power five months ago, riding on a promise to clean up corruption. Since then, several scandals have surfaced in newspapers and on television: a government minister who lied on his resume, suspicion surrounding a wealthy official who claims to have put his assets into a blind trust, and another minister who has just returned from a junket to Monte Carlo on a plane provided by Russian businessmen.

The situation in Kozyn, however, has become the biggest headache so far for the Yushchenko administration.

Many officials from the previous government of Leonid Kuchma, who was ousted following huge protests that began late last year, and a number of Mr. Yushchenko’s political allies own land in Kozyn that they bought at cut-rate prices, said Mrs. Sahach, the land registrar.

“The problems began under the past government,” she said.

Under Ukrainian law, each citizen is allocated a small parcel of land, usually in the region where he or she lives.

In Kozyn, however, large parcels of land essentially were given away to government officials, but registered in the names of their relatives or businesses, making the actual ownership nearly impossible to trace, Mrs. Sahach said.

The village comprises about 16,300 acres. Pristine land sells for about $10,000 for 120 square yards.

New houses — an odd architectural assortment of oversize villas, unsightly miniature castles and some tasteful homes — are rapidly being built within sight of old, shabby buildings.

Mercedes SUVs and Toyota Land Cruisers ply the village’s potholed roads.

Despite the glaring opulence, the village collects a mere $1,306 per year in land taxes, said Olya Mineyeva, the chief accountant.

Like others, Mrs. Sahach said she doesn’t know whether Mr. Yushchenko’s special representative will be able to help resolve the situation. Too many people have a vested interest in making sure that Kozyn’s true state of affairs remains hidden, she said.

On a warm recent Saturday afternoon, a handful of deputies from the village council said they had been unable to carry out their duties during the past year because Mrs. Horobets, the mayor, prevented them from entering the village government center.

They accuse her of giving away land, including nature preserves, without their permission.

The deputies say they have no idea who owns what in Kozyn because they don’t have access to the registry books, and have taken their case straight to Mr. Yushchenko.

They blocked the entrance to the president’s residence, which is near Kozyn, on a recent night until he heard them out.

“He said he would let the courts decide,” said Aleksiy Tokar, a local deputy.

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