Published Oct. 18.
RAKHIV, Ukraine — Overlooking Europe’s longest mountain chain in the middle of the Carpathian region, there is a shimmering glacial lake and primeval mountain forest.
“Look! This is why we must free Svydovets,” says plant ecologist and Lviv native Bohdan Prots, gazing at Ukraine’s last undisturbed ecosystem, which Ukrainian billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky reportedly wants to transform into a massive ski resort. It is close to Rakhiv, a Zakarpattia Oblast city of 15,000 people located 678 kilometers southwest of Kyiv.
Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage site list for its exceptional biodiversity, including dwindling populations of endangered lynx, wolves and bears, and primeval beech forests, the area could soon be wiped out by a development catering to the wealthy.
First presented as a local government initiative, the project is actually funded by Skorzonera LLC, the Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fund revealed in a report released this summer. According to the report, its beneficial owners are Kolomoisky, who used to own the nearby Bukovel ski resort, and his business partner Gennady Bogolyubov.
The revelation is one of several startling findings in the investigative report by the Bruno Manser Fund, a nongovernmental organization that campaigns for the conservation of the world’s remaining biodiversity hotspots and against the corruption and non-transparent governance that enable mass ecocide.
First announced in 2017, the resort would include more than 230 kilometers of ski slopes, around 60 hotels and 400 cottages to serve up to 22,000 tourists a day.
But local, national and international opposition has been fierce, and several legal challenges from local residents and businesses have led to an ongoing series of court cases that involve allegations from plaintiffs of intimidation, blackmail and death threats.
International conservation movements including the World Wildlife Fund and European Wilderness Society have also expressed alarm about the plans and the non-transparent manner in which the scheme has been pushed forward.
According to the Bruno Manser Fund’s report, a case disputing the development is pending before the Supreme Court of Ukraine.
The company hasn’t started construction yet, but local authorities already cut down forest and started a new road that will link Bukovel to Svydovets.
“All of this wild nature and such a unique biodiversity hotspot in Ukraine, indeed Europe, will be lost if this destructive development goes ahead,” says Prots, a professor at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and director of the Danube-Carpathian Program, which works to preserve the region’s ecology.
Prots says Ukraine needs to realize that opposition to the resort project is not only about saving nature but also about building an economy that works for everyone, not just the few. “It’s not just the impact on other creatures,” Prots adds. “Ukraine needs to develop a green economy with sustainable, sensitive developments. This is the opposite.”
Prots is not alone. French emigre Oreste Del Sol, who settled in Ukraine in 1992 and started a farm specializing in organic goat cheese, established Free Svydovets, a civil society group that is campaigning to stop the ski resort project.
“I am against oligarchs who want to take over land without taking into account the opinions of simple people,” Del Sol explains after a hike up the mountain. “But we also need to rethink lifestyles and consumption habits. Winter sports are fun, but when I see such a wild and beautiful space in Europe, I just want to preserve it as it is.”
Near the area of the future ski resort lies the village of Kvasy, where concern about the development’s impact on local ecology as well as local businesses is a frequent topic of conversation.
In the center of the village is Tsypa, a popular brewery that supplies the beer of the same name to restaurants and stores across Ukraine.
“We make our beer from pure, unfiltered mountain water from a spring nearby,” brewer Andrew Kysil tells the Kyiv Post as his colleague arrives with a delivery of pungent hops. “And we are worried about pollution and damage which could potentially destroy our source of water.”
The brewery, which is currently making a special edition India Pale Ale called “Free Svyodvets,” buys its ingredients from organic local producers, but Kysil says that the new development will crowd out small businesses and monopolize the area’s economy, like Bukovel did in a different area of the Carpathians.
“This village is successful because there are many small businesses who produce everything without harming nature or risking others’ livelihood. At Bukovel, they don’t employ lots of locals as they promised, and the prices are really high because all the business is controlled by one group. They have all the power,” Kysil says.
Across a busy road that cuts through Kvasy, Ivan Pavlovic, head of a clinic at Girska Tysa Spa, long famous for its healing springs, also says there has not been enough consultation with locals, and he is worried that the proposed ski resort could destroy the hydrology of the area.
“The problem is we just don’t know what the impact could be. They haven’t consulted with us, but we could be severely affected,” Pavlovic says, gesturing at the resort’s wells outside his clinic. “Our water comes from 50 meters down, but when you build such a huge resort you cannot predict what will happen to the hydrology. Maybe our wells will stop functioning or our mineral water could become permanently contaminated.”
Andrew Kysil checks on the beer being brewed at Tsipa Brewery on Sept. 25, 2019. “We make our beer from pure, unfiltered mountain water from a spring nearby, and we are worried about pollution and damage which could potentially destroy our source of water, he told the Kyiv Post. (VINCENT MUNDY)
Despite growing opposition and allegations of collusion between officials and the investors, the local authorities in the town of Rakhiv and the regional administration remain behind the project. New regional governor Ihor Bondarenko, appointed by President Volodymyr Zelensky in June, has said, “The resort could attract important investments to Ukraine.”
While Bondarenko promised to look into objections to the project, he seems unlikely to oppose it after Zelensky announced in a September news conference that he wanted investors to help create “East European Alps” in the Carpathians. This particular investor, Kolomoisky, is a former business associate of Zelensky and his chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan.
Among a number of concerns about Skorzonera and its murky relations to local officials, the report by the Bruno Manser Fund states: “While the competent authorities continue to present the Svydovets resort as a government initiative, the billion-dollar plan is in fact designed as a gigantic expansion of the Bukovel ski resort. The fact that cronies of a well-known oligarch are presenting the project in the name of the regional state administration points to the level of collusion between public officials and investors.”
The planned mega-resort will also certainly have trans-national environmental impacts. The sewage produced at Bukovel has already contaminated the nearby Tysa River, which flows through five countries and is a major tributary of the Danube. Hungary has condemned Ukraine for polluting the Tysa, which runs most of its course through Hungarian territory.
Residents of Polyanytsya, a village that Bukovel overshadowed when it opened in 2002, have complained of pollution, litter and broken promises to build a new school, provide jobs and to build a sewage system sufficient to cope with the huge amount of waste the resort creates.
The proposed resort at Svydovets is twice the size of Bukovel.
“The construction of large-scale infrastructure in the undisturbed mountain area of Svydovets threatens the whole ecosystem and the hydrological regime of the region,” the Bruno Manser Fund report states.
Skorzonera director and former Bukovel ski resort manager Oleksandr Shevchenko declined to be interviewed for this story.
Vincent Mundy is a freelance journalist working in Ukraine.