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22 August 2017
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Kyiv threatened by shadowy construction

There is a war raging in this graceful old city of colorful cathedrals, lush parks and cobblestone byways. It`s a clanging, banging fight that threatens to slice up grassy gardens, overshadow the onion domes...

There is a war raging in this graceful old city of colorful cathedrals, lush parks and cobblestone byways. It`s a clanging, banging fight that threatens to slice up grassy gardens, overshadow the onion domes, break the sleepy slopes of rolling hills.

An epidemic of quasi-legal construction and shadowy land grabs is chewing on the ancient capital on the banks of the Dnieper River. Roughly 60 "scandal construction zones," as the mayor`s office calls them, have turned Kyiv`s postage-stamp-sized downtown into a free-for-all of spanking-new skyscrapers, shady land acquisitions, grass-roots protests and fast-talking investors.

"We are witnessing the murder of a 1,000-year-old city," said Maryna Solovjova, a lawyer who has fought to halt construction in the midst of a UNESCO-protected hilltop in the heart of the city.

Who`s responsible? Just about everybody blames the city government. But the mayor`s office accuses the former mayor and the courts. The prime minister`s bloc blames the city government, the president, the courts and just about anybody else -- except themselves. The president complains about the "rot and corruption" of the land deals, but appears helpless.

The fight over Kyiv is an apt symbol of the state of the country`s leadership. Some Ukrainians say the debasement of the capital city, the spiritual heart of the nation, is a daily reminder that years of revolution and a fierce fight for democracy have somehow failed to deliver the clean government they had envisioned.

"It isn`t just buildings. This is a social issue, and buildings are just the visible part of the iceberg," said Artem Chapeye, a 26-year-old activist who has joined raucous demonstrations to halt some of the construction projects. "We were hoping for more democracy. But there`s a small group of people in charge, and they don`t listen to anybody."

Priced out of downtown by ballooning rents and watching the picturesque neighborhoods morph before their eyes, disgruntled residents describe a feeling of helplessness to preserve the town they describe as Europe`s greenest capital.

With anger rising and land being gobbled up, an irate parliament called for an early mayoral election this month.

As 79 candidates scrap for votes, some of the most controversial building projects have been frozen without explanation, leading many residents to mutter that the officials who claim innocence can evidently halt the construction when it`s politically convenient.

Take, for example, plans to build atop what is said to be a medieval burial ground for plague victims. Or consider the idea of constructing a luxury high-rise in the heart of "Landscape Alley," once the hilltop home to the princes of Kyivan Rus, and then distributing the apartments free of charge to government bureaucrats.

Both projects were steaming forward, and both have now been halted.

Climb up to Landscape Alley, past the home of author Mikhail Bulgakov and the turquoise spires of the church of St. Andrew. From the top of the hill, the city spreads out below.

These days, yellow cranes rear up against the backdrop of fairy-tale hills. The metallic clang and roar of drills and jackhammers slice through birdsong in the morning air.

But at an abandoned construction site, graffiti spray-painted on a fence announces: "The construction was stopped by the people of Kyiv."

Like many of his peers, Chapeye took to the streets in 2004 demonstrations that captivated international imagination and ushered President Viktor Yushchenko into power. Today, he and his friends use that experience, with the help of the Internet, to stage demonstrations against deals cut by people they helped elevate into office.

"The state itself is destroying the city, so we have to fight with our own fists," Chapeye said. "The bulldozers come and we fight."

"Land is a bribe here," said Andriy Pavlovsky, a lawmaker with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko`s bloc. "The people in power in Kyiv are giving out land to their relatives, waiting for a couple of years so it gets more expensive and then selling the land. There is a pyramid of corruption. They bribe the police and especially the prosecutors, so everybody comes out clean."

The mayor`s office acknowledges that the city is being sliced to pieces, but claims that bribes were paid and permits illegally obtained under the previous mayor`s administration. The city`s attempts to halt the construction have been flouted by the courts, city officials say. "It`s a wild situation," said Denys Komarnytsky, head of the mayor`s bloc on the City Council.

"The City Hall tells the investors they can`t build anything in the illegal construction areas," he said. "Then they go to the courts and get the courts to deny the decision of City Hall."

Facts are short, innuendoes long -- and time may be running out.

"If the situation continues like this for another 10 years, we will lose Kyiv," said Vitaly Portnikov, a political commentator for Radio Liberty in Kyiv.

"The politicians play the fool," he said. "Their main goal is to procrastinate until the construction is finished and nothing can be changed. You can never find out who is really in charge and who is really responsible."

By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times

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