Amber fever swept Ukraine's northwest away

Author : 112 program Corruption League

Source : 112 Ukraine

Find out a journalist investigation on illegal amber mining in Ukraine's Polissia and corruption schemes of its smuggling
18:00, 31 October 2018

Open source

Luxury cars are riding off-road here, tumble-down huts are co-located with fashionable villas, gun battles in the street. This is the amber land of the Ukrainian Polissia. Who patronizes this illegal business? And who absorbs all these shadow billions?

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Amber is fossilized tree resin, which has been appreciated for its color and natural beauty since times immemorable. Ukraine has one of the world largest reserves of this gemstone. Literally billions of dollars lie under the feet. Officially, Yantar Ukrainy (Amber of Ukraine) state enterprise has the right to mine and process amber. Amber, which is dug out of the ground, is a raw material. The gemstone is processed, then the masters manually make icons, decorations, and other things of it.

But in reality, the state enterprise is barely afloat. According to its CEO, various officials do not agree on the allocation of new deposits. Consequently, the state enterprise produces almost nothing. Last year, only 670 kg were mined, and some 710 kg the year before. In order to at least somehow exist and earn money on the processing of amber, the Amber of Ukraine company buys amber in Russia. Meanwhile, the head of Klesiv urban-type settlement (Rivne region), Vasyl Hrynyk, declares that a state-owned enterprise can be specially made bankrupt so that it can be privatized for a very low price.

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In the meantime, the state does not earn anything on it, illegal miners and their patrons use this matter to get richer. It is very easy to buy amber in Polissia. Almost every house is involved it this trade.

A design weight is a kilogram. As a rule, they do not trade in smaller measures. The amber admission is of 20 and 50 asset prices. The cost depends on the size of the stones. One kilogram of small stones might cost 200-500 USD. One kilogram of bigger stones, 10 – 20 grams might cost at least 1,000 USD, if the stones are more than 20 grams, the cost might reach 2000 USD per kilogram.

Related: Smuggled amber of $1 million was arrested in Ukraine's Zakarpattia region

If you're lucky enough to dig 100-gram stones, you will easily receive 4,000 USD for one kilogram. The profiteers buy the amber from the locals at this rate. Then they ship it to Poland, Ukrainian amber becomes more expensive by at least 200 USD.

According to official estimates of Ukraine’s State Service of Geology and Subsoil, up to 300 tons of amber are illegally mined annually. Turnovers of the black market are estimated at 500 million dollars.

Following the “diamond prosecutors,” Ukraine has its own amber ones. Then the corresponding bodies informed that they have found a collection of expensive watches at a law enforcement officer’s place (for a 100,000 USD) and seized several bags of gemstone.

The operation was led by the head of Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) Vasyl Hrytsak and Prosecutor General Lutsenko. Deputy prosecutor of Rivne region, Andriy Borovyk, was called the main patron of the illegal trade. During one operation, more than a hundred searches were carried out and 32 people were detained. Among them are the former leaders of the local police and then lieutenant colonel of Rivne SBU Vadym Fedoruk. The flip-flopper in police uniform rigged the criminals. The local top dog Ushaty was the helpless pawn.

Related: Supreme Court Chamber cancels ban on passports in a book form

The vanguard of the mafia clan was Dubrovytsia district of Rivne region, a rich in amber land along the Belarus border. The key figures of the amber business resided and hunted here: top dog Ushaty, local police officer Anatoliy Smolianets, and ex-head of the local regional department Serhiy Rodzin.

High-ranking prosecutor Andriy Borovyk, whom the investigation called the main patron of illegal amber mining, spent a year in the remand prison, and in 2017 he was released.

Borovyk calls this criminal case the revenge of the amber mafia. “Did I have anything to do with the illegal mining of amber? Of course, I did. I struggled with this dishonorable activity. Over the past year, I have detained more than four tons of illegally mined amber, which was later confiscated by the state,” Borovyk assures. The ex-prosecutor claims that just before the arrest, he planned to smoke out the amber mafia bosses. “My arrest was beneficial to those people, engaged in illegal mining of amber,” he says.

The case against Borovyk has already been submitted to the court. He is accused of creating and managing a criminal group. He faces up to 20 years behind the bars. However, the former prosecutor will not go to jail, his lawyer says. And not because they are not guilty – they just made a lot of procedural errors.

“Borovyk held the position of deputy prosecutor of the region and was accused of taking more than half a million dollars of unlawful benefit. So, according to the criminal procedure law, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) should investigate it, but for some reason the main military prosecutor’s office considered it,” the lawyer said. Therefore, the court cannot imprison Borovyk, the lawyer claims.

Related: Border guards detain amber smuggler in Lviv region

Amber fever started with Rivne region. Gemstone has been illegally mined here for more than 10 years. Our journalists come to Klesiv. Total depredation of nature could be seen here. Amber is dug up almost freely here.

A swampy field is a place of a totally cut forest. A lot of equipment, hundreds of people who resemble a huge anthill and a web of hoses – this is how the spontaneous amber mining in Kukhitska Volia in Rivne region looks like.

Now the turnovers are not that high; the locals complain because a lot of special forces units are deployed there. The locals say that if you pay a bribe of a hundred bucks to the law enforcement officers, then they let you dig on the sly. The entrance of the local Klondike is not protected by any law enforcers.

A lot of cars without a license plate and people with nets could be noticed here.

Zhytomyr region, Olevsk district. Until 2014, it was an ordinary provincial district center, and now real wars for control over nearby amber deposits erupt here. Shootout on the local streets is a usual thing here.

"On the night of January 16, 2017, armed men who were in charge of controlling the amber buyers entered Olevsk to set their own rules; they came across resistance from the local guys;  a skirmish during the conflict occured," Olevsk deputy mayor Oleksandr Nikolaychuk noted.

The miners tirelessly work with their shovels here. Journalists asked to be a part of a deal, soon they started digging. We had to dig into deep –  at least 5 meters. A shovel bumped into something hard, the soil is quite stony. And finally, fortunate favoured us. Real amber! Suddenly, the miners stopped mining and scattered. They were warned about the police raid in advance. Journalists dug with everyone and run away together. Former Donbas soldiers were among the diggers too. The number of illegal diggers is a thousand times as much as the number of law enforcement officers.

Related: How to combat smuggling in Ukraine?

The Polish city of Gdansk is the world capital of amber. Contracts for millions of deliveries are signed here. Open-air jewelry trade is developed here. A museum of amber is also located here. The Poles enjoy at the expense of our gemstone. The biggest lump, held in the local museum, is from Ukraine. Souvenirs also come from our Polissia.

Poland produces only 8 tons of amber per year. Therefore, in fact, Gdansk is only a meeting place for Ukrainian wheeler-dealers with the main buyers - the Chinese.

Our journalists arrived in Gdansk just at the time of the international exhibition of amber. Dozen flags could be seen on flagpoles, and Ukraine is not officially represented there, a lot of cars with Ukrainian license plates are parked near the exhibition hall.

Are fellow countrymen stand right in front of the entrance. The biggest parties are sent to China. Ukrainian amber is well appreciated in Celestial.

Related: Boxes with smuggled cigarettes found in Odesa port

The exhibition variety is really astonishing. These small statues of precious stones are worth thousands of euros. And the word "Ukraine" sounds like a quality mark.

The exhibition has its own laboratory to immediately check the quality of amber.

This honorable gentleman is the representative of the President of Poland in Gdansk in the amber affairs. He admits that Poland is very interested in smuggling from Ukraine. They earn good money on it.

Private mining activity has been legalized in Poland since the 70s. It is enough to register a company, to sign an agreement with the owner of the land - because it is private in Poland. The tax is two euros per kilogram of amber. And then businessmen should not leave the lunar landscape, but put the land plot in order.

Polish laws are loyal to our smuggled amber and legalizing it is not a problem.

Having a perfect opportunity to earn millions of dollars, Ukraine has lapsed back into a mere supplier of raw materials. Ukraine has elaborated special laws on amber mining regulation, however, they are out of the current agenda. People of Ukraine’s Polissia are ready to officially extract amber, however, keeping this issue in an illegal plane is beneficial for the local officials and law enforcers.

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