KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainians are getting an unfiltered look at the opulent lifestyle and alleged machinations of fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych and his top officials from thousands of documents being posted online by journalists who say it’s more important to record their country’s history – and document possible crimes – than hold them back for their own scoops.
Visitors to the YanukovychLeaks.org website can browse what appear to be the expense payments for running the sprawling compound just outside Kiev that reportedly was Yanukovych’s home. The website had 1,581 documents online by Friday afternoon after attracting more than 300,000 visitors a day for several days this week.
“The recovered documents are being published on this website to make them available to journalists and citizens around the world,” the site said. “The investigations based on these documents will also be published here and in Ukrainian media.”
The documents include a payment of over $115,000 for a shooting range with a moving wild boar and $2.3 million for a tea room. Many other payments seem routine, such as money for roads and gardening, and $150 for tennis balls. There were payments to six cooks and three waiters.
New Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk has said the country is almost broke and that billions had been taken out of the country. Three Alpine nations moved Friday to block assets that Yanukovych and some of his associates might have stashed away there, and Swiss authorities opened a money-laundering investigation into Yanukovych and his son. Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein all have banking systems that have in the past been favored by investors as a place to hide funds. All are at pains to prevent their banks being used to hide and launder ill-gotten funds.
Yanukovych’s residence in Mezhyhirya Park, about 140 hectares (345 acres) of forested hills along the Dnipro River, has become for many Ukrainians a symbol of a corrupt administration. The president said Friday that he had bought a 620-square-meter (6,675-square-foot) house for $3.2 million at the site and rented some other land and facilities nearby.
The paperwork was scooped out of a pond by volunteer divers and then dried and scanned or photographed by journalists. They entered the property along with the public after Yanukovych’s administration dissolved in the face of mass protests and the deaths of more than 80 people, mostly demonstrators calling for his removal.
Vlad Lavrov, one of 16 journalists involved in the project, said the first impulse among the group was to hold the documents back for analysis and then publish articles based on them.
“That was the first thought, but then we realized the public needs to know what is going on,” said Lavrov, who works for the English-language Kyiv Post.
“This is not really a situation where you can have exclusives,” he said. “This is a turning point in history. And these documents are a way to ensure full prosecution of the crimes that were committed.”
Other journalists listed as taking part represent organizations including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Ukraine’s STB television channel, the hromadske.tv video news website, svidomo.org website, and the SCOOP investigative journalists’ network managed by the Danish Association of Investigative Journalism.
Two high-volume scanners have been running almost around the clock. Documents that were too damaged to be scanned were instead photographed. Members of the public offered food and their own equipment, with one person bringing over satellite equipment when the group’s Internet service went down.
The last of the documents was to be put on line by the end of Friday. Lavrov said the documents would ultimately be left for the police to secure.
Other document troves are getting attention as well. Protesters said they took documents from the villa of former Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka. In this case, too, the approach has been to post first and analyze and publish later.
One document posted on Ukrainian news sites is a purported appeal from Pshonka to Yanukovych to impose a state of emergency to crack down on protesters, calling them “a real threat to the security of people and to the constitutional order.”
Prominent Ukrainian investigative journalist Mustafa Nayem said on his Facebook page that he was reviewing documents from the prosecutor’s office that included a list of parliament members to be prosecuted and investigative measures to be taken after police cleared protesters from Kiev’s Independence Square – which never happened.
Associated Press writers Valery Kulik in Kiev and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.