This is a personal account of several investigative experiences on the phenomenon of illegal mines (kopanky) in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbass
For the past two years, I have been quite regularly to Donbass. I have heard many opinions on the place and on its people. I have my own. Proud men and friendly encounters. Fascinating life stories. Polluted yet uniquely intriguing landscapes. Artificial Disneyland-like Donetsk city-center. Organized crime and human rights violations. Yet there is one thing everyone may agree on: February is not the best time for traveling there. It was quite frosty in the middle of the month when some colleagues and I drove to the village of Sjeverne, about 90 kilometers east of Donetsk. As snow was already melting down, it proved sometimes quite difficult on the way to make a difference between land and sky. Between grey and grey. Abandoned factories, empty houses, rusty bus stops, discolored commercials and kiosks. The “Great Steppe” of Eurasia starts here, and the horizon stretches far, uninterrupted but for a few iconic pyramids. So-called “Террикони”, that is “spoil tips”, stand here and there. Black hills and lonely mountains. Once a symbol of industry and progress, they have now become a sign of a cruel decay.
On this land, as I had learned as a schoolboy back in France, the miner Andrei Stakhanov had extracted 14 times his quota of coal back in 1935, thus becoming a Soviet working-class hero. As it turned out later, state propaganda had given a handy push to the legendary prowess. Yet Stakhanov and Donbass remained associated for a long time with the ideas of industrial success and economic development. A striking contrast with today’s reality.
As we drive on potholed roads, we encounter several trucks full of coal. Yet we know that Sjeverne’s state mine barely functions nowadays. Instead, the village is infested with “kopanky”, as illegal mines are known here. Some kopanky were even digged so close to some houses that they collapsed. A group of inhabitants has contacted a journalist and blogger from Donetsk, Denis Kazanski, to help them attract some attention to their problems. He helped us making contact with Sjeverne’s inhabitants. “We want this to stop”, village resident and state mine worker Ira explains. “It is excessively dangerous for men to work in the kopanky and no one benefits from this here. The whole region is just not functioning any longer. They exploit us and put pressure on our young ones. We want this to stop, we want the authorities to deal with this, so that we can build a place our young people will want to stay and live in!”
The story of the kopanky is quite well-known. Because of dozens of Soviet state mines shutting down in the 1990’s, many Donbass laid-off workers started to dig and extract coal llegally, as a way to ensure the survival of their families. Now, it appears that illegal mining has reached full industrial scale. It is estimated that around 10% of Ukraine’s 80 million coal output comes from illegal mining. Working conditions are dramatically precarious and accidents are said to happen daily. Many investigations and reports on this phenomenon have been published and aired and screened by both local and foreign journalists. Independent investigative media such as “Novosti Donbassa”, “Ostrov”, “Ukrainska Pravda”, “Forbes” or “Ukrainski Tyzhden” have all written about it extensively. The documentary movie “Pit Nr. 8” by Estonian director Marianna Kaat had gained international recognition and several awards back in 2011 [Ukrainian producers refused to screen it in Ukraine because of an alledged distortion of information. Local activists denounced it as political censorship]. Polish director Jacek Hugo-Bader and Austrian Michael Glawogger have also put the kopanky under the spotlight. To be frank, it’s already out in the light, waiting for anyone willing to make a story out of it. Coal trucks filling the roads. Large mines operating in broad daylight. Residents and workers eager to talk and complain. It’s all out there.
Who extracts the coal? Where is it sold? Who benefits from it? “It is hard to prove. Yet everyone here knows about it” is the answer I receive most often. Villagers, former miners, journalists, trade unionists and experts: they all point to local authorities, police officers, regional administration employees and state mine officials. Their responsibility is indeed hard to prove. Yet it is difficult to believe that there would be no collusion of state authorities in this matter as it would be quite easy to track, check, control, close down and arrest. I was told that once police officers called up several media, shut down an illegal mine and arrested miners in front of TV cameras. Two days later, once the journalists had gone, everybody was back at work as if nothing had happened. I heard the story of Nikolai Ponomarenko, the former mayor of the village of Zuivka. He tried to crack down on the village’s kopanky. He was arrested on grounds of corruption in April 2011. He spent a few months in a cell waiting for his trial and he died in jail under mysterious circumstances in August 2011. “The new mayor”, as Sasha Ponomarenko, Nikolai’s son, explains, “feels much more comfortable with the kopanky. He just takes 2,000 UAH from each owner of kopanky each month, and everything is fine”. Such stories may partly answer to the question: What are the kopanky still doing here? In a country effectively ruled by law, they should have been shut down or legalized long time ago. As he was “’Dialoguing’ with the nation” on TV on February 22, President Yanukovich confessed it is impossible to legalize the kopanky “because it’s impossible to create for them the proper conditions for labor protection and safety”. There may be more to it though, namely the conflicting interests of powerful interest groups and local businessmen.
And so when our car was chased by another one as we left the village of Sjeverne, we became slightly anxious. Residents had taken us to see some kopanky a few hundred meters from their homes. As we approached an operating kopanka and walked to a few miners to ask them questions, they refused to communicate and instead called their managers, making it clear we had better run away. We did not have any direct contact with our pursuers, two young men in one car and possibly two more in a second car. They overtook us couple of times and waved us to stop. During the chase we made a few phone calls to relevant friends and colleagues, just in case. We refused to stop and eventually lost the pursuers at a crossroads.
We also decided not to go to the police, as we all had the feeling it may complicate the situation. The situation was not dangerous per se and no crime was committed against us. But when the news went public that very evening, it went viral: “foreign journalists” had been chased by several cars as they were investigating kopanky. Different media, Internet resources, radio and TV: it turned out that our story went much bigger than we thought it would. And our presence there was turned into something more interesting than we thought it actually was.
Police reaction was swift: we should have contacted them, come back with police officers to the mine and possibly see it shut down, were it to be proved illegal. In short, we should have done properly our work as journalists. From a normative point of view, it is hard to disagree with such a statement. We could have done more.
Yet would it have made a difference? After giving it much thought, I do not feel as frustrated by our inaction as I am by the powerlessness of investigative journalism on this issue. Was it worth making contact with the police and most likely risking further complications? Along with Denis Kazanski and Gulliver Cragg, I did not think so. The mine we saw and we assumed was illegal because introduced as such by inhabitants may be investigated and shut down anytime. Yet it was fully working in broad daylight. I would guess it is still working today.
I met with several journalists who focused quite a lot of their time and energy on tracking the illegal coal. They have established that the core issue lays in the supply to state mines. Officials purchase it at a much lower price and merge it to the official production. In addition, they pocket generous state subsidies. Experts and journalists have indicated that there is now a 6 to 8-million ton of coal surplus stored in warehouses, left for no one to use, because of an excessive illegal coal output which distorts market prices. Rinat Akhmetov’s DTEK suffers much from such a distortion as it cannot sell it coal to power plants as it used to. Analysts from the “Forbes” magazine have revealed quite clearly that intermediary companies, which deliver coal to power plants are connected in some ways to the MAKO holding, that is to say to the company of Oleksandr Yanukovich, the President’s son. Dentist by education, he is believed to be the man who has made the fastest-growing fortune in recent history. Nothing is proved with certainty. Many persons I talked to are convinced of MAKO’s responsibility over the traffic. Yet a high-ranked source close to Akhmetov’s DTEK, which goes down more and more on kopanky, actually dismisses these claims. “I do not believe anyone in the close circle of the President would be involved in this business. It is too small for them. It would be silly to risk it because it is no business in itself, it just adds up to business. They don’t need that”.
Finding the ones in charge and highlighting the structure of the illegal coal trade is by no means an easy task. And this is what investigative journalists are meant to dig out. I remember a young man on the streets of Sjeverne. As we asked him for comments on the kopanky situation in the village, he refused to talk to us, arguing: “Many stories have already been done about us. And what did it change? Nothing!” He had a point. When I ask these journalists about the reactions their articles, charts, photos and other pieces have met, I am hit with the same answer every time: “No, there was (almost) no reaction”. That is the real outrage. How far can we go as journalists? What is the role and the scope of influence of Donbass journalists, Kyiv journalists and foreign correspondents? Are we all meant to dig into the same pits and to the same depth? And if we eventually manage to uncover the whole scheme of the kopanky business, is anyone going to read and watch our reports, stand up and act?
Nepotism and corruption are not exclusively Ukraine’s curses. Back in 2009 in France, I remember former President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to have his eldest son, Jean, groundlessly promoted as head of the agency in charge of Paris’s largest business district “La Défense”. But then, intense media coverage and civil society’s indignation were enough for the nomination to be called off. This time, it is rumored that the son of Ukraine’s President may have his hand on a several million-worth illegal coal business. But nothing happens. I have built my journalistic ethics on the assumption that my work may make a difference. Yet without a properly functioning rule of law and responsive audience, journalists’ voices seem to make less noise than the pneumatic drills in Donbass kopanky.