When deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych popped up in Russia a few weeks ago claiming to still be the president, he looked a bit of a laughing stock. A week earlier he had signed a compromise agreement with three EU foreign ministers and opposition political leaders in Kiev, which stipulated the country would hold presidential elections by the end of the year. It seems he fled the Ukraine that very evening and was now staking his claim to the presidency from Russia. Meanwhile, his luxurious residential compound outside the capital, which is said to be as big as half of Monaco, was raided by protesters and has since been made open to the public. All 140 hectares of it, including the private golf course, the cinema, the art collection, the zoo and the garage full of sports cars. The largesse was staggering, the opulence astounding.
In the nearby river, thousands of documents, which are alleged to detail the corruption of his estate, were salvaged and are now being pored over by investigative journalists. Yanukovych, speaking from Russia, claimed to have paid for the estate: “I paid for that house with my own money. I paid $3.2 million for that house,” he said. At the same time, images of protestors in his home were going viral .Images of a protester lounging in the Jacuzzi, another two men watching television on the couch, the one smoking a cigarette, the other with a baseball bat across his lap. Kids playing in the garden, young men playing golf on the private course with Yanukovych’s own custom-branded golf clubs.
But best of all was a photo of a man sitting on the throne in Yanukovych’s bathroom. This is what David Remnick of the New Yorker called the “golden toilet stage” of revolutions.
“That moment when the freedom-hungry crowds discover the fallen leader’s arrangements and bountiful holdings – the golden bathroom fixtures; the paintings and the tapestries; the secret mistress; the lurid bedrooms and freezers stocked with sweetmeats; the surveillance videos and secret transcripts; the global real-estate holdings; the foreign bank accounts; the fleets of cars, yachts, and aeroplanes; the bad taste, the unknown cruelties,” wrote Remnick.
It is reminiscent of the video footage of Tunisians going through president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s private estate in Sidi Bou Said, which was located on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. Ben Ali even moved the tomb of a saint so he could build this palace, but he abandoned it when he fled the country in January 2011. Al Jazeera described the palace as being “packed with antiques, works of art, porcelain vases, gifts from monarchs and wealthy friends”. It was said to contain a collection of rare clocks, “some of which belonged to the Bey Dynasty that ruled Tunisia for more than two centuries”. His assets were estimated at US$2 billion. “He illegally accumulated much of his wealth by buying companies at knocked-down prices, or simply confiscating them,” wrote Hashem Ahelbarra for Al Jazeera at the time. “He still has funds stashed away in bank accounts abroad that the government cannot access.”
In 2012, news website Magharebia reported that many Tunisians were opposed to the idea of selling Ben Ali’s palaces. Some considered them a historic part of the nation’s heritage. “Why should he sell the palaces that are the right of the Tunisian people?” asked Hassna Chiboub. “We can turn them to hotels, museums, or studios and market them as such.”
Watch this video clip from 1:35 mark onwards for a glimpse of presidential jewels and stashed money.
Dictators and their castles, I thought to myself as I clicked through gallery after gallery, looking at fallen dictators’ abandoned palaces. The opulence of oppressive regimes is well documented. British style guru Peter York’s book Dictators’ Homes is a case in point. In the book, York guides the reader through the homes of Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco and Nicolae Ceausescu. Closer to home. he focuses on the palatial pads of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu and Idi Amin.
York lists the top 10 features of dictators’ homes:
1. Big it up
2. Go repo
3. Think French
4. Think hotel
5. Go for gold (starting with taps)
6. Get more glass
7. Have important 19th-century oils
8. Involve brands
9. Make it marble
10. Have yourself everywhere
The book is hilarious. York describes Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palace as looking “like a bad hotel in Dubai in the 1980s”. “What sort of architect does this stuff?” he asks. Sprawling marble floors, more than enough gold including taps, it seems that Saddam fits York’s list just perfectly, he just missed the bit about 19th-century oils. In their place sci-fi paintings that look like the interior-décor wet dream of a sexually repressed 14-year-old boy.
York later turns his attention to Saddam’s sci-fi fantasy paintings. “They’re by Western artists – though no one you’ve ever heard of,” writes York. “These soft-porn images are deeply sadistic and utterly absurd.”
“In one a super-snake is entwined around a sword-wielding orange blond Venice Beach muscle boy. The snake seems to spring from the pointed finger of a naked silicon-breasted centrefold who seems to have a white Playboy bunny engaged in cunnilingus on her. Behind her the whole scene is presided over by a comically freakish creature from a 1950s Japanese horror film. Were these pictures painted to order – or did Saddam somehow find them in some kind of New Jersey pervy painter’s store?”
At another point York describes a bean-bagged lounge area and the artwork that is on display.
“The real showstoppers here, once again, are the paintings. There’s another of those sadistic fantasies with a kind of dragon hovering over a big-breasted blonde lap-dancer type whose body language seems to be saying ‘take me now, you big scaly brute!’. The picture on the left appears to owe something to Munch’s The Scream and even more to the The X-Files. But who’s that looking over Green Girl’s right shoulder? It says ‘rape’ in any language. Lost in all this is a really tiny dining table, apparently set for three, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.”
It is all absurdly horrifying. As are the collections of chinoiserie that were built for Mobutu by the Chinese. “God only knows what Mao expected in return,” York writes.
“European visitors reported the interiors of the Chinese pavilions were very decorative. Painted dragons, cranes and Chinese girls with pink fans … The rebel soldiers who liberated and looted the palace in 1997 were shocked by the extravagance and one wonders why the Chinese didn’t give Zairians schools and hospitals?
But getting back to Yanukovych, he was not a dictator, not in the truest sense of the word. He did not have total power over the country, although he had turned the armed forces on the people of the Ukraine.Yanukovych is what can be considered a corrupt elected leader. These days the line is so fine that even elected leaders can find themselves at the end of a pointed revolutionary stick – especially in Europe, where austerity has bitten down hard in previously monied countries, leading to shifts in the political landscapes of its member states.
The Ukrainian parliament, meanwhile, has approved Arseniy Yatsenyuk as Prime Minister. Yatsenyuk, who was previously foreign minister of the Ukraine, was one of the three main protest leaders of the past three months. Speaking in parliament, Yatsenyuk said the former government had left the country with a debt of US$75 billion. He claimed that US$20 billion in gold reserves was embezzled and that US$37 billion in loans had disappeared. “Around US$70 billion was moved to offshore accounts from Ukraine’s financial system in the last three years,” he said. Yanukovych’s son Oleksandr is said to have amassed a fortune measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He opened a branch of his company, MAKO, in Geneva in 2011.
This got me to thinking about Vladimir Putin, another player in this European political drama. In Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin, written by Ben Judah, then a journalist, now an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Putin’s own ill-begotten estate is noted. This is according to Sergei Kolesnikov, who was interviewed for the book by Judah while in exile in Estonia. Kolesnikov was a biophysicist in the Russian military-industrial complex who decided to go into business with a former KGB agent, a friend of Putin. They began selling medical equipment to the city of St Petersburg, a deal that is alleged to have been set up by Putin, who was then in the mayor’s office. “Playing every friend and connection you had was exactly how business was done all over Russia at the time – any contact, any old institutional tie in the USSR, was something someone was trying to turn into cash,” writes Judah. Kolesnikov claims to have been approached by Putin’s friend Nikolai Shamalov to set up a scam to fleece money donated by Russia’s oligarchs for social health spending. Kolesnikov claims that 35% of the funds were held in an offshore bank account.
By 2005, it is alleged that the fund had accumulated more than US$200 million and a company called Rosinvest was set up. In the same year, Kolesnikov was asked to build a 1000m² house on the Black Sea at a cost of US$14 million. “We thought, in three years his term will be up and it will be good for him,” said Kolesnikov. “When this began I was convinced I was building Putin’s retirement home.” Judah points out that all Russian leaders have holidayed on the Black Sea. “By 2006, the impression started to emerge that Putin would rule forever,” said Kolesnikov. “In 2006, the plan for the house on the Black Sea changed completely. Putin now wanted a palace.” Judah says the home grew to 4 000 m² and included a church, a casino, an amphitheater, swimming pools, a helipad and an indoor theatre. The construction of the house was code named “Project South”. “Modeled like a contemporary Peterhof, one of Peter the Great’s most grandiose residences outside St Petersburg, it had evolved into a Italianate palace with everything the ‘tsar’ could need,” writes Judah.
Later, after a fallout over money, Kolesnikov would flee the country, blowing the whistle on their allegedly corrupt business relationship; Putin’s government denied everything. “I realised that Putin is not the ‘tsar’. We had only called him that. Because a tsar has a dynasty, and cares for the country because it will one day belong to his son,” said Kolesnikov. “I realised Putin is a dictator, he cannot create a dynasty. And in the end all dictators end up the same way.” “That [Putin] should have blurred the boundaries between profit and politics in 1990s St Petersburg is unsurprising,” writes Judah. “This simply made him a man of his time.” “What the Kolesnikov documents seem to show us is that Putin never changed,” writes Judah. “Instead, as he has grown more powerful, he grew ever more corrupt.” “This means that Putin has never stopped behaving like a 1990’s politician.” “He can never change – and as long as he is in power, neither can Russia.”
Judah closes his book on Putin and Russia by arguing that Putin can never step down for fear of arrest. “He will inevitably need a protector, either in 2018 or 2024, because any real transfer of power will be a transfer of assets.”
In contemporary South Africa, the conversation by political analysts and the media revolves around how President Jacob Zuma needs someone, or something (like a constitutional amendment or change of law) to protect him from being arrested. At the same time, Zuma is facing a public backlash because of government spending on his private residence at Nkandla. How much? Who can keep track anymore? All we know for sure is that it is alleged to be in the hundreds of millions bracket and Zuma and his spin team deny any knowledge of improper conduct. There are multiple investigations that have been finalised, including one by a ministerial task team and one by the office of the Public Protector.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance has attempted to march on Nkandla, while the Economic Freedom Fighters built a house for a village resident next door to Zuma’s ever increasing homestead. The ANC Youth League attempted to secure the rights to refurbish the home next to EFF leader Julius Malema’s grandmother’s home in Seshego outside, Polokwane, Limpopo. Meanwhile, newspapers carry stories about whether the pool has steps or not, whether the chimney is a fire hazard and exactly how much the new tuck shop cost.
Malema has called Nkandla “a museum of corruption” – a powerful image in the context of Yanukovych’s estate and Ben Ali’s opulence. One wonders if Nkandla will ever be the site of a real revolutionary protest, or will the ANC realise before then that Zuma is not the man to lead this country? Will the people ever get to take it back? Will they get to take a dip in the fire pool or use the health services at the clinic? What would they find in locked safes and in safety bunkers? Would the EFF ever get to install an Nkandla FET college? Will Zuma ever shit himself waiting for a local revolution’s “golden toilet moment”? This is all food for fanciful thought.
Returning to the Ukraine for a second, Putin’s critics have begun to refer to the crisis in the Crimea in terms of Afghanistan in 1979 or Georgia in 2008. Remnick argues:
“Putin’s reaction exceeded our worst expectations. These next days and weeks in Ukraine are bound to be frightening, and worse. There is not only the threat of widening Russian military force. The new Ukrainian leadership is worse than weak. It is unstable. It faces the burden of legitimacy. Yanukovych was spectacularly corrupt, and he opened fire on his own people. He was also elected to his office and brought low by an uprising, not the ballot; he made that point on Friday, in a press conference in Rostov-on-Don, in Russia, saying that he had never really been deposed. Ukraine has already experienced revolutionary disappointment. The Orange Revolution, in 2004, failed to establish stable democratic institutions and economic justice. This is one reason that Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, newly released from prison, is not likely the future of Ukraine. How can Ukraine possibly move quickly to national elections, as it must to resolve the issue of legitimacy, while another country has troops on its territory?”
Remnick then quotes Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal Russian politician who no longer holds office. “It’s quite likely that this will be fatal for the regime and catastrophic for Russia,” he told Slon.ru. “It just looks as if they have taken leave of their senses.”
At some point the people will rise up and tell the dictators or quasi-dictators to fuck off. When that day comes, revolutionary tradition suggests that their opulent homes will be one of the first sites of resistance. We are likely to see many more “golden toilet” moments in our future as the people realise that the political and capital elite do not have their best interests at heart, that they are in fact being fed to the wolves of crony capitalism and repressive new stages of alleged democracy.
This time of anger and upheaval calls to mind the song Prophets of Rage by legendary New York hip-hop crew Public Enemy. At the beginning of the song, a sample plays out: “You’re quite hostile,” says a waspy, authoritarian voice. “I got a right to be hostile, man, my people’s being persecuted!” comes the reply. Public Enemy then break into an angry banger that name checks both Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher, and ends with them calling for “power of the people”.
It is in the beginning and ending wherein the revolutionary truth lies. One day the people will say enough is enough and on that day, property, whether it be private homes, compounds, estates, banks or shopping malls, will be the sites of retribution and justice.
Main Pic : A protestor takes to Viktor Yanukovych’s private golf course
Second Pic: Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at the Presidential Palace in Tunis, Tunisia, on Oct. 7, 2000 byR. D. Ward
Third Pic: Dictator’s Homes by Peter York
Fourth Pic: The artwork on Saddam Hussein’s palace wall
Fifth Pic: Viktor Yanukovych in 2010. Copyright Premier.gov.ru
Sixth Pic: Benn Judah’s Fragile Empire
Seventh Pic: Vladimir Putin at a press briefing: Copyright Russian Presidential Press and Information Office
Eighth Pic: Jacob Zuma at the World Economic Forum in 2009: Copyright World Economic Forum
Ninth Pic: President Jacob Zuma’s home, Nkandla