He’s a parliamentarian, a top equestrian and a socialite. But Ukraine’s judiciary says he is also a crook, accusing Oleksandr Onyshchenko of illegal enrichment. Now it appears he’s making a life for himself in Germany.
Germany’s Emsland region is often called the “Wild West of Lower Saxony.” Ancient forests and moors exist alongside expansive fields here. Neat houses of regionally typical dark brown and red brick harmoniously blend into the landscape. Wherever one looks, one sees horses at pasture. “Yeah, people are crazy for horses here,” chuckles a man out for an afternoon walk with his dog outside the small village of Herzlake in the Emsland district. “Many cannot spend enough on their horses,” adds the fifty-something man, “just look at the cars that are parked at the horse club every evening.” Have you ever seen Oleksandr Onyshchenko’s Mercedes Maybach S-500, I ask? The Ukrainian oligarch maintains a riding stable here in Herzlake, and the Maybach is one of the many luxury automobiles listed on Onyshchenko’s company ledgers. No, the man says, one reads about the wealthy Ukrainian in the local newspaper but he never shows himself in public.
Glamorous riding stables and celebrity galas
It was, of course, horses that originally led the Ukrainian multimillionaire to the countryside of Lower Saxony. Several yeas ago, Onyshchenko bought a well-equipped, 89-hectare (220 acre) riding stable in Herzlake, a one-hour drive from the next large city. Equestrian sport is the Ukrainian’s greatest passion. Over the years he has purchased several dozen top horses across Europe, many of which are worth more than a million euros ($1.17 million). The Ukrainian national equestrian team even trained here at his estate, Gut Einhaus. Onyshchenko hired trainers from Brazil, Hungary and Germany as part of the project, all of whom were given Ukrainian passports and paid handsomely to boot.
Onyshchenko was proud to be seen with the team at international riding competitions. But in his home country he is less known as a rider or parliamentarian than he is as a dazzling, headline-grabbing figure in the country’s tabloid press. There he is known for organizing beauty contests and celebrity galas. Media reports claim that film stars at his parties regularly received massive checks for attending.
Criminal proceedings in Ukraine
But then came the shock: In 2016, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) issued a warrant for his arrest. NABU accused him of having illegally enriched himself. The body claimed that for years, Onyshchenko had used shell companies to conduct sham business deals with the state-run energy company UkrGasVydobuvannya, deals which cost the state more than 100 million euros. According to NABU, gas extracted in Ukraine was sold at low prices to Onyshchenko’s companies, which in turn resold the gas at inflated market prices. Meanwhile, eight of those companies’ managers are behind bars. Onyshchenko himself could face up to 12 years in prison in Ukraine.
The businessman vehemently denies the accusations. He claims that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is using the criminal proceedings as a means to thwart him politically. But many Ukrainians are skeptical: NABU enjoys an unusual amount of public support. The independent anti-corruption investigative body was founded in 2015, under pressure from the EU and against the wishes of the president, to root out widespread corruption in the country’s political system.
A year on the run
Onyshchenko left the country just in time to avoid arrest, under the cloak of parliamentary immunity. Once abroad, he quickly became an adversary of the president, speaking of the corruption that afflicts the halls of power in Kyiv. He openly told Ukrainian media outlets about his role in purchasing votes in Ukraine’s parliament, which he claims to have done on orders from Poroshenko.
For some time Onyshchenko claimed to be in London, saying that he was applying for asylum in the United Kingdom. Most of the horses in Herzlake were sold off and workers at his estate fired. At the same time, as DW reported in December, his lawyers were taking steps to counter any possible arrest warrants in Germany.
In February of this year, the Higher Regional Court of Koblenz voiced doubt about the legality of Germany extraditing Onyshchenko to Ukraine. Judges in Koblenz found that the Ukrainian arrest warrant was unclear about how exactly the accused would have been able to misappropriate funds from a state-run company when he was not an official at said company. One month later, the Koblenz court announced that there was no warrant for Onyshchenko’s arrest in Germany. Ukrainian officials did not respond to DW enquiries as to whether there had been any contact with German officials on the matter.
Interpol has also confirmed that there is no international warrant outstanding, thus it would seem that Onyshchenko can consider himself a free man. He has once again begun purchasing horses and participating in international equestrian tournaments. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s public prosecutor’s office has said that it will continue to fight for Onyshchenko’s extradition, should it ascertain just where he is.
The Ukrainian businessman declined to speak with DW, as did his lawyers. Onyshchenko’s activities in the horse world, however, led DW to Herzlake.
Support from the mayor
Once in Herzlake, a short discussion with Hans Boesken, the community’s mayor, cleared up the issue of just where the Ukrainian is. Boesken told us of a meeting that took place a few months back. Onyshchenko, says the mayor, invited him out to his Herzlake estate. There he explained his side of the story to the mayor, and assured him that the issue of criminal proceedings in Ukraine was strictly political in nature. Onyshchenko told him that he saw his future in Herzlake, and that he would like to register the property as his residence. Moreover, the Ukrainian informed the mayor of his intent to apply for German citizenship and asked Boesken to write him a letter of recommendation.
Apparently the mayor did not hesitate. “We in the community have a positive opinion of a businessman who wants to, and can do good things here. What we don’t want is for the riding stables, an exemplary estate in Germany, to be broken up because of the events of the past,” as Boesken told DW. Meanwhile, Onyshchenko has applied for German citizenship. And the mayor has asked authorities to assist in speeding up the process. Onyshchenko, says the mayor, is a valuable asset to his community.
Big promises for the tiny community
The Ukrainian has promised support for the local riding club, as well as vowing to organize a top-quality international horse jumping competition there next year. He says that he wants to see the world’s equestrian elite in the Emsland. Mayor Hans Boesken is utterly euphoric when describing the possibilities: “When newspapers, and radio and television stations tell the world that a top-notch riding tournament, like the one Mr. Onyshchenko wants to organize, is taking place here in Herzlake, a tiny community that hardly anyone knows, it will be an enormous boon for the community.”
The mayor is absolutely certain that Onyshchenko will soon get his German passport. He says, “At first I was a bit skeptical that it would happen quickly but the information I have now is very positive.” The fact that Onyshchenko is still a parliamentarian in Ukraine, says the mayor, is not an issue; nor he adds, are the ongoing Ukrainian criminal proceedings.
Local residents do not seem to have any problems with Onyshchenko either. “As long as he hasn’t broken any laws here,” says the man with the dog. He says there is nothing wrong with the Ukrainian wanting to settle in Herzlake, although he is thoroughly unimpressed with the promise of organizing an international equestrian tournament. “We little people won’t profit from it at all,” he says with a shrug. “The rich prefer to entertain themselves in closed company.”