Viktor Mykyta, Head of the Zakarpattia Oblast Military Administration
Three new checkpoints should be opened in Zakarpattia to mitigate losses caused by the border blockade.
03.01.2024 17:30

Last year the production of technical salt was finally launched in Zakarpattia. In doing so, the region recovered its glory as a salt region, which faded away after the Solotvyno mine was shut down in the 2010s. Also, Zakarpattia nurtures its ambitions to become a grain export logistics hub of the country, since a dry port will be built in Horonda. However, now the region faces challenges due to the border blockade, and “toxic” mobilization stories “shake” it from time to time. The last terrorist attack in Keretsky village prompted the whole world to speak about Zakarpattia but certainly not about its development.

Viktor Mykyta, Head of Zakarpattia Oblast Military Administration, was interviewed by Ukrinform about the highlights of life in Zakarpattia at the end of the second year of the full-scale war and about how the region manages to cope with challenges.


– In what way did the Keretsky tragedy change Zakarpattia? What happens now in the region? How is security being strengthened?

– It is a great tragedy for Zakarpattia and for our people. The war is going on in the country, affecting people’s minds in one way or another. For some, it is an opportunity to get ammunition, and ammunition triggers the desire to use it. Unfortunately, it kills accidental people, and that’s a great misfortune. Zakarpattia is not unique in this sense as such instances occur in various regions of Ukraine and abroad. It’s hard to prevent them, but we make efforts to this end. We live under the rule of law and move towards the EU. So, taking the life of another human being, if one is not fighting a war, is definitely a crime, to be classified in one way or another. Perpetrators must be liable for that under the law.

Of course, we strengthened security in the Zakarpattia region after the terrorist attack. We primarily tightened the security of educational facilities and increased manpower and resources to prevent the entry of weapons and ammunition into the region. Law-enforcers work effectively.

– What do you think of a situation where many locals supported the bomber on social media, shaping his image as a “public avenger” against the authorities?

– As for the social media response, the enemy exploited it very efficiently, fuelling animosity and hatred between people and trying to undermine the stability of the region. A fake was generated claiming that the suspect was a war veteran and a “messenger of justice.” However, it turned out that the bomber had nothing to do with the Army, he registered custody over his mother and thus managed to escape mobilization. When the refutation was published, it put an end to comments, and most of their disseminators disappeared.


– In late November, Zakarpattia finally delivered its first technical salt from the Bushtyn deposit, which started to be developed after the full-scale invasion. What does it mean for the region and for the country?

– The story of Zakarpattia salt goes like this: the company started developing the deposit in 2022, after the Russian invasion. The work was being launched at an extreme pace so problems were arising all the time. Challenges were related to employees’ professional qualifications and geological exploration. The problem was that the geodetic survey had not been properly carried out when the deposit’s development was launched. At first, there were no plans to cover the mine with concrete, but later, when the passage began to crumble, they had to do this. That is why they dug it up again, put up metal structures, fortified them, and so on.

– Does it mean that lots of problems arose in the course of work because of poor preparation?

– Yes, that’s right, but when they reached the bedrock and made sure there was salt there, they started reinforcing the mine entrance. It has been dug for over 200 meters and is 70 meters deep. This reinforcement took a lot of time. At the same time, we argued that this mine had the capacity to cover the need of the whole country for technical salt. It amounts to 400,000 tons per year. And now imagine how these 400,000 tons will be trucked out of the mining site...

– Does it mean the end of the newly repaired Mukachevo-Rohatyn highway and the already battered Kyiv-Chop highway?

– Obviously. It is a great problem for us as the community will not gain enough profits to cover damage to infrastructure. That is why the investor had to address these issues as well. We held several meetings with Ukrzaliznytsia on laying a separate railroad track. We have some arrangements but this issue is not resolved yet, as the company has so far invested all the money in the construction of the tunnel and the passage to the mine. They are building two tunnels there, one of which is a backup tunnel, so that if the first one is damaged, work can still be carried out by using the backup tunnel and there is no halt to production. The second tunnel is not fully built yet. That’s why we can say now that the company has reached the bedrock and started to extract technical salt.

But for now, there’s no permanent production on an industrial scale at the Bushtyn deposit.  In fact, when there was snowfall in the Odesa region (the first salt extracted from the Bushtyn deposit was delivered to the Odesa region when the snow front stopped traffic in the region in late November, author’s note), we delivered the extracted salt that we had in our warehouses. The investor provided this salt free of charge, and 54 tons of technical salt from Zakarpattia was transported to the Odesa region, where 150 tons of road deicing mixture was made out of it.


– How much more time will it take to fully launch salt production in Zakarpattia?

– One more year is needed to build infrastructure, explore the deposit further, and complete the construction of the passage. The investor has contributed about 170 million hryvnias to this project. They extract now about 45 tons of technical salt per day. If required, they may increase this amount up to 200 tons, which will make up 600 tons of road deicing mixture. According to nationwide calculations, this amount will be enough for Zakarpattia and its neighbours (regions adjacent to Zakarpattia). However, such an amount of technical salt will not cover all the needs of the country.

– What is the overall market expectation for the salt from Zakarpattia? In fact, we remember the story of the Donbas lobbyists who pushed through a decision that Artemsil should become the only salt production centre in Ukraine. The result was that in the 2010s, the Zakarpattia salt simply ceased to be produced in the Solotvyno deposit, as mines were not restored after yet another accident, the extraction stopped, and the deposit was lost.

– Ukraine needs its own salt, as, in general, it needs any of its resources. The region needs it all the more, as it means taxes and jobs. However, the law now does not provide for the protection of national production. Maybe rightly so, as there is no time and resources for long-term projects, we need salt right now. It is being imported from African countries, through the “grain corridor,” as far as I understand it, on the way back to Odesa ports. Its price is UAH 2,500 per one ton. Before the war, the price of the Artemsil technical salt was UAH 1,500. When we had no salt at all in the first year of the war, we imported it from Poland, and its price went up to between UAH 7,000 and 9,000 per ton. The current price of Zakarpattia salt from the Bushtyn deposit is UAH 3,000. But its quality is an order of magnitude higher than that of the African one; its producer has conducted expert examinations, and it dissolves remarkably well. That is why there will be demand for the Zakarpattia salt. Moreover, if we take logistics, the salt, which arrives at the sea ports, is used somewhere there in the South, and we will be able to cover the needs of the Western and Central regions with our salt.

– Does it mean that there is a market for the Zakarpattia salt?

Yes, there is a market for it. And it is more or less fair. We have prospects and may God grant us volumes so that we can suppress the importer and produce.


– What is the contribution of regional authorities to this salt story, which is an image-building story for Zakarpattia? Do you help develop the deposit?

– We are at the strategic crossroads here, as we must fund the Army first of all. Some people are crying: “Give us drones! Here and now!” In fact, if we are really going to reach the administrative borders in the near future and for this purpose, we should give up everything for victory, then this is exactly what we should do: we should focus all our efforts on drones. But if we understand that the war will last for long, then we should develop the economy and invest in production. Then we will always have money for drones. However, the majority cries, “Drones! Drones.” This creates certain social tension and prevents local governments and regional authorities from investing money into long-term projects. But it is important to do such things in Ukraine now.

It is difficult to strike the right balance here: when I spend three weeks in Zakarpattia, I want to help investors as much as possible to economically develop the region. But when I go to the front for a week and talk to the guys, it makes me want to give them everything we have. This possibility to travel allows me to establish priorities for the region. That is why we, the regional authorities, deliver everything to the Army and care for investors as investment “nannies”: we help them to establish contacts and communicate with local governments and law enforcers and address the issues of registration and legal support, land issues, etc.

– Since we are talking about drones now, this autumn, Zakarpattia was spared from the wave of protests under the slogan “Drones first, stadiums later.” They were very active in the neighbouring regions, for instance, in Lviv. A whole wave also rolled through other regions, and in some of them, as in Zhytomyr, the steps of the oblast military administration building were poured with red paint symbolizing blood. No single action of that kind occurred in Zakarpattia. Is it because we’re succeeding so well with drones?

– Yes, indeed, we had no protests. Why so? There were no reasons for them. Since the beginning of the war, Zakarpattia has been channelling all its military personal income tax to support the Armed Forces. Everything was spent on defence. We intervened when something happened, like the bid to repair a bridge in Uzhhorod for UAH 30 million. This bid was cancelled as it was in the bridge case. We carefully monitor such things. Each week, I hold meetings with department heads and we focus our attention on preventing the announcement of multi-million bids.


– However, this summer Zakarpattia got caught in a high-profile tender scandal where a 600 million road in Chorna Tysa was at stake. The situation there is indeed critical as there is no road in the village, it is non-passable. On the other hand, in fact, the road could have been patched without provoking a scandal, which later led to tender cancellation. What decision was taken about the 600 million road in Chorna Tysa?

– Indeed, there is virtually no road to the village. A certain number of men and women from this village defend Ukraine in the Armed Forces, but their children cannot reach school without gumboots, and their parents cannot get to the hospital. To get this road in order, a design should be provided, and a tender should be held. It was done. Yes, it was possible to split up these funds to give an opportunity for officials and contractors to make money through various fraudulent practices. To prevent this, a transparent tender was held covering all the amount, with insurance for inflation.

– Well, it was actually these over 280 million hryvnias of “insurance” that triggered everyone!

– But even without it, the tender was for 600 million, and we had no such money! Our whole road budget for 2023 was UAH 280 million, for the whole oblast. The Resolution No. 590 of the Cabinet of Ministers clearly regulates the use of funds, and even if the tender had been completed and the investor had started building the road and completed works worth those 600 million from its own current funds, it would have been reimbursed for them from the budget within the third and fourth stage of funding, possibly sometime in 2032. If there is a business ready to do this and to build the road, I think they should be given an opportunity to do it.

– Obviously, there is a business ready to build on borrowed money as this road has a connection to the planned Svydovets resort.

– Svydovets is being planned, but this road has nothing to do with it.

– Of course, it does, as it leads to Svydovets!

– This road will be battered three times before the resort is built, so there is no point in linking it to the resort. Trucks in need of a road to build the resort can drive on a gravel road if construction starts. They need no smooth coating for that.

That’s why this road was used for political purposes. First and foremost, residents were and still are in need of it. For instance, between ten and twelve million could have been used to patch it.

– Why wasn’t it done in this manner?

– There was a desire to make a major repair. However, even if the investor from the Svydovets project claims it can build the road, well, let it build it.

– So, what about the road, since there is a really critical demand for its repair?

– We cancelled the bid for the major repair of this road. Its repair is a really critical issue. That is why we will search for options of addressing this situation. Perhaps, the formula can be the following: let’s say we have purchased one thousand drones at the expense of the oblast and sent them to the front, and now let us build a critically important road in our region.


– What about another issue that is critical for the region, the relocated company producing wind farm turbines and the project to build one hundred windmills in the Zakarpattia mountains, which is being lobbied by Wind Technology? What is the OMA’s opinion on that? On the one hand, pristine mountains are Zakarpattia’s strategic capital since the environment is at stake, and on the other hand, the investor creates a large company, meaning taxes and jobs. What do you choose from between a rock and a hard place?

– Our objective here is to monitor that there are no breaches of law. Here’s my vision: nobody can claim that Zakarpattia is a region with an energy autonomy. Last year everyone witnessed how missiles stroke the neighbouring regions and we had blackouts. That is why energy autonomy is an overriding priority! It is important to me that people have electricity for lighting, and when such projects appear, and the community supports them, I believe they must happen. At the same time, however, they should not harm the environment, and the Ministry of Environment and the State Environmental Inspectorate should be monitoring that. We can find here collusion, corruption, lobbying, whatever; we can always find them in each project, but then no development will occur. That is why Zakarpattia badly needs wind farms, mini-hydroelectric power plants, and solar panels. We have even developed a program for solar panels: each of such power plants should have a mini farm with sheep who would graze the grass under batteries so that it would not need to be cut down.

Should there be environmental hazards due to the installation of windmills, they need to be calculated, and we should see whether they could be compensated for. It does not mean that a one-time payment of a penalty ordered by the Environmental Inspectorate will be enough. There should be a plan of how the investor would compensate for these losses in a systematic manner and whether it could compensate for them at all. The investor should be required to fill the community’s budget with revenues from this project. I am monitoring that.


– I have a question about the dry port in Horonda. Are there reasons to build it now when carriers from neighbouring countries block the border all the time?

– This project was offered by the Italian Railroads, a state company with private investments. I met their representatives, we discussed the project and have already prepared road infrastructure for them for this project. There were bad roads in the village and we repaired them. As of now, the Italians only declare their intentions, but we, the regional authority, clearly showed our interest in this project. Understanding their discourse, I can see they are interested as well. In terms of the economy, we see problems here. There are three directions leading to ports: Romania, Constanța; transit through Hungary to Gdańsk, Hamburg, or Koper; and also, Trieste, the direction to which Italians want to switch it all. The Italians believe that they can connect this Horonda project to Trieste, and it will function regardless of the border blockade. It is because only roads are being blocked, and railroads mitigate this problem to some extent. However, they are far from solving it on the nationwide scale. The sea is closed, and the seaports do not operate in full. Currently, here, in the Western regions, where there are borders with the EU, we are in a corked thin bottleneck, which strangles the Ukrainian economy.

Every day now, I personally negotiate through consulates on how to pull out some trucks from border queues, as the largest oblast companies stop their industrial production. They reduce production and work shifts.

– Does it mean that when there are talks about such giants as Jabil, Yazaki, or Flex reducing their production for two weeks due to border blockade and queues, these are not just chats on social media? Do we have such regional consequences of the border blockade?

– Yes, we have problems. People are losing jobs and salaries. I personally control this to ensure that these plants do not stop as that means, for example, losses of over UAH 30 million in taxes for the Kholmok Community and jobless people in times of war. It’s a horrible thing.

We have a vision and a strategy, therefore, every day, we are engaged in a dialog with both Hungarians and Slovaks to open new checkpoints. They have done almost everything for this, and we have to finalize what we did. First and foremost, it’s about Luzhanka.


– Oh, building new checkpoints at the border is an eternal story of Zakarpattia. The same story as with waste processing plants, which the region still lacks.

– We understand that. The Hungarians are ready to accept (trucks) as they have increased cargo traffic by 30% while the Poles continue their blockade. This helps our economy to survive but does not solve our problems. At least three checkpoints should be opened in Zakarpattia in the near future.

– When could Luzhanka be opened, given the critical need for it?

– In several months, taking into account the current state of affairs.

– What exactly should be done there: should there be built a road or a parking?

– The road has already been built. A supplement to an international agreement should be signed, and all special aspects of communication between customs authorities and border service should be taken into account.

– How much money will it take?

– Perhaps, we will have to invest up to UAH 10 million to complete the infrastructure. Should the intergovernmental documents be signed, empty trucks will at once be able to pass through Luzhanka. And the loaded trucks will be able to pass through it later.

– How many more “cuts,” apart from Luzhanka, could be made soon in this “cork” on the border, which blocks exports now?

– At least two checkpoints are badly needed, they could be built in two years. Service areas should be created as well. This current “e-queue” is 70 kilometres long. The existing emergency situation with trucks on the roads near the checkpoints should be stopped. Some investors are eager to contribute and create service areas for trucks in the “e-queue,” including parking spaces, showers, meals, and accommodation.

Furthermore, I believe that Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are now strongly interested in becoming transit countries. Zakarpattia plays an essential role here, as we have a historic chance to become beneficial for Ukraine if we build border infrastructure. It will be a vigorous logistics centre with jobs, investments, and business activities.

– Where should new checkpoints be created first of all?

– They may be created anywhere along the whole border where it is crossed by international roads. In general, I believe that private businesses should be granted permission to develop these checkpoints, within the framework of public-private partnerships. Businesses will build hubs, and the government will arrange for the infrastructure required to operate border checkpoints; businesses will make money, and the government will save the economy. Our situation demands that all money should be spent on the Armed Forces, but at the same time, businesses can hardly breathe, and they should be given an opportunity to invest. So, border checkpoints are such an opportunity.


– Now, we will turn from business to the cluster of social issues: the activities of TRCs (territorial recruitment and social support centres) and residents’ response to them are the biggest triggers in Zakarpattia in this sense. We witness scandals like that with the driver from Vinnytsia, which result in reputational damage. We also witness scandals related to businesses, such as the one in “Kosyno” resort, where the fuss raised online about the TRC visit there (by the way, at the last session of the Zakarpattia Oblast Council, Councillor Oleksii Ivancho, resort owner, resigned as an oblast council member, author’s note) forced people to cancel tours to Zakarpattia. It means that the region suffered both reputational damage and economic losses... How can similar situations be avoided, and is it possible to have any influence on them at all?

– When I listen to businesses that claim they develop the economy, fund the Army, and pay taxes, and ask why their “arms are twisted” and their people are taken away, I feel like agreeing with them. But when I go to the front, I listen to servicemen there who say, “I spent two years in the trenches; it’s time to replace me; please allow me to go home for at least a month.” But we cannot release him as the enemy has a several times larger mobilization resource. So, please tell me how to find a happy middle ground here, how to support servicemen in the trenches and save the regional economy? The only thing that should be done here is to stop acting out of emotions, making impetuous decisions, and conducting “ski-mask raids.” It just cannot happen, as it is both reputational damage and a damage to economy. However, we are also aware that people themselves may act inadequately and resist TRC employees. It creates social tensions.

In general, the situation needs to be clarified. There are people who stand at the front and keep the country alive. They are heroes. There are people who keep the economy running and they are also essential for the country. And there are people who are afraid both to go to war and to work, are afraid that they would be busted by TRCs on their way to work. They either sit idle at home, and their wives work for them, or they flee abroad. These are the people who should figure themselves out.

There is also an urgent need to change our approaches to mobilization. It is of critical importance now to encourage citizens to defend their country. We are already doing this in the Center for National Resistance, we have two graduate classes there. What else might be done? Reservists should be trained, like in Israel. It should be explained that a reservist is an individual who has been granted social benefits and an opportunity to get loans or something out of turn. However, they are obliged to train themselves all the time. They will undergo combat training with a certain group of people, and there will be a ready and effective unit.

– Why is all this so poorly communicated and instead we see only more scandals involving TRCs?

– It’s because TRCs solve current critical issues related to army recruitment. It should be done, otherwise we will lose our country. However, the least toxic methods should be applied here.


– A question about Zakarpattia politics. The Oblast Council Chair was changed in autumn in the region, Roman Sarai from the Servant of the People party replaced Volodymyr Chubirko there. How did this affect the politics in the region?

– During the war, we retained the authority of the oblast council, and all funds in the region are channelled through the budget commission, which, as a rule, should have a formal status in times of war. It is important for us to involve people elected by the community in the process and make them responsible for the funds. When I was appointed the head of the Oblast Military Administration, there was a coalition in the oblast council, which left out the Servant of the People party in the cold. In fact, the coalition was defunct, and it was difficult to control the situation at the moments when political games occurred. That is why the coalition changed its format in the first year of the war. The old chair of the oblast council began to see certain risks in this, and some anxiety arose. Then we decided to re-launch the oblast council. The councillors made an agreement and voted for a new chair in a democratic manner. We should give proper respect to Mr. Chubirko, who did not “mine” anything (the previous head of the oblast council, Oleksiy Petrov, had been vacating his post for more than two months in 2021 as councillors could not gather in the chamber due to constant mining threats, author’s notes), and resigned with dignity. Therefore, we removed the old commitments that had emerged in the region’s politics before the war and empowered the oblast council members so that they could implement the goals and objectives established by the government.

– What are these goals and objectives exactly?

– Creating an environment in the region supportive of economic development without any obligations before economic groups or any kickbacks in relation to politicians.


– Concerning politics and Hungarians: what changes occurred in Zakarpattia with the sudden death of Mr Yosyp Borto, who had long been a representative of the Hungarian community?

– Yosyp Borto played a very important role in regional politics as the representative of the Hungarian community. He was a balanced, reasonable, moderate and sage politician. At the beginning of the war, there was a great threat of provocations and attempts to undermine the situation on ethnic grounds. It is to his great merit that it did not happen. He struggled to preserve and develop the Hungarian community, to safeguard its ethnic roots, and to ensure that children knew and passed on their native language. He served his community all his life. That is why it is a great loss for Zakarpattia and for Ukraine as a whole, as he gave no opportunity to undermine the situation.

– Who currently represents this minority in Zakarpattia?

– Judit Petei is now the acting head of the group in the oblast council. We communicate and understand each other. Currently, I see no powerful leaders of the Hungarian community who could be in charge of it, but it is a matter of their formation. In times of war, one never knows, some leaders may appear out of soldiers from the 128th Brigade or other units of the Armed Forces, from among ethnic Hungarians, of whom about 400 are now serving in the army.

Tetiana Kohutych, Uzhhorod

Photo: Zakarpattia Oblast Military Administration

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