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Ukrainian Central Election Commission Official Waits Out War Abroad, Investigation Finds

Ukrainian election official Yuriy Buhlak (file photo)
Ukrainian election official Yuriy Buhlak (file photo)

A Ukrainian Central Election Commission (TsVK) member has been working outside of Ukraine since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, the investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service has found, with evidence pointing to the U.S. state of Florida.

Yuriy Buhlak tendered his resignation after Schemes published a report on its investigation in August, according to documents submitted to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, but he remains in the job.

In March 2022, as invading Russian forces pushed toward Kyiv, the TsVK switched to a remote-work schedule and held meetings by videoconference.

In a telephone interview with Schemes shortly before the investigative unit’s report was published on August 10, Buhlak cited those developments to justify his own remote work from outside of Ukraine.

"The organization where I work has a very unique feature -- it was one of the first in the country to decide that it can work online," Buhlak said.

Whether in a provincial Ukrainian city or abroad , he said, "[W]hat difference does it make for an official if he has the right to work remotely?"

The TsVK's decision to go remote did not specifically authorize international locations for work. Under Article 30.4 of Ukraine's Central Election Commission law, "removal to a permanent place of residence outside of Ukraine” provides grounds for parliament to dismiss a TsVK member before his term ends.

Buhlak, 57, is a former parliament deputy from ex-President Petro Poroshenko’s party and former chief counsel for Poroshenko’s candy company, Roshen.

He flew from Kyiv to Istanbul on February 12, 2022, 12 days before Russia’s full-scale invasion, according to officials with access to information about Ukrainian border crossings. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information publicly.

Two days after Buhlak’s flight, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to all “representatives of the state,” including parliament deputies, to return home to help withstand the threat posed by tens of thousands of troops amassed at the country’s borders. For weeks, the United States had been publicly warning that Russia could invade Ukraine at any moment.

Buhlak told Schemes he believed that the appeal did not apply to him. “I am not an oligarch and I am not a [parliament] deputy,” he said.

At the time, he had a scheduled vacation until March 9, 2022, Schemes learned through a public-information request, but he never returned to Ukraine. He implied that this was for personal reasons , but did not elaborate.

Buhlak also asserted that his location did not prevent him from executing his duties as a TsVK member.

"I worked, I work, and I will work for my state,” he said. “There have been no violations [of the law] on my part or on the part of my organization. Everything that happened, everything was on legal grounds.”

Ukraine’s elections are suspended under martial law, but the CEC has continued to draft legislation, monitor political parties’ compliance with electoral law, oversee the voter registry, and attempt to safeguard voter data from Russian-occupied regions, said Olha Aivazovska, board chair at Opora, a Kyiv-based civil-rights group that monitors elections, among other things.​

Buhlak’s exact role in this work is unclear, but he has taken part in online TsVK meetings while outside of Ukraine. He last attended a virtual TsVK meeting in February.

On March 9, 2023, however, the TsVK ended its authorization of remote work. That same day, Buhlak went on paternity leave, which under Ukrainian law can potentially last until a child is three years old. While on leave, he remained in his position but did not receive a salary.

As of August, despite the law forbidding TsVK members to reside abroad, he had received a total of 1.5 million hryvnyas ($41,000) from the state budget in wages and stipends for the birth of a child and for health improvement.

Reached by phone several days after the Schemes report was published, Buhlak did not respond to a question about whether he had submitted his resignation.

However, documents provided on October 12, in response to a request for information from the parliamentary Committee on the Organization of State Power, Local Self-Government, Regional Development and Urban Planning, include what appears to be a handwritten resignation letter from Buhlak, dated August 11. Parliament received the letter on August 25.

Buhlak has refused to disclose his location to Schemes.

​Social Media Clues

Social media posts by his wife, Tetyana Rtyshcheva, indicate that, as of August, that location may have been Hollywood, Florida, a city on the Atlantic coast between Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

Developers tout Hollywood, a cruise-line hub, as an affordable alternative to Miami, with “a laid back, Key West vibe.”

Rtyshcheva’s LinkedIn profile, deleted after the publication of the Schemes report on August 10, identified Hollywood, Florida as her place of residence.​

Tetyana Rtyshcheva’s now-deleted LinkedIn profile
Tetyana Rtyshcheva’s now-deleted LinkedIn profile

At the time, both Buhlak and his wife were members of the Russian-language Telegram channel Barakholka Miami, or Flea Market Miami, an online market for Miami-area residents.

Yuriy Buhlak and his wife appear to have been members of a Russian-language Telegram channel for residents of the Miami-area.
Yuriy Buhlak and his wife appear to have been members of a Russian-language Telegram channel for residents of the Miami-area.

Rtyshcheva was also a member of the Facebook group Zhivyom v Maiami, govorim po-ruski -- We live in Miami, we speak Russian – and posted a photo of a bassinet for sale on the site on January 22, 2023.​

Using Google Earth, Schemes identified the building seen through the window in the photo’s background to The Wave, as a 551-condominium building in Hollywood with beachfront access.

The Wave complex in Holllywodd, Miami
The Wave complex in Holllywodd, Miami

Schemes has not found incontrovertible evidence that the couple lived at The Wave. Neither of their names appeared in a list of the complex’s registered property owners, a publicly available county record. Residences in the facility, though, can be rented for prices ranging from a few to several thousand dollars per month.

Records suggest Buhlak is not without private means to finance such costs: In his latest financial disclosure, from 2018, he ranked as a millionaire, with nearly $1.2 million in combined cash holdings of U.S. dollars, euros, and hryvnyas. He also owned residences in Kyiv and its outskirts, nearly 50 hectares of land near Kyiv, two Land Rover SUVs, and several gold and titanium watches.

If Buhlak is in the United States, however, the legal grounds for his prolonged stay are less clear. A baby born in the United States does not give the parents the automatic right to stay in the country.

Under the U.S. United for Ukraine program, Ukrainian war refugees with a financial sponsor can stay in the United States for two years from their date of entry if they had lived in Ukraine through February 11, 2022, “and were displaced by the invasion.” Buhlak left Ukraine one day after that date, but before Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24.

'Many Questions'

TsVK Chairman Oleh Didenko, when initially asked about Buhlak’s work abroad by Schemes in August, said that “there may be many questions” about Buhlak’s conduct, but that he could not do much because TsVK members are selected by parliament and are not his direct subordinates.

“I don't hire them and I don't fire them,” Didenko said. “It's probably not right for me to comment on the actions of my colleagues."

Under Article 30 of the Central Election Commission Law, a TsVK petition for a member’s dismissal must first go to the president , who has 30 days to decide whether or not to ask parliament to vote on the person’s removal from office.

As of October 13, Buhlak’s resignation letter was being considered by the Rada Committee on the Organization of State Power, Local Self-Government, Regional Development, and Urban Development.

Committee member Vitaliy Bezhin told Schemes he believes that the letter is currently "legally void" because Buhlak should have sent it to the president, not parliament. He said the committee will most likely redirect the letter to Zelenskiy’s office next week "to ensure that the legal procedure is followed."

Didenko said that, in order for permanent residence abroad to be considered grounds for termination of a TsVK member’s authority, it must be “officially confirmed by the relevant authorities -- in particular, this must be recorded by the State Migration Service and the State Border Service, by stamping the departure marks in the passport."

Didenko contended that he did not have the authority to independently initiate an official effort to seek this confirmation after the Schemes report was published in August.

In August, after the Schemes report was published, the party that nominated Buhlak to the TsVK in 2019, Poroshenko’s European Solidarity, pledged to introduce a parliamentary resolution for Buhlak’s dismissal. But the legislature’s website contains no record of such a resolution.

The leader of Zelenskiy’s dominant Servant of the People party, parliament deputy Olena Shulyak, posted on Facebook on August 11 that the parliamentary Committee on the Organization of State Power, Local Self-Government, Regional Development and Urban Planning, which she chairs, would summon Didenko to answer questions about Buhlak’s status.

Didenko told Schemes that two such meetings have already been canceled but that he did not know why. Bezhin said he had explained that it was due to a lack of a quorum of Rada deputies.

Written by Elizabeth Owen based on reporting by Serhiy Andrushko and Kyrylo Ovsyaniy of Schemes
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    Serhiy Andrushko

    Serhiy Andrushko is a journalist with Schemes (Skhemy), an investigative news project run by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in cooperation with UA: Pershy television.​ Andrushko began his career in television in 2000 as a journalist for STB, reporting on government corruption, before working for the National Radio Company of Ukraine. He was also a founder of Hromadske digital TV​. Andrushko was a winner of Ukraine's prestigious Teletriumph Awards in 2010.

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