Who's Afraid of Alexei Zakharov?

The Czech authorities seem powerless as a Russian businessman terrorizes his neighbor

The owner of the chateau in Dolní Olešnice, Alexei Zakharov, has been tyrannizing his neighbor, René Mandys, for four years now. Mandys, a professional gardener, refuses to sell his property to Zakharov and a month ago he was severely beaten by one of Zakharov's guards. Not long ago his glasshouse burnt down. On top of that, the gardener's customers are prevented by Zakharov's guards from entering the shop on Mandys's land. The fact that the local authorities are unable to protect an obvious victim or make an aggressive bully obey the law just adds to the drama.


'I was lucky I didn't lose my leg'
While walking in the forest by his garden one day, René Mandys had the feeling that someone was following him. Not long after that, he felt some kind of a sponge over his face. When he regained consciousness, his left leg was covered in blood and bruises and hurt intensely. Luckily, his wife heard him calling for help.


He then spent three months in a hospital. "I was lucky I didn't lose my leg," says Mandys. "My doctor told me there was hardly any circulation." Besides treating multiple breaks to Mandys's leg, the doctors also fought to save his eye. He also had a fractured kneecap and wrist. It has been eight months since the brutal attack and the gardener still has to use a walking stick.


Zakharov, the owner of the Russian company Ventus, which bought the little chateau four years, seems to want to buy more of the land surrounding his property. Mandys has been living here for 40 years. At first a real estate agent kept visiting Mandys, trying to convince him to sell the property. "He acted very confidently," says Mandys. "When I told him it wasn't for sale, he told me everything is for sale. He came about twenty times a year."


Soon Zakharov cut off the water Mandys was getting from the chateau grounds, forcing him to build his own well at a cost of 100,000 crowns. Zakharov then blocked the two paths leading to Mandys's garden -- one with barbed wire, the other with a gate manned by guards. Mandys's customers have to call him on the phone and he has to go and pick them up at the gate.


Whenever Mandys wakes up in the morning, he checks for new breakages or damage. One day it could be his flowers, the next it could be his tomatoes or his windows. One day he found his little tractor had been pushed down the hill and tipped upside-down. Less than a month ago, the entire glasshouse was set on fire and burnt down. The damage ran to thousands of crowns.


In the meantime, the police discovered who was behind the brutal attack -- a 19-year-old man employed by Ventus's security service. He has since been charged with the attack but hasn't been taken into custody and still works as a bodyguard, so Mandys meets him every day.


"We have no power to do anything," says Jan Pavelka, the head of the Trutnov police department. "He is hired by a private company and works on private property. We cannot prevent him doing that." Only a court ruling could resolve this unfortunate situation but the police lack evidence proving that the Russian businessman ordered the attack. And even if the culprit is sentenced and imprisoned, it won't resolve Mandys's uneasy situation. Meanwhile his property is being damaged and he is losing customers. "I don't like what is happening to Mr. Mandys, but our work takes time," says Pavelka, defending his department.


State impotence
To speed up the legal process, Mandys has hired a lawyer, who is trying to convince the court that the paths Zakharov has blocked should be accessible to the public. Jan Pavelka says this is a matter for the city council rather than his department.


Dolní Olešnice's mayor, Radoslava Cermanová, must deal with someone who totally refuses to follow the law and who isn't willing to communicate with the authorities. The city council sent Zakharov a letter asking him to make the paths accessible. He replied promptly, saying that he wouldn't. "What kind of a state is it that doesn't know how to protect its own citizens?" asks Mandys.


Mandys's lawyer is adamant they will win the case, but what if the Russian tycoon disobeys the law again? "They could be fined but 50,000 crowns is nothing for them," says the lawyer.


The police cannot patrol there all the time. "We have neither the manpower nor the means to do that," says Pavelka. "Mr. Mandys could hire a private security agency but then the security men will fight each other and that will be all. It is difficult to defend oneself against this Byzantine behavior. This Eastern mentality upsets so many people in the Czech Republic, we don't really know what to do about it."


"Only long-term systematic pressure can make the lawbreaker stop thinking he can't be punished," says David Slováček of the ombudsman's office.


Approaching Zakharov
Getting to Alexei Zakharov is virtually impossible. His guards won't let anyone through the gate. The man who watches over the other gate is evidently taken aback by our request to see Mr. Zakharov. He calls someone on his walkie-talkie. "If they were expected, we would have known about it," replies a voice. "Don't even fucking talk to them."


The Dolní Olešnice mayor wants an investigation into what is happening at the chateau, which is protected under the historical preservation system. The Trutnov authorities challenged the owner but his response was again negative. "It said that if anyone trespasses on his property, they will be very sorry, so we cancelled the investigation," says Mayor Cermanová. "They do everything without permission from the authorities. Even the gate was built without permission."


The construction authority nonetheless refuses to discuss the matter. "I am afraid I cannot talk to you about this," says Monika Grimová of the authority's office in the nearby town of Hostinné. "We aren't aware of anyone filing a complaint about illegal construction at the chateau, so we haven't carried out a check yet."


The chateau has become a nightmare for the village of Dolní Olešnice. "Nobody really knows what is happening here," says the mayor. "The rumor is that they are shooting porn films there." Someone like Zakharov, who refuses to obey the law, demoralizes the whole village, according to Cermanová. Local residents have themselves started ignoring historical preservation regulations. "They say, why do we have to when he doesn't have to?" she adds.


People in the village fear what the chateau owner might do next. "They say he has big plans for the whole valley," says Michaela Bláhová, who is building a house in the village. "When we started building, a representative of the chateau suddenly appeared and asked us if we were insured against fire" What he meant by that, she doesn't dare think.


Time will tell if the local police can find out who ordered the attack on René Mandys. The good news is that Mayor Cermanová hasn't backed down from the fight over the public paths. "We won't give up," she says bravely. "We will issue a binding decree and try to make the owner follow it."

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