KlESIV, Ukraine—A simmering conflict over amber mining, the economic lifeblood on Ukraine’s northwestern flank, boiled over into an armed skirmish here one recent afternoon. At the end of March, police officers loosed a few rounds from automatic rifles in a standoff with hundreds of illegal miners. The miners fought back with a hailstorm of rocks.
“The resources belong to the people, not the cops, oligarchs and politicians,” said Oleksandr Vasilyev, a 42-year-old regional lawmaker and amber miner.
Illegal amber mining has become a major test for the Ukrainian government, which is struggling to overcome entrenched corruption that sparked two revolutions in a decade while waging a nearly two-year-old war against Russia-backed separatists in the east.
The country’s trade in amber—fossilized resin from trees that died 40 million years ago and is prized by jewelers and artists—is worth as much as $500 million a year, officials say, but it generates little revenue for the cash-strapped government.
Companies that want to mine legally have to chase signatures from a legion of government officials, including the prime minister, a process that can take years. So swarms of miners without permits work on sprawling sites known as klondikes, using modified car motors to blast water into the ground and force amber to the surface. The work churns up the land and leaves behind a sandy, lunar landscape.
The miners accuse the police of colluding in a protection racket with prosecutors, politicians and gangsters. Kiev has beefed up law enforcement here with veterans of the conflict in the east, armed with automatic rifles and manning checkpoints at the entrance to a large amber-mining zone.
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