Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich
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When rulers go bad: A peek inside 5 doomed dictators’ opulent lifestyles

Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich
Ordinary Ukrainians got their first look recently at the way despised ex-President Viktor Yanukovich really lived; not the modest house with the cramped office shown to a TV audience two years ago but an opulent compound outside Kiev with a golf course and a swimming pool. OK, he was a president, but a taxpayer-financed car collection, zoo and, uh, a “pirate” ship?

As thousands of curious citizens streamed through the gates of the “presidential” Mezhgorye residence -- initially guarded by anti-government protesters instead of police -- most seemed more interested in taking pictures than taking the furniture.

“I didn’t know this handsome, humble man I saw on television on a daily basis was a czar,” Alla Petrenko, a 59-year-old pensioner, told The Times as she stared through a French window of Yanukovich’s three-story home at a winding staircase with marble steps.

“We did not expect anything like this. It is really extensive and all done with our money, the money of ordinary people. It really is too much for one person,” Serhiy Remezovsky told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Yeah, one extremely well-connected person, apparently -- who allegedly acquired the land from the state, via front companies, according to The Times.

So what will happen to the expansive estate and grounds whose owner is now on the run? One visitor, awestruck but angry, urged that it all be turned into something “recreational for the children of Ukraine.”

Viktor, wherever you are, are you listening?

Above: Thousands of Ukrainians flocked to President Viktor Yanukovich’s abandoned residence near Kiev. (Los Angeles Times)
Iraq’s Saddam Hussein
He wasn’t a king, but he certainly liked to live like one.

The hubris of Saddam Hussein was astounding: During two decades of power, the Iraqi strongman built dozens (some say 80 to 100) marble mansions for himself, loyalists, relatives and “special friends.”

One elaborate palace -- named, modestly enough, “The Victory Over Iran” -- commemorated the bloody years-long conflict that ended after Iraq unleashed chemical weapons, and that left half a million soldiers dead.

After the dictator was toppled, Iraqis celebrated by looting and burning (and famously toppling some of the huge, Soviet-style statues paying homage to him).

Some sumptuous sites were heavily damaged, while others were commandeered as headquarters and housing by the occupying U.S.-led invasion forces. (Yes, sometimes the spoils really do go to the victors.)

Although, being Americans and all, we said we’d give it back when we left, and we did.

Industriously, some Iraqis then had plans: One villa became an upscale hotel. For about $200 a night, reported CNN, guests would be allowed to stay in a room where Hussein had slept. Local politicians in the town near Babylon talked up their plans for a resort; the “re-making” of Hussein-era structures could be “good for business.”

There were giddy news reports about international investments: The 50 or so Hussein-connected villas in one region, for example, “only need rehabilitation and a few other things to turn the whole area into a wonderful tourism site,” the head of Salahuddin province’s investment commission told Reuters television.

That was in 2010.

Maybe the redevelopment is a long-range plan. Maybe it’s just not well publicized in the West. Maybe most of those palaces really have been repurposed for the people. Maybe.

Above: U.S. Army soldiers walk outside Al Faw palace in the Victory Base Complex in Baghdad. (Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
Libya’s Moammar Kadafi
In Libya, the people are still waiting.

Over 40 long years, the erratic and increasingly ruthless Moammar Kadafi plundered his country and crushed his opponents. Enriching himself and his cohorts at the expense of his people, he built fabulous monuments to himself.

After his bloody end, cornered in a drain pipe in 2011, rebels and ordinary Libyans exploded.

Locals “repossessed” almost anything they could carry. As one rebel fighter told a Daily Mail interviewer in 2011: “Libyan children have no childhood; their lives are destroyed by Kadafi. But his children, his family, have everything.” Perhaps he was referring to the fantasy fairground complete with carousel and zoo inside the compound in the capital, Tripoli.

Libya is trying to get some back. Last year, the nation called on South Africa to help it recover millions in state funds, gold and diamonds it believes are stashed in that country.

And there’s the long-delayed promise to turn Kadafi’s feared Tripoli compound Bab Azizia -- bombed by NATO, vandalized, briefly a Friday market site, now a garbage dump -- into a vast entertainment complex for all the people.

Finally, last summer, Libya’s tourism minister again announced: “The work to clear away the rubble from the ruins of Bab Azizia, which was a black spot in Tripoli, has begun.”

OK, fingers crossed. Even the Libya Herald doesn’t see quick movement ahead on the promised green space, lake, museum, aquarium, cafe and cultural site: “Any development could, however, be stymied by private property claims” dating back to the original seizure of the land -- by Kadafi himself.

Above: Rebel fighters trample a bust of Moammar Kadafi inside the Bab Azizia compound.  (Sergey Ponomarev / Associated Press)
Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine ben Ali
For sale:

“A Lamborghini Gallardo LP 460, a Bentley Continental sports car, an armored Cadillac and a Maybach 62. Precious gold artifacts and silver jewelry. Rare artwork. Plus, treadmills and high-tech gadgets.”

Average Tunisians wandered the halls of Cleopatra Hotel in late 2012, browsing through 10,000 items demonstrating the impossible wealth accumulated by their longtime president, Zine el Abidine ben Ali, and 100 of his greedy relatives.

The ministry of finance was hoping the auction would return a few more millions to the state, payback from the man who had controlled the nation with a heavy hand for decades.

But, as one minister told the Telegraph: “To be clear, it’s not an oil well” of revenue; Ben Ali reportedly was worth billions of dollars.

Tunisians have vociferously faulted government incompetence in retaking public ownership of the banks and holding companies the strongman confiscated. Freezing his banking assets in Europe isn’t enough.

“I say poor Tunisia, it was controlled by a gang leader, not someone fit to lead a country,” railed new Youth and Sport Minister Tarek Dhyab at the recent auction: “This is only 20% to 30% of (Ben Ali’s) possessions.”

Let’s hope the new leaders are fit enough to find some recompense for the people.

Above: A home said to belong to the family of the late Adel Trabelsi, a relative of former Tunisian First Lady Leila Ben Ali.  (Los Angeles Times)
The Philippines’ Imelda Marcos
Say “Imelda Marcos,” and don’t we still think “shoes”?

Decades later, the image remains of those rows and rows of designer shoes -- left behind when she and her longtime husband, President Ferdinand Marcos, fled for Hawaii after years of greed and excess.

When the Marcos family was ousted in a “people power” revolution in 1986, Philippine investigators estimated their corruptly accumulated riches in the billions.

Corazon Aquino, the next president, vowed change; the government seized the Marcos’ assets and called for a commission to recover more.

So what did the people get back?

Well, the shoes, for one thing. In a museum.

Yup, much of the fancy footwear ended up in Marikina City, an area known for -- you guessed it -- shoe manufacturing. And then in recent years, it turned out that some of Imelda’s collection stored elsewhere had, yes, rotted from neglect. How ironic.

OK, what else? Well, that much-heralded Commission on Good Government did get back some New York real estate and millions from Swiss bank accounts.

It’s an uphill battle.

The Marcos family, you see, is back in the Philippines and back in power. Yes, the still-going-strong-in-her-80s Imelda is a congresswoman; her daughter Imee is a provincial governor; her son Bong Bong is a senator.

As the head of that good government commission told a BBC interviewer: “Filipinos are too forgetful -- and we forgive too easily.”

Forgive and forget? For lost billions of dollars? Really?

Above: Former First Lady Imelda Marcos points to some of her 200 shoes on display at the Shoe Museum in suburban Marikina City.  (Pat Rtoque / Associated Press)