TIME Germany

German Privacy Laws Let Pilot ‘Hide’ His Illness From Employers

Germanwings had no way to check even the basic details of Andreas Lubitz's medical history

For most of this week, Germanwings airlines has struggled to answer questions about the mental health of one of its co-pilots, Andreas Lubitz, who stands accused of crashing a plane full of passengers into the French Alps on Tuesday, killing everyone on board. But a stubborn set of legal barriers has hindered their search for information: Germany’s data protection and privacy laws.

Carsten Spohr, the head of Lufthansa airlines, the parent company of Germanwings, was not even able to answer basic questions about the co-pilot’s medical history during a press conference held on Thursday. He could not say, for instance, whether Lubitz had taken a break from his flight training due to illness. “In the event that there was a medical reason for the interruption of the training, medical confidentiality in Germany applies to that, even after death,” Spohr explained. “The prosecution can look into the relevant documents, but we as a company cannot.”

That is because privacy protections in Germany are among the most stringent in the world. Under their provisions, an airline has to rely on the truthfulness of its pilots in learning about their medical histories, and it has no legal means of checking the information the pilots provide.

“There is no general rule that obliges doctors of pilots to report medical conditions relevant to their ability to fly to the authorities,” says Ulrich Wuermeling, a Frankfurt-based lawyer who works on privacy law. On the contrary, a German doctor who reports such information could face criminal charges for violating his patients’ privacy.

The flaws in that system came into focus on Friday, when prosecutors accused the Germanwings co-pilot of hiding his mental illness from his employers. In his home in the city of Dusseldorf, prosecutors claim to have found a sick note excusing Lubitz from work on the day of the catastrophe. But the note had been torn up.

The identity of the doctor who wrote the note is still unclear. But under German law, only Lubitz – and not his doctor – would have had the legal right to disclose the details of his health to his employers at Germanwings.

“In practice, if you are sick and your doctor finds you unfit for work, he gives you an illness-based work exemption,” says Christian Runte, a German lawyer and expert on data protection. “It doesn’t say what the illness is. It just says you are unfit for work. And it is up to the patient whether they want to tell that to the employer or not.”

Based on the German prosecutors’ findings so far, it seems Lubitz decided not to use the work exemption on the day of the disaster and instead took his seat inside the cockpit of Germanwings Flight 9525. French prosecutors investigating the crash of that plane have since accused him of deliberately crashing the aircraft after the flight captain left him alone at the controls.

The incident has raised some troubling questions about lack of communication between Lubitz’s doctors and his employers at Germanwings. On Friday, the university clinic in Dusseldorf, where Lubitz was receiving care for an undisclosed condition, denied media reports that he was being treated for depression. But in describing their “preliminary assessment” of the evidence, the city’s prosecutor said earlier in the day that Lubitz “hid his illness from his employer and colleagues.”

In order to provide Germanwings with any details about Lubitz’s mental health, his doctors would likely have needed his express permission. “Therefore the doctor would not be in a position to inform the company directly even if he knows that this person is a pilot,” says Wuermeling, the lawyer in Frankfurt.

In some rare cases, doctors have been able to invoke the interests of public safety in trying to circumvent German privacy law. The Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt, for instance, even ruled in 1999 that a doctor was legally obligated to breach a patient’s confidentiality, because that patient refused to inform close relatives that he was HIV-positive.

But as a rule, when the German legal system is compared to those in the U.S. and other European states, Germany gives more weight to personal privacy than to public safety, legal experts say. Employers are even restricted in checking the criminal records of the people they are seeking to hire, as under German law, the employer must usually rely on the applicants themselves to provide such information voluntarily.

Part of the reason for this approach to privacy is rooted in Germany history. “In the end it probably goes back to the Nazi regime,” says Wuermeling. “The Nazis basically justified enormous infiltration into personal privacy with national security reasons.”

In communist East Germany, the secret police force known as the Stasi also practiced wholesale surveillance of its citizens. So as early as 1971, democratic West Germany enacted strict privacy protections, well before any such guidelines became the norm in other parts of Europe. The reunification of Germany in 1990 extended those protections to all German citizens.

In the wake of Tuesday’s air disaster, however, Germany may have to reconsider the way it balances privacy against security, at least in allowing airlines the ability to screen their pilots more thoroughly. Even a week ago, data protection authorities in Germany would likely have objected to a request from Germanwings asking doctors to reveal the details of their pilots’ mental health, says Runte. “But if you ask the same question today, I think the answer could be different.”

TIME

German Prosecutors Say Pilot ‘Hid’ Illness Before Crash

"Apparently he had a burnout, a depression," German media report

He left no suicide note behind. But when police raided the home of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot accused of purposely crashing Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps on Tuesday, the officers did find evidence that he suffered from a mental illness, which he may have been hiding from his employers before allegedly taking the lives of 149 passengers and crew along with his own life.

Papers found at his home “support the current preliminary assessment that the deceased hid his illness from his employer and colleagues,” German prosecutors from the city of Düsseldorf said in a statement on Friday. Among the evidence found at Lubitz apartment was a sick note for the day of the crash that had been torn up, the statement said. Seized medical documents suggest “an existing illness and appropriate medical treatment.”

The Wall Street Journal also reported on Friday, citing a source close to the investigation, that Lubitz was being treated for depression by a psychiatrist who had excused him from work on the day of the crash.

German authorities also confirmed on Friday that Lubitz’s medical certificate with the federal aviation agency was marked with the code “SIC,” indicating that he was obligated to undergo regular medical check-ups. A spokesman for the agency could not say whether the illness was physical or psychological in nature, as that information remains confidential, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Police have denied earlier reports that any significant clue had yet been found as to the co-pilot’s reasoning. “The items need to be evaluated to determine whether they can give any indication of a possible motive,” police spokesman Markus Niesczery told the New York Times. Another police spokesman, Marcel Fiebig, told France’s AFP news agency that investigators had found no “smoking gun” at the co-pilot’s home.

Part of the focus of the investigation has turned to a break Lubitz took in his pilot’s training six years ago, possibly for reasons of mental illness or psychological fatigue. During a press conference on Thursday, the head of Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, said that such a hiatus is not unusual for pilots in training. “He took a several months break for reasons I do not know,” said the chief executive of Lufthansa, Carsten Spohr. “Then he had to do the test again,” he added.

After he completed part of his training in Phoenix, Arizona, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration gave Lubitz a third-class medical certificate, the Associated Press reported. That document requires a pilot to demonstrate that he has no signs of psychosis, bipolar disorder and personality disorder “that is severe enough to have repeatedly manifested itself by overt acts.”

Early in his pilot’s training, Lubitz underwent psychiatric treatment for a total of 18 months, Germany’s Bild newspaper reported on Friday. Citing internal Lufthansa documents and sources, the paper claimed that the co-pilot was briefly deemed “unable to fly” while training in Phoenix, and that he had recently been suffering from a relationship crisis with his girlfriend.

At the press conference on Thursday, the Lufthansa chief said that Lubitz had passed all of the tests, including physical and psychological examinations, and was deemed fit to fly as a co-pilot for Germanwings in 2013. “He passed not only every medical test but every flight test,” Spohr said. “He was 100% flightworthy, without a single restriction.”

But acquaintances have told reporters since the crash that Lubitz had suffered from bouts of depression during his training. “Apparently he had a burnout, a depression,” the mother of Lubitz’ friend from school told Germany’s FAZ newspaper on Thursday, declining to give her name.

Other friends of the pilot, however, insisted that Lubitz seemed perfectly normal though at times somewhat quiet. “He was happy he had the job with Germanwings and he was doing well,” said Peter Ruecker, a friend from the local flying club in Lubitz’s hometown of Montabaur, in western Germany. “He gave off a good feeling.”

TIME Aviation

Germanwings Faces Legal Fallout from Plane Crash

And an expert tells TIME that new revelations could make matters worse for the airline

In the minutes before their plane slammed into a mountainside in the French Alps this week, many of the passengers on Germanwings Flight 9525 witnessed a terrifying scene at the front of the aircraft. The captain of the plane found himself locked out of the cockpit by his co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, as the plane lost altitude at alarming speeds, officials said Thursday. After banging on the door and beseeching Lubitz to open it, the captain tried to break through its armor plating. Until the final moments, the screams of the passengers could be heard on the flight recorder later found at the crash site, French prosecutor Brice Robin said.

Under the aviation laws that apply in this case, these final moments of terror could be part of the airline’s liability, said Peter Urwantschky, a leading German aviation lawyer who has represented the victims of commercial airplane crashes. “What you could have here is pre-death pain and suffering,” he said. “If a court concludes that the passengers knew what would happen, you would have to assess the fear of death in those final minutes.”

The broader question of liability for the crash, he added, seems clear in this case. “If you have a pilot with intent to bring down this plane, then you can forget about the liability limit,” he said. “You can say there is no limitation of liability.”

Such limitations could apply if the causes of a crash are outside the control of the airline and its staff—for instance, if a missile strikes the plane, like it did with Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over Ukraine last year. But such cases are extremely rare. Typically, the laws enshrined in the Montreal Convention, the international treaty that governs compensation for the victims of an air disaster, places the responsibility for an accident with the airline. That tends to encourage airlines to settle such claims out of court.

But because most of the claims in the case of the Germanwings plane would fall under the jurisdiction of German courts, the compensation available to the families would “not be very generous,” Urwantschky said. Unless a family can prove that it lost its breadwinner in the disaster, a claim for moral damages in Germany could be expected to bring about $20,000 to $40,000, far less than a similar claim in the United States, he said.

Speaking at a news briefing on Thursday in Frankfurt, the chief executives of Germanwings and its parent company, Lufthansa, declined to discuss issues of liability payments at this stage in the investigation.

Read next: Germanwings Plane Crash: We Could Be Doing Much More To Prevent Pilot Suicide

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TIME Aviation

This Is the Germanwings Pilot Accused of Crashing the Plane

Investigators say co-pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally locked the pilot out of the cockpit and crashed the packed airliner into the Alps

Andreas Lubitz dreamed of flying since childhood. As a teenager in the Rheinland-Pfalz region of Germany, he joined a local flying club, first honing his skills on a glider plane and working his way up to become a co-pilot on an Airbus A320, flying for one of his country’s best-reputed carriers, Germanwings. None of his colleagues or fellow flying enthusiasts seemed to have any inkling that he could end his own life by slamming his plane into the side of a mountain in France on Tuesday, March 24, senselessly taking the lives of 149 passengers and crew members with him.

But that is the version of events that French investigators offered during a press conference on Thursday. The 28-year-old had a “deliberate desire to destroy this plane,” said prosecutor Brice Robin during a briefing in Paris. When the experienced pilot of the plane briefly left Lubitz alone in the cabin, “he voluntarily refused to open the door of the cockpit to the pilot and voluntarily began the descent of the plane,” Robin said.

The result was one of the worst tragedies in the history of European aviation, one that raises many questions about the ability of even the best airlines and flight training schools to assess the mental health of their commercial pilots.

Briefing reporters on Thursday in Frankfurt, the head of Germanwings’ parent company, Lufthansa, said he had complete faith in the competence of the company’s pilots even after this disaster. “No system in the world could prevent an event like this,” said Carsten Spohr, the chief executive of Lufthansa.

Lubitz had undergone the same rigorous tests, including physical and psychological examinations, as the rest of Lufthansa’s pilots, and he had been working as a co-pilot for Germanwings since 2013, Spohr said, with 630 hours of experience flying the A320. “He passed not only every medical test but every flight test,” he added. “He was 100% flightworthy, without a single restriction.”

According to friends of Lubitz who spoke to the media on Thursday, he was a “rather quiet” young man but gave off no signs of being depressed, let alone suicidal.

“He was happy he had the job with Germanwings and he was doing well,” a member of his local glider club, Peter Ruecker, told the Associated Press. “He gave off a good feeling.”

Before it emerged that the crash may have been intentional, the glider club released a statement on its website mourning Lubitz. “Andreas became a member of the association as a teenager, he wanted to realize his dream of flying,” the statement said. “He was able to fulfill his dream, the dream he has now so dearly paid for with his life.”

Tragically, however, the fulfillment of his dream may also have cost 149 innocent people their lives. Asked on Thursday whether Lufthansa considered the cause of the crash to be suicide, its chief executive suggested that this was too soft a word. “When one man takes 149 lives along with his own, there is word for that other than suicide,” he said.

The co-pilot’s motives, however, remain unclear. Though he reportedly had an apartment in the city of Düsseldorf, he spent much of his time at his parents’ home in the small German town of Montabaur, whose population is about 12,000. His profile on Facebook suggests innocuous tastes in the outdoors and electronic music; his photo on the sight shows him sitting in view of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

As the media descended on his hometown on Thursday, police established a presence around his parents’ house, while his friends expressed grief and incredulity over the his alleged decision to kill so many innocent people. “He was just another boy like so many others here,” Ruecker, his friend from the flying club, told the Reuters news agency. “Knowing Andreas, this is just inconceivable for me.”

TIME Aviation

Why the Germanwings Plane Crash Is So Surprising

Safety technicians from Germany's well-reputed carrier inspected the doomed Airbus jet only one day before it crashed

It was one of the safest types of aircraft in operation today, owned by an airline with one of the world’s best safety records. Yet the flight of an Airbus A320 from Spain to Germany still ended in tragedy on Tuesday when it began to plummet rapidly over the French Alps, crashing into mountainous terrain about two kilometers above sea level. All 150 people onboard, including six crew members, are feared dead in the disaster, which could come as a shock to anyone who tries to steer clear of airlines with a history of accidents.

Germanwings was not one of those. Since it was created in 2002, the Cologne-based airline has never had a major air disaster. Its parent company, the leading German carrier Lufthansa, has one of the best safety records in the world, taking 12th place in a ranking of 60 of its international peers in the latest list compiled by the Hamburg-based Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre (JACDEC). The last time Lufthansa had a fatal accident was in 1993, when one of its aircraft overshot the runway on a flight from Frankfurt to Warsaw, killing two people on board as the plane caught fire.

The only potential detail of concern to emerge from the reports of Tuesday’s disaster was the age of the ill-fated plane – 24 years – approaching the end of the A320’s usual lifespan of 25-30 years but still within the bounds of international safety regulations.

Over the past year, the sharp decline in the price of oil may has encouraged some global carriers to maintain and fly older planes instead of buying newer models that use less fuel, according to the International Bureau of Aviation, a consultancy based in the U.K. “The lower fuel price may well prove to influence increased maintenance demand if airlines now consider using their older, less fuel efficient aircraft for longer,” the Bureau’s President Phil Seymour said in an analysis of the market last month.

But that would not in itself impact the safety of the A320, which is one of the most widely used and dependable aircraft produced by Airbus. “The maintenance standards inside Lufthansa group are known world-wide as very high,” the head of Germanwings Thomas Winkelmann told reporters on Tuesday. “As long as you have your maintenance schedule in place and follow all the procedures together with the manufacturer, there is absolutely no issue with the age of an airplane.” Just the day before it crashed, the plane was checked out by Lufthansa safety inspectors, Winkelmann said, and the pilot had ten years of experience and more than 6,000 flight hours behind him.

“The A320 has a fantastic safety record,” Seymour of the International Bureau of Aviation said after the crash on Tuesday. “There have been a couple of incidents, but generally speaking, they’re safer than most aircraft out there now.”

 

That is part of the reason this latest catastrophe has stunned so many. The total number of fatalities in commercial air transport incidents jumped nearly fourfold last year compared to 2013, making it the second deadliest year for air travel in the past decade. But about half of all those fatalities came from the Asia-Pacific region, including the two planes lost by Malaysia Airlines in 2014, according to JACDEC. None of the carriers affected by last year’s string of tragedies was German.

After Tuesday’s crash, however, doubts are likely to emerge about country’s reputation for excellence in transport safety and technological expertise. “We are going through hard hours,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who plans to travel to the crash site on Wednesday.

Rescue teams on the ground have already found one of the plane’s black box recorders, and though it was damaged it still provides hope of clarity on the causes of Tuesday’s disaster. But with an incident like this in the heart of Europe, it is hard to imagine an explanation that would ease the concerns of the travelers and airliners who do their best to fly only the safest planes.

Read next: Why Airlines Don’t Talk About Safety In Their Ads

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TIME russia

Putin’s Confessions on Crimea Expose Kremlin Media

Round table discussion marks 1st anniversary of reunification of Crimea with Russia
Vyacheslav Prokofyev—Itar-Tass/Corbis Dmitri Kiselyov, who runs the Kremlin’s media conglomerate, Rossiya Segodnya, attends a round table discussion dedicated to the first anniversary of the reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation at Moscow's President Hotel, March 19, 2015.

Even as the Russian President admits deploying troops in Crimea, his chief propagandists, speaking to TIME, continue to deny it

It was an awkward test for many Russian journalists. Last spring, their President tried to mislead them—and the rest of the world—by denying that he had sent troops to conquer Crimea. Even as they witnessed Russian forces sweeping that Ukrainian peninsula, reporters on the Kremlin’s payroll were obliged to go along with Vladimir Putin’s claims.

But a year later, the President came clean. In a documentary aired last weekend, he admitted ordering his troops to seize Crimea weeks before it was annexed into Russia on March 18, 2014.

“I told all my colleagues, there were four of them, that the situation in Ukraine has forced us to start working on returning Crimea to Russia,” Putin says in the film, recounting a late-night meeting with his security chiefs in late February 2014. “We can’t leave that territory and the people who live there at the mercy of fate.”

The confession didn’t leave any good options for Russian newsmen like Dmitri Kiselyov, who runs the Kremlin’s media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya and hosts a prime-time news and analysis show on state TV. He could either admit to misleading viewers last year and, in effect, blame Putin for the deception, or he could deny that any deception had occurred.

 

Confronted this week with the dilemma, Kiselyov stuck to denials.

“Vladimir Putin never changed his position,” he told TIME on Wednesday at the headquarters of his media corporation in Moscow. “Look, he never said that our troops aren’t there, because we always had a base there,” Kiselyov said, referring to the Russian naval base in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Pressed on the identity of the troops who had surrounded and in some cases besieged Ukrainian military bases in Crimea last March, Kiselyov said: “The troops surrounding them were local self-defense forces, but not Russian troops.”

It was an odd position to take. Although critics of the Kremlin have often accused Russian state media of distorting facts and misleading viewers, this is the first time that such a momentous distortion has been so clearly and demonstrably false, contradicting not only the version of events presented in most independent media but also out of sync with Putin’s own statements.

In early March 2014, Putin was asked during a press conference to identify the troops who were fanning out across Crimea, driving Russian military vehicles but wearing no identifying markers on their uniforms. “Why don’t you take a look at the post-Soviet states,” Putin answered, according to a transcript on the Kremlin website. “There are many uniforms there that are similar. You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.” The journalist persisted: Were they Russian soldiers or not? Those were local self-defense units,” Putin said.

Compare that line to his confession in the documentary—which was titled, Crimea: Homeward Bound—and it is clear that Putin did change his position. Not only does the President admit in the film to ordering his security forces to take control of Crimea last spring, but he also claims to have overseen the operation personally. “Our advantage was that I was personally dealing with it,” he says.

This came on top of Putin’s admission last April, a month after the annexation, that “Russian servicemen did back the Crimean self-defense forces,” and that in doing so, they acted in “a civil but a decisive and professional manner.” Moreover, the dramatic re-enactments of the seizure of Crimea shown in the documentary this month clearly depict the invading troops as Russian military, not local self-defense units.

Yet Kiselyov still continues to deny that Russian troops ever intervened in Crimea. “They were near by, at the base,” he tells TIME. “If there had been a conflict there, they would have intervened. But they did not intervene.”

He is not the only senior figure in the Kremlin’s media empire to take this peculiar stance. Last fall, TIME put a similar round of questions to Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT, the state-funded television network that broadcasts around the world in English, Spanish and Arabic. She also stuck to the claims that Putin made in March of last year about the Russian troops in Crimea being local self-defense forces. Asked about the apparent change in Putin’s story after that, she replied, “He never said that we fooled you… He did not admit that earlier statements were untrue.”

Since the annexation of Crimea, a similar debate has been raging over the role that Russian troops have played in the war in eastern Ukraine, where more than 6,000 people have been killed amid fighting between Ukrainian military forces and Russia’s proxy militias. Even as Russian and foreign journalists have documented the presence of Russian military hardware and servicemen on those battlefields, Putin has repeatedly denied sending any of his forces to fight alongside Ukrainian separatists, which the Kremlin has also referred to as local self-defense forces.

Asked on Wednesday whether Putin might be similarly deceiving the public on this question, just as he did last year with the invasion of Crimea, Kiselyov replied that he was “100% sure” that there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. And what if a year from now the President admits in another documentary that he did send his forces to fight in those regions? “So far that hasn’t happened,” Kiselyov said. But if it does, Russians shouldn’t expect their fourth estate to admit to spreading falsehoods. It is apparently easier to stick to their denials.

TIME Ukraine

Theft of Ukraine’s ‘Golden Loaf’ Reflects the Revolution’s Failings

A visitor of the National Art Museum of Ukraine in Kiev wears a decoration depicting the so called "Golden loaf" found in the residence of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych residence, during the opening of an exhibition on April 25, 2014.
Sergei Supinsky—AFP/Getty Images A visitor of the National Art Museum of Ukraine in Kiev wears a decoration depicting the so called "Golden loaf" found in the residence of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych residence, during the opening of an exhibition on April 25, 2014.

The disappearance of a symbol of the revolution comes as President Poroshenko's approval rating crumbles

When revolutionaries stormed the mansion of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych one year ago, a few of them ran up the winding staircase to the master bathroom, expecting to find the golden toilet that was rumored to be in the house. Instead, as they rifled through the gaudy rooms that day, they found something better, or at least more bizarre: a golden loaf of bread, weighing about two kilograms, that a prominent businessman had given the President as a gift in an elaborate wooden box.

Of all the pieces of cartoonish opulence found on the palace grounds – including a stuffed lion, a golf course, a private zoo and a floating restaurant in the shape of a pirate ship – the golden loaf became the most famous token of the corruption that fueled the rebellion. In the months that followed, key chains and refrigerator magnets of the loaf were sold on Kiev’s Independent Square as mementoes of the revolution and its promise to make politicians stop stealing from the people. But on Tuesday, March 17, its symbolism came full circle when Ukraine’s new government announced that the loaf had itself been stolen.

“It turns out that the location of the famous golden loaf is unknown,” said Dmitri Dobrodomov, chairman of the committee in charge of combating corruption in Ukraine’s post-revolutionary parliament. “In essence, it was stolen. The question is: by whom?” said the lawmaker, an ally of Ukraine’s new President Petro Poroshenko.

It was another embarrassing setback for Poroshenko’s government, which has struggled to keep the pledges of the revolution over the past year as Ukraine fights a war with Russia’s proxy militias in its eastern regions. “With one hand we’re firing back at the aggressor, with the other we’re speeding up reforms,” Poroshenko said in a speech last month, on the one-year anniversary of the uprising that brought him to power. “Once we stop the war,” Poroshenko assured the nation, “it’ll just take a few years before everyone notices how Ukraine is changing.”

But Ukrainians are getting impatient. At the start of February, Poroshenko’s approval ratings dropped below 50% for the first time since he took office in June, according to a nationwide poll conducted by the Research & Branding Group, a leading Ukrainian pollster. More alarming for his government, nearly half of respondents in the survey (46%) said the revolution had failed to meet its goals of uprooting corruption. One in five said they were prepared to take part in another uprising to finish the work of the last one. “This is an incredibly huge number,” says Evgeny Kopatko, the director of the polling agency. “It shows that the protest potential is still extremely high. People just don’t see the changes that they were expecting.”

That is especially true when it comes to graft. More than a year since the uprising, not one senior official from the Yanukovych government has stood trial for corruption. The revolution has failed to improve Ukraine’s standing in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index released in December; out of 175 countries, Ukraine stood in 142nd place, still the most corrupt in Europe and still lagging behind Russia, which took the 136th slot.

Poroshenko’s reluctance to crack down on Ukraine’s political elites is easily understood. During the past year of war in Ukraine, he has often relied on the wealth and influence of the country’s oligarchs, who have helped bankroll the military forces that are fighting against separatist rebels along the border with Russia. Antagonizing these oligarchs with a far-reaching crackdown on corruption could risk a mutiny among them, which is the last thing Poroshenko needs.

“There is a great disappointment in this sense,” says Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the Institute of World Policy, a Kiev-based think tank. “People see that the war is being used as an excuse to delay various reforms,” she says. “And it occurs to people that [the government] may even be interested in having this conflict to delay the war against corruption.”

But as the fighting eases and the ceasefire takes hold in eastern Ukraine, Poroshenko will have to turn his focus back toward the promises of the uprising he helped to lead. Yanukovych’s abandoned palace might be a place to start. Although the new government had planned to turn it into a “museum of corruption,” the property has instead become a monument to the revolution’s unfinished business. “It’s all still up in the air,” says Petro Oleynik, the former revolutionary who has been living at the palace for more than a year, serving as a kind of unofficial groundskeeper. “Other than Yanukovych this place doesn’t belong to anyone, because no one has come here to claim it. Only the marauders still come here and steal things.”

In late February, when TIME visited the property, the golden loaf was still prominently displayed in a window, perched alongside a mocking effigy of Yanukovych that sat on the sill. Above it was a sign offering tours of the mansion for 200 hryvnia per person, about $7 at the current exchange rate but prohibitively expensive for most Ukrainians. Oleynik said the profit from these tours goes toward maintaining the house, as does the money from the other businesses he is running on the property, such as the sale of milk from Yanukovych’s cows.

But when TIME called him to inquire about the loaf on Tuesday, Oleynik replied that he was busy and hung up the phone. The theft, in any case, would likely not have surprised him. On a recent Saturday, he showed a French family around the property, pointing at various items in the gilded bathrooms, private cinema and karaoke room and stating their supposed prices. Lebanese cedar for the ceiling: $12 million. A shiny trash can near the sink: $700. “It’s another world,” said one of the awestruck tourists.

Many of the smaller items, Oleynik explained, had already been stolen as souvenirs, a practice he seemed to feel was unavoidable. “Sometimes it’s better to look the other way even when someone is stealing,” he said, “because if you anger them, they’ll return and start breaking things.”

TIME russia

Kremlin Offers No Proof of Putin’s Health a Week Into His Absence

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulates all Russian women on International Women's Day
Michael Klimentyev—Ria Novosti/EPA Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with mothers whose children achieved outstanding results in art, science, sport and were also given the ranks of Heroes of Russia in Moscow on March 8, 2015.

The Russian President's spokesman brushes off reports of Putin's disappearance as "spring fever" afflicting the curious public

It’s been more than a week since Vladimir Putin last appeared in public, and his press service is struggling to make Russians believe that their President is alive and well.

On Friday, the Kremlin website published another batch of photos of Putin at a one-on-one meeting at his office, this time with the chairman of Russia’s Supreme Court. But it did not serve as convincing proof of his whereabouts. The last time the presidential website published such photos, on March 11, they turned out to be from a meeting with a regional governor that was held a week earlier.

That ruse only fueled concerns over Putin’s apparent disappearance. “No need to worry, everything is all right,” the President’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov insisted on Thursday. “His handshake is so strong he breaks hands with it,” Peskov added in an interview with a Moscow radio station, adding that his boss was “absolutely healthy.”

But when he still failed to appear in public the next day, the question became critical: Where is he? Last week he cancelled a planned trip to Kazakhstan, and a government source from that country then told the Reuters news agency: “It looks like he has fallen ill.” That would seem like a normal enough thing for the Kremlin to admit, as it did in 2012 when Putin suffered a back injury that made him cancel some meetings and foreign trips.

But it was still seen as a blow to the image of invincibility that Putin tries hard to project, and in the conspiracy crazed world of Moscow politics, the ongoing reports of his ill-health have also driven rumors of a power struggle among Kremlin clans.

The presidential press service has tried to laugh off the speculation, saying that claims of Putin’s disappearance are the result of “spring fever” among Moscow’s chattering classes.

“When the sun comes up in spring, and as soon as spring is in the air, then the fever begins,” Peskov told the state news agency Tass. “We are calm on this fever, and respond to the questions with patience.”

But unless Peskov can offer some proof of Putin’s whereabouts, the public’s patience – and its trust – will continue to expire.

READ MORE: Kremlin Critics Fear Political ‘Hit List’ as Putin Drops Out of Sight

TIME russia

Kremlin Critics Fear Political ‘Hit List’ as Putin Drops Out of Sight

A portrait of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov and flowers are pictured at the site where he was killed on Feb. 27, 2015 with St. Basil's Cathedral seen in the background, at the Great Moskvoretsky Bridge in central Moscow on March 6, 2015.
Maxim Shemetov—Reuters A portrait of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov and flowers are pictured at the site where he was killed on Feb. 27, 2015 with St. Basil's Cathedral seen in the background, at the Great Moskvoretsky Bridge in central Moscow on March 6, 2015.

Rumors of a power struggle among Kremlin clans have fueled tensions since the murder of dissident Boris Nemtsov in Moscow

Early in the morning on March 9, Alexei Venediktov, one of Russia’s most prominent journalists, gathered a backpack full of his belongings, told his son to do the same and—fearing for their lives—both of them headed to a Moscow airport to catch a flight to Israel. It was not a bout of paranoia. Venediktov’s close friend of many years, the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, had been gunned down near the Kremlin the previous week, and the subsequent twists in the investigation suggested that Venediktov could be next.

“We knew that there was a hit list,” he tells TIME a few days later, having returned to the capital and resumed working as editor of the radio station Echo of Moscow, one of the last broadcast news outlets where Russians can still hear direct criticism of President Vladimir Putin. Stout and good-humored, with an unruly crown of curly white hair, Venediktov, 59, would not reveal exactly who warned him that he was in danger. (There is, perhaps, some clue in the fact that he sits on the Interior Ministry’s Social Council, an advisory body to the national police.) But it would not take a genius in any case to see the clouds gathering above him.

In the past two weeks, various warnings and threats to opposition figures have suggested that Nemtsov’s murder could be just the beginning of a broader campaign of political terror. Reports of a hit list of dissidents have been circulating in the Russian press for days. Along with rumors of an unfolding struggle among security factions within the Kremlin, these events have created an atmosphere of fear unlike any the Russian capital has seen in years, at least since Putin’s re-election in 2012 inaugurated a broad crackdown on dissent. The President, for his part, has not helped calm the situation by disappearing from public view since March 5, an extremely long period for him to go missing even in the best of times.

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And these have hardly been the best of times for Russian opposition figures, and for Venediktov in particular, as the confounding investigation into Nemtsov’s killing unfolds. On March 8, authorities charged two men from the predominantly Muslim region of Chechnya with carrying out the murder, allegedly to punish Nemtsov for a verbal slight against Islam. Not only did this shock the victim’s allies—Nemtsov had never been known to disparage religion—but it set a frightening precedent. Prominent critics of Putin and the Kremlin began to wonder who else among them could be attacked for supposedly offending Muslims.

The most obvious target would be Venediktov. In early January, he was branded an enemy of Islam by the Kremlin’s loyal governor in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who styles himself as the guardian of Muslims in Russia and around the world. “Venediktov has turned the Echo of Moscow into the main anti-Islamic mouthpiece,” Kadyrov wrote on Jan. 9. “I am firmly convinced that the authorities must call the radio [station] to order,” he wrote on his Instagram account. “Otherwise people will be found who will make Venediktov answer for it.”

Such threats from high places were nothing new to Venediktov. In early 2012, Putin himself blew up at the editor during an official dinner, accusing him of “pouring diarrhea on me from morning till night” on his radio programs. Though he says he and Putin talked through those tensions later, Venediktov had by then gotten used to going around with bodyguards, which he had hired after a series of threats from pro-Kremlin activists made him fear for his family. On one occasion in 2009, someone left a log outside the door of his apartment with an ax sticking out of it.

“But those were just hooligans,” he says in his office at the radio station, looking pale from exhaustion after his precautionary getaway in Israel. “What we’re seeing now is totally new, it’s demonstrative.” The people who killed Nemtsov, he says, seem to have been working from a list of “enemies of the people” slated for extermination. Apart from him and Nemtsov, he says the list included Putin’s one-time political nemesis, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon who spent 10 years in prison before being released in 2013 and going into exile in Switzerland. (In an apparent warning to Khodorkovsky, his spokeswoman in Moscow, Kulle Pispanen, found a funeral wreath outside the door of her apartment when she returned home on March 11.)

But Venediktov still refuses to believe that Putin has explicitly ordered some kind of campaign to terrorize his critics. “This is not an errand for a czar,” he says. “For him to shut down our radio station is nothing, it’s as easy as spitting for him. Who am I to Putin? Who is Nemtsov?”

Realistically, neither of them could pose any real threat to a leader with near total control of the mass media in Russia and an approval rating upwards of 80%. But ever since last spring, when Putin told a gathering of top officials and lawmakers that there were “national traitors” in their midst, many of the leading figures in the opposition have felt like a bull’s-eye had been placed on their backs.

“If Putin makes a decision to physically eliminate me, it will not be easy for me to survive, not even in Europe,” Khodorkovsky told TIME in an interview this past fall in Berlin. “In his inner circle, there are people who are more and more inclined to the use of force, and we see that they carry out such operations.”

Amid the climate of paranoia that has descended on Moscow’s political class, the common wisdom among analysts and dissidents is that various factions in Putin’s circle have gone to war, competing with each other to prove that they are the most loyal, the most efficient in fulfilling the President’s implicit and explicit instructions with regards to “national traitors.”

An earlier phase of this struggle seemed clear from the raft of legislation introduced over the past year, as lawmakers tried to outdo each other with ever more severe restrictions on the media, the Internet and the ability of citizens to organize protests and finance social activism. But now, Venediktov says, various branches of Russia’s security forces have likewise started openly competing for Putin’s attention. As a result, “the state has lost its monopoly on the use of violence, which is an extremely dangerous state of affairs.”

MORE Boris Nemtsov and Russia’s Breaking Point

The security forces in Chechnya have of late been trying to advertise themselves as the truest of Russian patriots, the ones most willing to “carry out any order in any spot in the world.” That’s how Kadyrov put it in December, when he put on an exhibition of the army under his command. But such posturing could not avoid a level of friction with Russia’s other security hierarchies, says Venediktov, above all the agency known as the FSB, which took over for the KGB after the fall of the Soviet Union.

On the night of March 7, FSB director Alexander Bortnikov took the unusual step of going on television to announce the arrest of the two main suspects in Nemtsov’s murder. One of them, Zaur Dadaev, turned out to be the deputy commander of an elite counter-terrorism force in Chechnya, and so well respected in his region’s security structures that Kadyrov personally praised him as “a real patriot of Russia” immediately after he was charged with killing Nemtsov. But patriot or not, Dadaev was apparently given some rather rough treatment while in the custody of the FSB.

According to the Kremlin’s own rights watchdog, Dadaev showed signs of torture, including electrocution, when prison monitors visited him on March 10 at the FSB’s notorious detention center in Moscow. “He said wires were attached to his toes and electricity shot through them,” Andrei Babushkin, who oversees the penitentiary system within the Kremlin Council on Human Rights, said at a news conference in Moscow on Friday. “The injuries he showed us were consistent with this.”

The chairman of the council, Mikhail Fedotov, then stated that Putin had been informed of these strange goings on. But he could offer no information as to the President’s reaction, as he appears to have gone into hiding. The last photo of him on the Kremlin website is dated March 11, during a meeting with the governor of the Karelia region. Local media, however, were reporting on this meeting as early as March 5, adding to the air of uncertainty around Putin’s whereabouts, his health and the firmness of his grip on the various branches of power under his command.

“They are all his clans, his creations,” Venediktov says, referring to the FSB and the Chechen forces known as Kadyrovites. “Putin does not easily give up his own. He would need a very serious mound of evidence to really go after one of them.”

It is not clear whether Putin has seen any such evidence from the FSB against members of the Kadyrov clan. But in one of his last public appearances before dropping out of sight more than a week ago, Putin hinted that he takes the murder of Nemtsov more personally and more seriously than other “politically tinged” crimes, as he put it. “We need to rid Russia of the kind of shame and tragedy that we have just witnessed,” he told a gathering of Russian police commanders from around the country on March 4. “I’m talking about the insolent murder of Boris Nemtsov right in the center of the capital.”

Judging by the mood in Moscow, however, the fear of such insolence has only grown in the past week as Putin remains unseen. “The atmosphere right now in our country is very dangerous, very threatening,” says Nikolai Svanidze, another member of the Kremlin rights council. “It is an atmosphere of growing hatred and aggression,” he says. In response, the council has decided to call a meeting at the end of the month to provide the Kremlin with ideas on how to cool these tensions, and hopefully Putin will by then reemerge to receive their advice.

But Venediktov isn’t sure he wants to wait around for that to happen. “I feel like a hostage here,” he says in his office. So it may be best, he says, to follow Putin’s lead and disappear for a while, maybe get out of the country again. “Maybe a long vacation,” he says. “Until things calm down.”

Read next: Russia’s Empire of Fear

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