Kyiv, spring 2020. Vitaliy Klitschko is shown on a billboard saying “Stop sneaking around!" calling upon Kyivans to stick to the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. Photo: Olena Makarenko
Whoever controls the capital can control the political life of the whole country. Traditionally, Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv has been a hotbed of the largest political protests, including the Euromaidan Revolution, the 2004 Orange Revolution, and the 1990 Revolution on Granite. Also, Kyiv often hosts smaller rallies that can spark larger protests at any moment.
Since 2014, the Ukrainian capital is managed by retired heavyweight champion boxer Vitaliy Klitschko. Critics often raise allegations of corruption and poor management against him, yet Klitschko has never created obstacles to any protest rallies and demonstrations. In the wake of the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, Klitschko found himself rather in opposition to the new government. The team of the newly elected president and former comedy actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy had scarcely bothered to hide its ambitions to take power in the capital.
The upcoming local elections are going to feature a number of mayoral votes across the country, including the one in Kyiv that will take place in October 2020. The pro-presidential forces have been focused on their preparations for these upcoming elections, dedicating a significant amount of time to them. Klitschko shows no signs of going down without a fight and prepares to defend his tenure in office. However, the situation is far from simple as more signs of tempting the mayor by the presidential forces are beginning to emerge. Also, there are ways to take control of the capital even without having a loyal mayor.
Apart from the abovementioned political influence, Kyiv is a safe haven for shady construction businesses. As citizens elect a Kyiv mayor, those elected, in fact, also gain authority to give permissions for illegal development or profit from giving businesses access to municipal resources that are supposed to belong to the community. Throughout all the years of Ukrainian independence, Kyiv has seen no city heads who tried to eliminate this vicious corruption cycle in the capital. And Klitschko hasn’t been an exception either.
The most famous example of how the local city government of the capital could influence the political life of the entire country occurred during the Euromaidan Revolution. Back in 2013, Kyiv was headed by Oleksandr Popov – a representative of the Party of Regions – that was led by the runaway president Viktor Yanukovych. However, Popov was never elected as mayor by the citizens as he held the appointive position of the head of the Kyiv City State Administration.
In November 2013, when the Revolution of Dignity had just started, Yanukovych had political control in the capital through Popov. On the night of 30 November, the first Euromaidan activists, mostly students, were protesting in central Kyiv, encamped at the city’s main square, Maidan Nezalezhnisti. At the same time, the municipal services were going to set a New Year Tree there and the protesters were an obstacle for that. Formally, it became the primary reason why law enforcers violently dispersed the protest camp.
As a result, Yanukovych himself was able to formally keep himself away from the crackdown. He condemned the forced dispersal of the camp and some two weeks later, he dismissed Popov from the post due to the Prosecutor’s Office suspicion that Popov ordered the crackdown.
The next Yanukovych henchman to rule Kyiv was Volodymyr Makeienko, who also contributed to the efforts of suppressing Euromaidan protests. On 18-19 February, the days when police forces made their final attempt to suppress the protests, the Kyiv metro was totally shut down. The formal reason was a terrorist attack threat. It was clear to everyone that the reason for the public transit shutdown was to prevent the citizens from providing further support to the protesters. Dozens of protesters were killed during the confrontation with law enforcement.
Shortly after the Euromaidan Revolution in early 2014, Klitschko was considered a potential candidate for president. However, soon enough his political party became allied with the party of Petro Poroshenko, who eventually was elected as President of Ukraine.
Klitschko opted to run for the position of mayor of Kyiv and won about 57% of votes in the first round of the snap election. A year later, at the fall 2015 regular local elections, Klitschko was re-elected with about 64% in the runoff.
In 2014, Poroshenko also appointed Klitschko as head of the Kyiv City State Administration.
This was the legal way of how things should have been done. In 2003, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Kyiv Administration should be headed only by an elected mayor whom the president appoints to this position.
The issue of combining the positions of the mayor and the head of the Kyiv Administration by law has been discussed since 2014. Moreover, the very concept of one person holding two positions might be abandoned in the near future.
The new fight has already started for the capital in 2019 just after the parliamentary election won by President Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party by a landslide.
Zelenskyy’s team aimed to take Klitschko powers even before local elections by dismissing him from the position of the head of the Kyiv State Administration. Journalists discussed two potential candidates to replace him, ex-media manager Oleksandr Tkachenko and businessman Andriy Kholodov. Klitschko’s dismissal was even agreed by the government after the Cabinet of Oleksiy Honcharuk petitioned the president.
However, Klitschko has not been dismissed yet: President Zelenskyy has not signed any documents to make it happen.
Nevertheless, in October 2019, parliament voted for the Law on the Capital in the first reading. The legislation was meant to divide the positions of the mayor and the head of the Kyiv Administration. The second reading for the law is still on the agenda. The president’s party announced its intention to vote for it before the local elections.
Klitschko opposed the bill to reform the structure of the mayor’s position. Most recently, Poroshenko’s European Solidarity stood in support of the mayor. Its statement refers to the above mentioned Law on the Capital as well, saying that by adopting it, the government wants “to make a humiliating scenery out of the mayor elected by Kyivans.”
The European Solidarity party also offered Klitschko to campaign under its flags, but the mayor refused to do so.
According to the Rating Group research conducted on 4-7 April 2020, Klitschko has the highest rating in Kyiv. About 38.7% of Kyiv citizens are ready to vote for him.
At present, there is significant speculation around the potential competitors from the Servant of the People’s party that will run against the former boxer. However, the names of candidates seem to remain in the shadow for another month.
Most likely, it will not be Tkachenko, Minister of Culture and Information Policy. Therefore, he is no longer a potential candidate.
At the end of May, the Servant of the People’s MPs submitted a petition to Zelenskyy to hold primaries to choose nominees for mayor candidates for Ukrainian cities.
Among those willing to run for Kyiv were MPs Oleksandr Dubynskyi, Oleksandr Kachura, and Mykola Tyshchenko.
Tyshchenko has already kicked off his campaign by employing Ukrainian classics of bamboozling voters: privatizing municipal staples and cheap publicity stunts. For example, he has claimed responsibility for such regular occurrences like replenishing children’s playgrounds with more sand, and he was spotted handing out lemons to people near the building damaged by a household gas explosion in Kyiv on 21 June that claimed 5 lives. Later, he stated that he had asked doctors what was needed there and they ostensibly told him to bring lemons.
Mr. Tyshchenko bragging that he poured in some sand in a sandbox.
Mykola Tyshchenko bringing lemons to the victims of a gas explosion accident.
Even though Tyshchenko has already started campaigning early, the real fight is still ahead.
David Arakhamiya, the head of the Servant of the People faction, informed that the results of the primaries will be known by the end of July.
So far, different names have been widely circulated. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his yearly press-conference mentioned Viktor Liashko, the Chief State Sanitary Doctor as a potential candidate. Referring to its own source in the Servant of the People’s party, LIGA.net wrote that it was the president himself who suggested Liashko’s candidacy. Allegedly, he has significant potential as a person widely known across the public sphere.
Another name circulating in the media was Olena Kravets – the leading actress in Zelenskyy’s Kvartal 95 comedy studio. Unlike many of her colleagues, Kravets has not entered the political scene with Zelenskyy and tried to distance herself from politics. Addressing the recent rumors, she again stated that she is not interested in politics.
However, the fact that her name emerged in the press shows that the president’s party is testing the audience trying to find out which candidate will be the most popular.
“The fact that they throw in different names and measure negative and positive ‘media ripples’ they have caused is a classical strategy from the Servant of the People, they do the same before appointing ministers, etc,” Borys Tyzengauzen, political expert told NV.ua.
The expert is also confident that primaries and polls are the two concepts that can’t be combined and if the polls are conducted, the primaries will not be real.
However, it is possible to take control of Kyiv without changing the mayor’s office powers. As several Ukrainian media outlets claimed, Klitschko and presidential office head Yermak reached agreements that include the following tradeoff – Klitschko and his campaign will join Zelenskyy’s team in exchange for Klitschko’s loyalty to the government. Also, Klitschko had to agree to include Zelenskyy’s people in certain Kyiv Administration departments.
As gazeta.ua specifies, Yermak’s people were delegated for managing positions in Kyiv. Among them were the head of the amenity department and temporary head of the municipal enterprise Kyivblagoustriy, which also deals with the amenity issues. Also, Klitschko’s people received positions in the Ministry for Temporary Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons and the Ministry of Youth and Sports. In particular, Vadym Hutsayt who headed a corresponding position in the Kyiv Administration became the minister. Apart from it, the media notes that 10 heads of the district administrations in Kyiv recently appointed by Zelenskyy, were chosen directly by Klitschko and Yermak with both proposing five candidates.
Gazeta.ua also draws attention to the fact that while Klitchko’s ratings are high, the ratings of his party UDAR are falling due to various land and corruption scandals. Therefore, knowing Klitschko’s weak side, the president’s team offered him to create a joint coalition in the Kyiv Council after the elections. Also, the speculation goes, the president’s team is going to leave him alone and Klitschko in turn should be more loyal and agree on the appointments proposed by Yermak.
Inna Vedernikova, an observer in dt.ua in her overview writes that for many years, Kyiv saw no competition between political ideologies; the competition was solely between real estate developers and businessmen who wanted to be favored by the government to advance their businesses.
“Thus, with Klitschko coming, politics quietly and imperceptibly left the walls of the Kyiv Council, totally giving way to fixed [decisions policy].”
Vedernikova concludes that Klitschko is continuing to cover business interests in the capital instead of standing for the citizens’ interests. Just like his predecessors.
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