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Former “Russian spring” target Kharkiv’s new mayor to continue Kernes’ balancing act

Kharkiv local council. Oksana Necheporenko/ (RFE/RL)
Former “Russian spring” target Kharkiv’s new mayor to continue Kernes’ balancing act
Article by: Olena Makarenko
Edited by: Michael Garrood
Kharkiv is one of those cities of Ukraine that influences the situation in the whole country. This second-largest Ukrainian city was a primary target for Russia’s attempt to create a “parade of sovereignties” after Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution of 2014. Russia never stopped setting its eyes on the region, which managed to preserve its unity with Kyiv through an intricate balancing act led by the late mayor Hennadiy Kernes. What will happen now that Kernes has been replaced?

During the last weekend of October 2021, Kharkiv, the city that calls itself “the first capital of Ukraine,” elected a new mayor. The early elections came after the death last December of mayor Hennadiy Kernes, who had headed the city for 10 years and was elected again last year. Kernes died of COVID-19.

According to the final results, the acting mayor Ihor Terekhov won the election.

With a population of almost 1.5 million people, Kharkiv is the second-largest city in Ukraine and forms the center of one of the oblasts bordering on Russia. The city was a target of the so-called Russian Spring in 2014.

Kharkiv has always been a city which central governments had to look at and find compromises with. Russia used it in its strategies to seize Ukraine.

Former mayor Hennadiy Kernes used to look towards Russia as well, yet at the critical moment, he did not choose to capitulate, cultivating instead a certain unique local patriotism in the city and controlling all business flows in it.

This time, Kharkiv elected Ihor Terekhov, who has ruled the city since Kernes’s death, as an interim appointment. Considered as Kernes’s successor, he is also associated with the former odious Minister of Internal Affairs and former Kharkiv Oblast governor Arsen Avakov.

Some political experts say that Terekhov is the candidate that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Office was betting on.

Kharkiv in 2014: inches away from becoming a Russian-backed “people’s republic”

1 March 2014, pro-Russian activists after seizing Kharkiv Oblast Administration. (RFE/RL)

Kharkiv has always had the ambition to be a special city. From the beginning of the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks made Kharkiv the capital of the Ukrainian SSR in place of Kyiv, as the latter was the capital of independent Ukraine’s People’s Republic. Kharkiv remained the puppet capital until 1934. However, even today one can sometimes hear Kharkiv being referred to as the “first Ukrainian capital.”

With this history and the city bordering Russia, in 2014 Kharkiv became some kind of marker of how far Russia could go in its aggression against Ukraine.

From 23 February 2014, the day when Kyiv experienced its worst days as dozens of Euromaidan protesters were shot dead, numerous pro-Russian demonstrations took place in Kharkiv. At the beginning of March 2014, the “Russian world” supporters managed to temporarily seize the building of the Kharkiv Oblast State Administration, beating the Euromaidan protesters who had had their headquarters there.

Prior to the incident, then-mayor Hennadiy Kernes organized a peaceful protest of Kharkiv city patriots under the banner “For Kharkiv.” Kernes, as well as then Kharkiv Oblast governor Mykhailo Dobkin, spoke to the people that gathered with Russian flags.

Actually, from the very beginning of the Euromaidan, Kernes expressed his support for then-president Viktor Yanukovych. And when Yanukovych escaped from Kyiv, Kharkiv was the first city he came to before fleeing to Russia.

The risk of the so-called Kharkiv People’s Republic was high back then. However, unlike in Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian-backed forces did not succeed in Kharkiv.

Units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs headed by Avakov ejected the so-called separatists from the oblast administration building. Kernes in his turn rejected the idea of the so-called referendum on the federalization of Kharkiv oblast, instead suggesting a poll be conducted.

To prepare a justification for military intervention, Russia aimed to create an illusion of separatist moods in eastern Ukrainian oblasts, including Kharkiv. At the very beginning of war in eastern Ukraine, Russia distanced itself from this, instead preferring to organize fake referenda on oblasts seceding from Ukraine. That is how the so-called LNR and DNR (Luhansk, Donetsk People’s Republics) appeared.

In May 2014, the wave of pro-Russian protests in the city declined. However, city officials continued keeping a balance between not falling under Russia’s control, but maintaining pro-Russian policies and blocking reforms (including the novelties of decommunization). Kernes played a key role in this process.

Hennadiy Kernes: a “local patriot” from criminal circles

In April 2014 an attempt was made on Kernes’s life, leaving him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Photo:

Kernes has always been considered a patriot of the city of Kharkiv, caring about its appearance by for example building parks, but also controlling all business in the city.

Kernes started his business life in the criminal world. In 1990 he was suspected of fraud and spent two years in a pretrial detention center. In 1992 he was convicted of robbery and fraud and received three years in prison. However, due to the time he had already spent in detention and assistance in the investigation, he was released.

Afterward, Kernes dealt with privatization in the energy sector and opened a law firm.

He entered politics in 1998, becoming a deputy of the Kharkiv City Council. In 2006, he funded Dobkin’s mayoral election campaign and headed his headquarters. Dobkin became mayor and Kernes in his turn was elected as the city council’s secretary.

For the first time, Kernes headed Kharkiv in 2010. Back then, after Viktor Yanukovych’s victory at the presidential elections, Dobkin was appointed Kharkiv Oblast governor, with Kernes becoming acting mayor of the city.

The same year he was elected mayor and remained in office until his death last year.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Kernes did not pay much attention to it, trying as far as possible to have his city avoid restrictions. Towards the end of summer 2020, the situation in Kharkiv became critical as the hospitals were full of infected patients, and in September that year the mayor himself was taken to Germany in a critical condition with COVID-19 infection.

Nevertheless, even though he was not in the country and thus unable to appear in public, Kernes’ local election campaign was very active, while his inner circle was trying hard to dispel rumors of him apparently dying. Eventually, Kernes was reelected mayor, while still out of the country.

But in the middle of December, his death was finally announced. Early mayoral elections were scheduled for October 2021, with Terekhov serving as mayor ad interim.

The main candidates in 2021 mayoral elections: heirs of Kernes’ legacy

Mykhailo Dobkin (left) and Ihor Terekhov (Right) were the main candidates to replace Kernes. Photo:

Terekhov and Dobkin were the main candidates to replace Kernes as Kharkiv mayor.

Both Terekhov and Dobkin attempted to use their relationship with Kernes to win over his voters. Each presented himself as the true successor who would continue the deceased mayor’s policies.

However, the two are not the same. In an interview with RFE/RL, political expert Yuliya Bidenko explained that Dobkin is more pro-Russian than Terekhov. He promised to have Russian taught again in schools and have local holidays without Kyiv’s involvement. Meanwhile Terekhov, despite trying to manipulate opinion on the topics of historical memory and language, tried to include more progressive and less politicized voters.

Pro-Ukrainian forces attempted to present a single candidate for the city, but failed to unite.

“Everything rested on the fact that the two largest patriotic forces in Kharkiv, the Svitlychna Bloc and the European Solidarity, should have taken part in the process. And we are antagonists. Relations are not warm between us,” Dmytro Bulakh, a member of the Svitlychna Bloc Together [Razom] explained.

Later, the number of participants in negotiations on defining a single candidate fell from dozens to five. Also, the main two forces left: first European Solidarity, and then Svitlychna Bloc. Both withdrew due to the intransparency of the process.

Bidenko added that another drawback of the process was lack of society’s involvement, and lack of political will to agree.

Terekhov likely to continue Kernes’ line

Finally, according to the existing results, Terekhov obtained 50.66% of votes.

“He managed to prove to the Kharkiv citizens that he is the official successor to the previous mayor. Kernes is not there, but Kernes remains — virtually, symbolically. Terekhov was able to play on the theme of Kharkiv patriotism, as Kernes did,” Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Center for Applied Political Studies, commented to BBC News Ukraine.

Also, there is talk of Terekhov being a representative of former Minister of Internal Affairs Avakov, who also headed Kharkiv Oblast from 2005 to 2010.

In 2006, Terekhov became an economic advisor to the Kharkiv Oblast State Administration (headed by Avakov back then). That year he also campaigned in parliamentary elections within the party list of Nasha Ukrayina, the party of Viktor Yushchenko who became president after the Orange Revolution. He did not become an MP back then but was appointed as Avakov’s deputy.

In 2010, with Yanukovych coming to power, Avakov and Terekhov left their positions, with the latter joining forces with Dobkin and Kernes, who became the mayor.

He participated in Kernes’s political parties and was elected a local MP from 2015 until 2020. He was also Kernes’s deputy. Even though he is considered less pro-Russian, he was still involved in a few scandals related to national memory issues. Thus in 2021 Kharkiv District Administrative Court canceled the regional status of the Russian language, which had been introduced in 2012. Terekhov stated that the local council will appeal the decision. He also stood against the decision to rename the avenue named in honor of Soviet Marshal Zhukov to anti-Soviet dissident Petro Hryhorenko, as part of the decommunization reform.

The BBC notes that experts are unanimous: major changes in Kharkiv are unlikely and that Terekhov, as well as his predecessor Kernes, would be focusing on image projects.

“The only thing that will distinguish Terekhov from Kernes is that Kernes, as a tough leader, forced decisions on everyone. And Terekhov is trying to negotiate with everyone,” Anton Avksentiev political expert told BBC.

According to his observations, almost all local businessmen rely on Terekhov, which gives grounds for predictions that the newly elected mayor will also build relations with them through agreements.

Also, before the elections, political observers suggested that Terekhov is a compromise that the President’s Office would support.

The campaign in Kharkiv was followed by numerous violations, a significant part of them even before Terekhov and Dobkin officially being registered as candidates.

As well, after the election, observers of the OPORA civil network in Kharkiv appealed to the city territorial election commission with complaints about discrepancies in the protocols of the counting of votes in the elections and requested it reverse Terekhov’s election as mayor. OPORA also appealed to court with the case. However, it refused to satisfy OPORA’s complaints.

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Edited by: Michael Garrood
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