Kharkiv: A Divided City?

To tell the truth, a boxing coach Alexander Lyakhovoi, whose pupil Viktor Vykhrist became an amateur European champion in 2017, deems it a miracle that the city didn’t fell to the hands of pro-Russian gangs in the notorious spring of 2014. Ukrainian language is almost out of use in day-to-day business of its inhabitants. From April 16, 2018, to May 12, 2018, I was on a business trip there. Well, Kharkiv is heavily Russified in many respects. Local lawyer Oleg Volkov, who deals primarily in sports and fitness affairs, laments about “a war criminal Trump, committing atrocities in Syria”. The legal man just diligently echoes the agenda of Kremlin media. A child, accompanied by his parents, puts a finger at a foreigner: “Oops, another non-Russian”. Of course, the boy simply reflects xenophobic moods of his environment, which he tries to imitate. A businessman Georgi Galdava, a Georgian who sells boilers and heating equipment, argues that the city is mainly xenophobic to non-Russians. Mr. Galdava also told me that there is a certain lack of culture in local population. He rather outspokenly said that if Kyiv policemen just treat you roughly, then Kharkiv policemen kick you all right. A bus driver, hired to serve an Asian team, was furious about their being late: “I don’t want to wait for those Negroes!” So, the city’s racism and xenophobia are really a problem of serious dimensions, which is incongruous with the city’s openness to foreigners as a center of higher education. What a striking contrast: learned tutors, teaching foreign students for so much needed hard currency, and local racists, who irrationally hate these financially useful students!

True, many local residents describe it as the city of cops. Well, Kharkiv was notorious for its illegal gambling in Soviet times. And law-enforcement bodies have got the upper hand here since then, fostering mutually beneficial ties with mafia. Now, policemen routinely control a vast array of business here: from prostitution to fast food. By the way, Mayor of Kharkiv, Gennady Kernes, has also been linked with cafes and brothels in a popular opinion. The former criminal, Mr. Kernes, reportedly practiced street gambling. Now, he is legalized. Today, he acts in harmony with law-enforcement bodies. It is another proof of organized crime’s omnipotence in the former Soviet Union. There is a rumor of quite another kind about the Governor of Kharkiv Region, Yuliya Svetlichnaya. They say that the attractive Ms. Svetlichnaya has a lover, who is an aide to President Poroshenko. That is why, the female governor has strong positions in the region. One might consider this affair as a case of corruption, too.

When the current Mayor of Kharkiv was elected for the first time in 2010, he won his rival, today’s Interior Minister of Ukraine Arsen Avakov, by a close margin. To some extent, the city’s election resembled famous contest between George Bush and Albert Gore, 2000. So, one could reasonably doubt the legitimacy of the first election of Mr. Kernes. But, now he really enjoys popular support. The majority of the city’s residents, whom I have met personally, think favorably of the mayor. However, the two rivals have not quit their confrontation. A Kyiv businessman Valery, who deals with coffee beans’ trade, told me last autumn that Mr. Avakov was behind a failed assassination attempt on Mr. Kernes in 2014, which echoes the declaration by Mr. Kernes himself that the Interior Minister and the former Governor of Kharkiv Region Igor Baluta ordered the assassination attempt. The Kyiv businessman also added that Mr. Avakov is so powerful now that he can overthrow President Poroshenko in a coup d’état. He thinks that the Interior Minister represents Italian Mafia in Ukraine, especially in oil and gas industry. By the way, some residents of the city claim that the Interior Minister acts rather uselessly towards Kharkiv, bitterly remembering his defeat in the 2010’s mayoral election.

Even now, with the ongoing war and permanent economical crisis, the city manages to save somehow its status as an industrial center of Ukraine. They produce various power products – from cellphone batteries Kvanta Ultra to equipment for nuclear plants, manufactured by Turboatom Company. The Malyshev Factory still produces advanced military tanks for both domestic and foreign customers. The Kharkiv Subway also has ambitious plans to build new stations and a depot. However, certain important entities are in decline. For example, the Kharkiv Tractor Factory and Barabashovo – the biggest marketplace in Ukraine – are among losers. Despite its utmost importance for the country, the city as a whole doesn’t have adequate representation on a nationwide political agenda. True, there are big players, like Mr. Avakov and Mr. Kernes. But, they don’t have ambitions as regional chiefs, who strive to promote their city. So, there is no political party or movement, which specifically represents the region in the complicated world of Ukrainian politics. Meanwhile, other big regions of the country have had their political organizations of the nationwide scale. For example, Donbass had a formidable Party of Regions, which once dominated both executive and legislative branches of power. The Dnepropetrovsk Region still has a quite promising UKROP Party. Perhaps, the explanation of this situation is that local politics are centered around personalities, not organizations. Also, many leading politicians of Kharkiv, like a criminal member of parliament Dmitry Shentsev and accomplice to Mr. Kernes – the former Governor of Kharkiv Region Mikhail Dobkin, belonged to pro-Russian Party of Regions, which once was a presidential one. But, now, due to the ongoing war with pro-Russian separatists, many people in Ukraine consider it a mauvais ton to be a member of such an odious party.

What about other causes for relatively weak party presence in Kharkiv? Probably, local politics have been too down-to-earth one. The city’s politicos have acted primarily for their business interests, with little ideology. Mr. Avakov have resisted pro-Russian separatists in order to save his assets. Incidentally, despite of being an ethnic Armenian, the Interior Minister has been friendly to other minorities. Adam Davletgireev, leader of Chechen diaspora in Kharkiv, recollects that Mr. Avakov as the Governor of Kharkiv Region helped local Muslims. On the other hand, Mr. Kernes, notorious for his close relations with the organized crime of Russia, initially greeted the separatist movement. They say that only a hefty bribe to President Poroshenko has rescued Mr. Kernes from immediate resignation for his pro-Russian stance. Of course, technically big players of local politics have had certain party affiliations. But, such party membership has not been a sign of devotion to one ideology or other. Mostly, it has been a mere formality, obligatory for anyone, who has achieved certain level of leadership.

As for election prospects of main political figures of Kharkiv, I generally agree with polls, which suggest that Mr. Kernes is well ahead of his rivals. Although, the mayoral elections of Kharkiv is set to be in 2020, even now it is evident that he would outclass candidates, supported by Mr. Avakov and President Poroshenko. I talked with ordinary people of Kharkiv and many of them sincerely praise the current mayor.

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