KYIV – In a one-sided affair days ahead of their runoff vote, challenger Boryslav Bereza was reduced to debating a life-sized cardboard cutout of Kyiv’s incumbent mayor on television.
Opponent Vitali Klitschko, the former world boxing champion who had stormed into office 16 months earlier on calls for anti-corruption and other reforms, had dismissed the event as “a waste of time.”
As it turns out, he was right.
The debate snub produced hardly a blip in the campaign. And in one of dozens of second-round contests across the country on November 15, voters in the Ukrainian capital re-elected Mr. Klitschko by a 2:1 majority over Mr. Bereza.
But the elections didn’t provide the first-round knockout that Mr. Klitschko craved and offered a glimpse into what even some supporters suggest is a break with the hard-slugging idealism that got him elected in the first place and a failure to keep his promise to clean up Kyiv.
So the question now is whether Mayor Klitschko can turn himself from a fleeting transitional figure into a successful reformer and mainstay of politics in the capital, home to around 3 million Ukrainians and a correspondingly long list of grievances.
“He has not failed completely and there is no complete lawlessness in the city,” says Hlib Vyshlinsky, executive director of the Center for Economic Strategy, a private think tank, “but he is not fixing the old problems and the old system has not changed.”
Mr. Klitschko’s dismissal of the debate risked reinforcing such perceptions because it represented a stark contrast with his view on pre-election debates back when his political instincts were being forged by the Maidan protests that swept Ukraine’s Russian-allied administration from power. In early February 2014, with street unrest against then-President Viktor Yanukovych in full swing and calls for early elections mounting, Mr. Klitschko had boasted of his willingness to publicly debate Mr. Yanukovych face-to-face. It never materialized, but Mr. Klitschko had taunted on Facebook: “In democratic countries this is a normal practice during election campaign.”
Even his runoff rival, Mr. Bereza, concedes that the incumbent “does not lack achievement.” But he argues that the charismatic ex-boxer “came in to finish the predecessor’s projects.”
A real longshot
Despite the two-thirds margin of his runoff victory, Mr. Klitschko’s failure to win outright in late October against a divided field along with his party’s setbacks hint at frustration that has taken hold among Kyivans, including some of his earliest supporters.
In the late-October voting, the alliance that underpins Mr. Klitschko’s mayorship – between his own UDAR party and the Solidarity party allied with President Petro Poroshenko – lost 17 of its 69 seats in the 120-seat Kyiv City Council, potentially limiting his ability to manage the city effectively.
Mr. Klitschko has seen his popularity dwindle since embarking on a political alliance with Mr. Poroshenko and winning a by-election one and a half years ago. His administration has seen its share of corruption scandals and hundreds of illegal construction sites continue to dot the city, undermining publicly stated aims, such as instilling faith in the rule of law.
Most would acknowledge that Mr. Klitschko inherited a dysfunctional city. After the Euro-Maidan revolution, parts of downtown looked like a war zone, charred with greasy soot from the burning of tires and stripped of features that could be adapted for makeshift resistance to President Yanukovych’s forces. The epicenter of the protest, Independence Square, was still a camp city but served mostly to shelter the homeless or men dressed in camouflage who appeared most keen on avoiding military service in the country’s east, where a separatist conflict was heating up.
In addition to the detritus of a would-be revolution, Kyiv’s transportation infrastructure was stuck in the 20th century. Unregulated construction was booming, frequently in violation of zoning and other laws, and hundreds of municipal companies were leaking money.
The finances of Kyiv, home to around one in 16 Ukrainians but accounting for one-fifth of Ukraine’s gross domestic product, were in a dismal state.
Backed by the central government as it sought to shore up support in the face of the separatist challenge to the east, Mr. Klitschko cleaned up the tent city soon after taking office. But other problems have proved harder to handle.
Days ahead of this month’s runoff, the city introduced a temporary moratorium on debt and defaulted on hundreds of millions of euros’ worth of Eurobonds, further amplifying Ukraine’s sovereign debt crisis.
The city’s historical center and so-called green zones frequently suffer at the hands of unscrupulous developers, some of whom appear to thrive from close connections to the current administration.
Mayor Klitschko has given key city jobs to close allies, often with business interests of their own, particularly in real estate and development.
In one case investigated by RFE/RL, a major development called Sunny Riviera appears to be rising in violation of city zoning laws. The project has ties to long-time friends of Mr. Klitschko and officials from within his administration, including Deputy Mayor Ihor Nikonov.
“Klitschko came with a promise to close down all illegal construction sites. Instead, they multiplied,” says political opponent and parliamentarian Mr. Bereza, a former book dealer and spokesman for the ultranationalist Pravyi Sektor group, adding, “Lancelot has turned into a dragon.”
Mayor Klitschko concedes that his administration still has many issues to tackle, with corruption perhaps foremost among them: “It’s our main goal to destroy corruption. Without that, we cannot implement reforms,” he says.
He cites evidence of progress in the current investigation of 62 criminal cases related to city government, encompassing “billions of stolen hryvni,” the national currency.
He also argues that Kyiv is moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. “It’s a process – you can’t start speeding from zero to 100,” Mr. Klitschko tells RFE/RL. “We are gaining momentum little by little, and this process will continue.”
But an incident deep into the recent campaign season might have given some Kyiv residents pause for thought. With the city streets choked with traffic and a photo opportunity on Mr. Klitschko’s campaign schedule in early November, the mayor’s driver swung his black SUV against traffic on a one-way street to park, blocking the bus lane. The police eventually turned up and fined the driver the equivalent of $11, prompting Mr. Klitschko to apologize.
The story was cited as an illustration of a millionaire mayor’s disregard for the rule of law and his seeming adaptation to the perks of power. Oleksandr Foshchan, the passer-by who phoned police to alert them to the Klitschko driver’s misstep, suggests that the political class alone won’t deliver changes for the better. “The country is changing, and this [change] depends on us, the regular citizens.”
In anticipation of an announcement from election officials handing him victory, Mr. Klitschko expressed gratitude to the city’s voters despite the paltry 28-percent turnout.
“This is a great [extension] of trust, and I will make sure to live up to it,” Mr. Klitschko said late on November 15, adding that one of his “main tasks… is to win the trust of those people who did not vote.”
A recent survey ranked Kyiv 14th among 22 of Ukraine’s regional hubs in terms of comfort and livability, and the city’s residents are certain to demand improvements in those areas from Mayor Klitschko and his administration – from fixing potholes to easing traffic jams and making the sidewalks safer.
“I’m hoping the mayor will fight gang rule in the city, so that you can walk around safely at night,” one pensioner told RFE/RL. “I want order, and strict demands against corruption and gangsters.”
Volodymyr Rudnitsky took a break from playing with his toddler to note that lampposts in the neighborhood have been moved to allow room for baby carriages and strollers on the sidewalks but added that “they only started doing all this in the summer.”
“He has done better than in the previous five years,” Mr. Rudnitsky observed.
Casting his ballot for Mr. Klitschko in the capital, another voter suggested he is inclined to cut the mayor some slack, telling RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service: “Let them fulfill half of [their program]. Even if they do half, it will be good.”
Copyright 2015, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036; www.rferl.org (see http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-klitschko-kyiv-mayor/27369088.html).