Interview with Hennadiy Adolfovych Kernes, mayor of Kharkiv.
Interview conducted by Sébastien Gobert and Michael Riedmüller on 4th April 2014.
Hennadiy Adolfovych Kernes is as controversial a mayor as he is a colorful person. On Instagram one will find an intriguing account, displaying the mayor topless flexing his muscles and working out. He repeatedly boasted about the fact that his Instagram account is the best of all the Ukrainian mayors. Intimately linked to the former regime of the authoritarian Viktor Yanukovych, he has repeatedly been accused of implications with the organized crime. In 1986 he was charged yet not prosecuted. He was sentenced to jail in 1992 yet was not sent to custody. Regardless of the true nature of his activities, he has earned the infamous nickname of “Gepa” (from Hepatite).
A s a mayor, he has been said to diligently discourage pro-EuroMaidan demonstrations and to organize their repression over the winter months of protests. In late February, he shortly sided with a separatist movement led by his close collaborator Mihaylo Dobkin, former governor of the region and currently candidate to Ukrainian presidential election. As the regime crumbled down, Hennadiy Kernes fast changed sides and now backs the new government in Kyiv. As early as in March, he stated that he had been a « prisoner of Yanukovych’s system » and that he expected “good things to come” from the new Yatsenyuk Government. » In March and April he stood as the guarantor of a Ukrainian Kharkiv and firmly opposed any attempt to create troubles in his city.
He was shot in the back as he was jogging in Kharkiv city center on 28th April. As a man with a lot of enemies, the identity of his aggressor is still unclear, which gives place to all kind of theories – pro-Russian, pro-Ukrainian, business enemy or even staging of an operation to boost his falling popularity ratings. He has been fast transferred to a hospital in Israel and reportedly regained consciousness from an induced coma only on 2nd May.
To this date [05/05/2014] he is still recovering from his injuries in Israel. His absence raises the concerns of possible attempts to seize official buildings in Kharkiv and follow a pattern implemented in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
On 4th April, here is how the mayor of Kernes assessed the situation regarding the territorial integrity of Ukraine, his vision for Kharkiv, his pride for its dolphinarium and his personal stature.
We have seen what the Russians have done in Crimea. Kharkiv is located just 40 kilometers from the border. NATO has recently made it clear that the Russian army is ready for an invasion. How do you deal here with this situation?
I assume that there is no danger of an invasion from the Russians. I want to emphasize that Kharkiv is an indispensable part of Ukraine. Currently, the most important thing is to preserve the country’s territorial integrity. You should not compare Kharkiv with Crimea, the situation is completely different. The people here are for a united Ukraine and we all make it clear that Kharkiv is a part of this country.
So you are not worried by the Russian troop manoeuvres on the other side of the border? And what about deep divisions, which may occur because of the current situation? As a first symptom, we see now that many less Russians travel from Russia to Kharkiv…
The military issues must be handled by the military. Of course I’m worried about the fact that many Russians and other foreigners no longer come for shopping or any kind of other trips to Kharkiv. This has a direct impact on the economic development of the city. We do have to consider that in the future.
You mentioned the importance of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Yet a few weeks ago you yourself were accused of supporting separatism…
This is a misunderstanding and a lie. I have never supported separatism or any kind of division within the population. As you know, the ones who are suspected of separatism are currently prosecuted. There are also some investigations against me, but not on grounds of separatism.
As a prominent member of the Party of Regions, you have criticized for a long time the protests in Kyiv and repressed similar demonstrations in Kharkiv. Now, after the revolution, you support the new government in Kyiv. Why the change of heart?
I was elected as mayor four years ago, back in 2010. You have to understand that the highest authorities I have to be accountable to are the residents of Kharkiv. No matter who sits in the government in Kyiv. My relationship with the new regime is focused on the welfare of my city and not according to my personal ambitions and interests. It was already the case under Viktor Yanukovych.
You say the interests of your city are your highest priority. Then why did you flee to Russia on 21st February? Former President Viktor Yanukovych and many of his close collaborators had left as well, it felt like the whole system was falling apart and that anything could happen… Why did you leave your citizens at such a critical time?
I could not know what would happen then. And I want to emphasize that it was a very short trip. I was away during the weekend, so during my free days. I did not flee. I had meetings with partners that were planned for a long time and could not be postponed. The way my absence has been presented by others has nothing to do with the reality.
I don´t want to lie to the people who trust me. If I was worried about my safety, I would do some other things. But I am not worried. I do receive threats, but I am not going to leave. Viktor Yanukovich did. Why? Why, if he is the President? What happens when national authorities disappear? Then eventually someone else takes over and bears the responsibility. I have to work with them, that is my job. And their job is to take the particularities of Kharkiv into account. Step by step, this will happen.
So let’s talk about your vision for Kharkiv? Given the history of the city, could it become a connector between the west and the east of the country?
First we have to take into account that Kharkiv is a city near the border with Russia. And it is one of the centers of the Ukrainian industry. The development of Kharkiv is dependent on the development of the country. There are many economic opportunities, and some of them are connected to Russia. It is very important that our industry here shall be modernized soon. A lot of factories which used to work for the military industry switched to the civic industry. It is a difficult process. 50,000 people used to work in these factories. Now it is just about 2,000.
I am working on a strategy on how to develop Kharkiv till 2030, which should include a lot of different factors and aspects. They certainly differ from the strategies of other cities such as Lviv. Lviv is close to the European border and 95 percent of tourists who travel there come from Poland. In Kharkiv 95 percent of the visitors come from Russia because of our geographical situation. Kharkiv is a very young and a modern city. The age average is 35 years old in our population. These aspects are crucial to take into consideration in the perspective of a flourishment of the city.
As you know the city does not have access to the sea. But we have a dolphinarium. The animals which live there have to live in the sea. Yet it seems the dolphinarium is their beloved place. The residents of Kharkiv enjoy coming here. Another thing is the zoo. The Kharkiv zoo is even better than the one in Kyiv, although it is the capital. Because of the difficult situation here the zoo didn´t receive any funding for a long time. So the people of Kharkiv donated a lot of money for it and gathered a lot of food for the animals. Three nobel prize winners were residents of Kharkiv. Can you find any other city in Ukraine with this history?
Many people here are demanding that the country strikes a new path towards democracy, rule of law and anti- corruption. You have supported Yanukovych till the end. Yet you now stand on the side of the EuroMaidan movement . How credible politicians such as yourself can represent this new way to a new Ukraine?
I represent European values and I want to ensure creating the conditions that are necessary for its implementation. For example, the fight against corruption or the conditions for personal development such as good educational opportunities and freedom. In the past there were just empty words, repeated by all corners of the political spectrum.
It seems you have drawn a picture of me from the Internet. We have to a proverb in Russian: “It is better to meet a man once than to hear about him a hundred times”. I’m sitting here and I’m ready to answer to your questions. Yet journalists often are not willing to listen. The Interior minister [Arsen Avakov] is treating me as a personal rival. Can you imagine that people would be prosecuted for personal reasons in countries such as France or Germany? People in such positions must act differently. We still need to do a lot of steps forward to introduce new standards in Ukraine. No words are necessary but deeds.
According to what you name “European values”, one has to be suspicious of any political careeer, which is connected too closely to business. Experts often denounce oligarchy as one of the main problems of Ukraine…
When you take an interview with somebody, do you think also of the good aspects of this person, or are you just interested in bad characteristics? The objective vision is very important in your business, also humanism. I am here with you, I am very sincere. I am 55 years old, I have two grandchildren, adult children, here my father is buried. He was working in the same factory for 45 years. So can you imagine that I can leave this place? And still you are asking me why I disappeared…?
I don´t hide anything of myself. Can I afford a new mobile phone? Yes, I can. (Exhibiting his Iphone 4]. But I am satisfied with this model. I don´t hide that I am using a Mercedes. I don´t hide that I have a Porsche. Everything of that is signed in as my property. You don´t need to look for hidden things.
Here is another proverb for you: “If you are so clever, so wise, why are you so poor?” Why? Is it right?
You are not only attacked by journalists or by Arsen Avakov. You you are also on the sanctions list of Switzerland and Austria, which means, that your financial assets in these countries are frozen as a sanction for the role you played during crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators.
At some time these sanctions will be lifted and then they will be mere memory. I have never broken the laws of the European Union, so I have no reason to worry. I was hundreds of times in Europe and I have never exceeded any rules.
You were accused of fraud in the past in Ukraine. You were also close to the young oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko who came to a huge wealth in a remarkably short period of time. He is now into hiding. How can you stand with such a biography for a new European model for Ukraine?
I was accused of fraud, but I was not guilty. According to the law we call this presumption of innocence. I have never concealed any elements in my biography. Yet a majority of people voted for me in the elections. This is why I am here. I obtained my credibility from the residents of Kharkiv and not from journalists.
About Kurchenko: He is a young citizen of Kharkiv, who owns the local football club and bought its Metalist stadium from the city. We use this money for many local initiatives in the cultural sector and infrastructure projects. Kurchenko has invested heavily in the country and its economy. Unfortunately, many projects are currently on hold. We will see how the relationship between him and the new authorities can be solved, but basically I think that the country needs people like him. Unfortunately I believe that there will be no more heroes like Kurchenko in the future, since the new government wants to fight corruption.
To understand you correctly: You are saying that « heroes » like Serhiy Kurchenko will be no more because the government intends to crack down on corruption? Does that mean that Serhiy Kurchenko is corrupted?
[raising his finger] No. I ‘m just saying that the new authorities prosecute Kurchenko on corruption allegations and that the new government wants to fight corruption. If you ask me whether there will be people like Kurchenko in the future, my answer is: I am not sure.