Boxer-turned-Politician Leaves Kyiv Reeling on the Ropes
Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv, is on the crest of a popularity wave. Economic growth is taking off and tourism is booming, but presented with such rich opportunities, the city’s world-famous mayor, Vitali Klitschko, has missed the mark.
For those unfamiliar with him, Klitschko is a boxer-turned politician, a three-time world heavyweight champion and the 2nd longest-reigning WBC heavyweight champion of all time.
He has the 5th longest combined world championship reign in history at 2,735 days. He currently serves as mayor of Kyiv and head of the Kyiv City State Administration, having held both offices since June 2014. He’s used to delivering knock-out blows but some lament the widely-held belief that as Kyiv mayor he’s badly failed to connect.
Sure, he follows in a long line of famous people from Kyiv, including Sikorsky, the inventor of the helicopter, Golda Meir, and Anne of Kiev, the Queen of France.
If you walk around the streets of Kyiv today you see memorial plaques to commemorate famous artists, composers, and scholars. Sometimes a whole street is named after a famous Kyivan as a token of the city’s gratitude and respect for their achievements. But so far not one of Kyiv’s mayors, including the current incumbent, has achieved this accolade. Sadly, the city’s elected heads tend to be remembered for all the wrong reasons: incompetence, corruption, inertia, political bias, nepotism, and just plain bad taste. Not exactly the stuff on which to build global fame and a positive reputation.
One Kyiv mayor devised reconstruction of buildings in the most unexpected and random places around the city causing anguish to car owners, pedestrians and city commuters. He covered Kyiv in tiles that started crumbling the very next day, requiring more repairs and reconstruction. The schemes were burdensome for the city’s budget but lucrative for the business of the mayor’s relatives, who allegedly owned a brick and tile works. That mayor freely moved parts of archaeological findings from their original places and replaced ancient bricks with “the same only better.” His reconstruction of the central square was tasteless, provoking scorn and anger.
Another mayor displayed weird behaviour during his public appearances. He was nicknamed “Cosmos,” suggesting a possible substance abuse as the reason for his eccentricity. Representatives of his political force in the Kyiv city council, or as he proudly called it “my young team,” were involved in various raider scandals throughout his term of office constantly on the prowl for expensive Kyiv real estate.
Expensive real estate in Kyiv has often been the main attraction for all mayoral hopefuls. The Kyiv community is filled with rumours and hearsay about the escapades of mayors granting privileged access to top real estate sites for relatives, political allies and people of influence. Historical buildings have not been spared. Such was the fate of the house where Igor Sikorsky lived and launched the model prototype of his first helicopter. In place of such buildings the new owners usually erect commercial structures like shopping malls or hotels that give an immediate payback, and any local protests are ridden over rough-shod.
It so happens that Klitschko has been no exception to the litany of disappointing mayors in Kyiv. Having started with a drum roll during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, a world champion boxer, a scholar and a polyglot, giving bright promises left, right and centre, Klitschko initially inspired the Kyiv community with high hopes that the city was on the verge of a new dawn. He made a good start by launching ambitious urban construction and renovation projects. He initiated reconstruction of a historical cycle track, a staircase connecting upper and lower city districts, and a pedestrian overpass, connecting two of the most picturesque parts of the city. He promised that tap water in Kyiv would become drinkable at last and that former Kyiv officials responsible for a huge financial gap in the city budget for millions of euros will be prosecuted.
But tap water is still the same and the corrupted officials are still walking free. The overpass started cracking the first day it was opened to the public. Explanations of the mayor’s office for the cracking that shots had been fired at the overpass the night before the opening, or that some children jumped up and down to cause structure fatigue were accepted by the Kyiv community, resigned that nothing had changed. People came up with their own more realistic explanation. They nodded knowingly that most likely it was a conventional theft of construction materials.
Today, there are many dark rumours and allegations, partly confirmed by journalists and criminal investigations, about graft, kickbacks, corruption, favoritism, and exposure to friends’ influence circulating around Mayor Klitschko and his team. It started with doubts that the mayoral elections were truly free and free of meddling. Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch, claimed under oath in Vienna that Klitschko’s prizefight for the mayoral belt was in fact prearranged and that he had been given the position as a result of a deal among oligarchs. Firtash, awaiting extradition to the U.S., has his own reputation to protect and has nothing to lose tarnishing the reputation of Kyiv’s beloved mayor. However alleged corrupt schemes said to involve Klitschko and his associates have fueled claims that money may have been the primary reason for Klitschko’s winning.
Klitschko has many close and trusted friends, some of them, as it so happens, are in construction business which became very lucrative after Klitschko’s win. He actively denies friendship with Kyiv construction tycoons, Mykytas and Stolyar. At the same time, Klitschko is seen in their company on a private jet or announcing their friendship at a birthday party.
There have been allegations that the mayor assisted his friends with their construction businesses to receive the right to reconstruct a major intersection overpass in the city which collapsed back in 2017. Two construction companies participated in the tender for the reconstruction, later found to be connected with the same person – construction tycoon Mykytas, Klitschko’s personal friend. The mayor’s office, it is claimed, went to some lengths to create favourable conditions for the victorious company by paying the entire €20 million budget immediately once the result was announced. The purpose of a 100% prepayment was, according to the mayor’s office, to start work on the important overpass as soon as possible. Later, journalists claimed that the money has been in fact misused, which resulted in blowing the budget and the works being postponed until March 2019. The Ukrainian independent antitrust authority ruled that the tender where a company was awarded an over-priced contract was rigged and fined the companies involved.
Separately, it was alleged that the mayor’s brother was able to buy a house adjacent to his own posh hotel in the city centre with quite a generous discount. There are also allegations that the mayor and his team are actively using corrupt schemes to grant licenses to minion construction companies.
The true depth of such allegations is not yet known, but perhaps it is due to the fact that construction works in Kyiv are routinely carried out in a haphazard manner, which is harmful to the city’s appearance, causes transport disruption and generates public tension. Klitschko has been blamed for overpriced heating tariffs, the existence of bribery and kickbacks in works connected with renovation, road construction, landscaping, and public procurement. It seems it would be easier to avoid any misuse of the city’s funds and improve management if districts were given back a free reign. However, Kyiv council, where Klitschko and his party associates play a key role, is said to “systemically sabotage” decisions designed to empower district councils and, thus, retain tremendous power over cash flows.
The extent of the allegations against him and public disappointment means that Mr. Klitschko could simply be seen as yet another in Kyiv’s succession of failed mayors. Some say he has lost a golden opportunity to surf the crest of a wave.
So, Kyiv still patiently awaits a future mayor who deserves the honour that this proud and ancient city bestows – with the accolade of a memorial plaque, a statue or a street named after them to commemorate a treasured contribution to the city’s life.