Kyiv’s Non-Mayor & Yanukovych’s Power Vertical

By Dan Peleschuk, Student Editor

The mysterious weeks-long absence of notorious Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky has finally ended, but speculation has only grown as to whether his hiatus is connected to President Viktor Yanukovych’s consolidation of power.

Chernovetsky, who has been mayor since 2006, had “gone missing” from Kyiv before the New Year and left many political observers and citizens alike wondering where he had been. It turns out, according to Chernovetsky himself, that he was sojourning in Georgia while still carrying out his duties.

But that’s just the latest twist in the Chernovetsky story. The real intrigues began in November, when Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions parliamentary faction voted to tweak the traditional position of head of Kyiv City Administration (the equivalent of mayor). Oleksandr Popov, a Yanukovych ally and former deputy head of the administration, took Chernovetsky’s place and appeared to bear full responsibility for running Kyiv. Meanwhile, Chernovetsky, while not quite fired, remained in a mostly ceremonial role, largely sidelined from power.

On the face of things, it wouldn’t be hard to see why Chernovetsky was ousted. Long the oddball of Ukrainian politics, he has been nicknamed “Cosmos” for his exceedingly eccentric behavior. He is known to often stage publicity stunts – like showcasing his singing voice or demonstrating his physical health by swimming laps or doing pull-ups – and making peculiar off-the-cuff remarks, like when he proposed to charge entrance fees to city cemetaries or sell kisses in a raffle during Kyiv’s economic crisis in 2009. None of these antics, however, had posed a threat to the Yanukovych regime. Rather, most of Chernovetsky’s outbursts seem to be one-off displays of bizarre hubris.

That Yanukovych is spreading his power tendons throughout Kyiv – which, like many capitals, enjoys a special juridical status – comes as no surprise. What’s puzzling is that Chernovetsky has never quite opposed Yanukovych (in fact, he even supported him during the 2010 presidential elections). But Chernovetsky, a multi-millionaire former banker, is among the more independent politicians in Ukraine today – while he never joined the opposition, he was also never a staunch Yanukovych ally. Instead, as speculation dictates, he was involved in illicit land deals that would have made him the go-to guy for major land acquisition in and around Kyiv.

Since Yanukovych’s modus operandi has been increasingly compared to that of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s, there’s a comparison to be made to Russia’s own recent mayoral fiasco. When President Dmitri Medvedev fired longtime Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov last fall, it had been widely expected: as a local strongman, Luzhkov ruled over Moscow as his personal fiefdom until his perceived disloyalty and penchant for disrupting the ruling Putin-Medvedev tandem made him a marked man.

But in Kyiv, there seemed to be no serious sign of disloyalty or breaking with the order. Instead, Yanukovych seems to have dealt with Chernovetsky preemptively. Whether it’s a sign of Yanukovych resorting to quicker, more efficient methods of power consolidation (instead of waiting for tensions to boil over, à la Luzhkov) or simply ridding the Ukrainian capital of a potentially embarrassing attention-grabber has yet to be seen. Particularly telling will be whether Yanukovych remains content with Chernovetsky simply sidelined – or if he’ll resort to further measures.

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