Klitschko/Zelenskyy (and Bohdan): A Boxer-Mayor knocked out by a Comedian-President?

Zelenskyy promised a “cleaning-up” of the political class. Klitschko speaks of “the will of Kyivians” above all. Both may have hidden agendas. Who is to win?

Piece of analysis published on the website of the Ukraine Verstehen think-tank in German, on 08/09/2018

It is harder to fence off political attacks than to fight back a boxer in the ring. The punch that just hit former boxing champion and Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko is “illegal, unconstitutional and undemocratic”, according to him. He appears to be quite vulnerable to it. Earlier on 4th September, the newly-appointed government of Oleksiy Honcharuk has dismissed Klitschko from the position of head of Kyiv city state administration. The final decision now belongs to the former comedian and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Klitschko accuses him of trying to establish “direct presidential rule” over the capital city.

The Office of the President has neither confirmed nor denied such an ambition. Yet it is quite logical since Volodymyr Zelenskyy has initiated a “clean up” of the political class in Ukraine through the latest presidential and general elections. He aims at bidding good riddance to a series of dubious and corrupt personalities. The relationship Klitschko is believed to entertain with controversial real-estate developer Vadym Stolaruk and new member of Parliament inside the Putin-friendly “Opposition-Platform – For Life!” party is the main reason for the Zelenskyy team to try to fire him.

The dismissal of Klitschko comes as no surprise. It was announced by the head of the Office of the President Andriy Bohdan back in July. Yet it creates an unstable situation. Zelenskyy has the authority to fire Klitschko as head of the city state administration. Yet Klitschko remains an elected head of the city council, as Kyiv is governed by an antiquated dual system. “It is only up to Kyiv voters to dismiss me”, Klitschko keeps repeating. He insists he defends “Kyiv’s self-rule”. The looming conflict will be hard to solve. Were Zelenskyy to push further to try and effectively to fire Klitschko, it may give away the ambition of an already powerful president to become in fact almighty.

As such, the dispute was foreseeable because of the very status of Kyiv administration. The Soviet-inherited dual system of leadership has fuelled tensions for years. The strategic position of Kyiv along the Dnipro river, as well as the access to financial resources, the perspectives of juicy investments in the real-estate sector and influence over the central state administrations have initiated some intense competition for the control of the city. First president of independent Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk did face a similar conflict over the city leadership already in 1992-93. A 2003 ruling by the constitutional court established that the person elected as head of the city council has to take over the de-facto executive body, that is the city state administration. It didn’t prevent Viktor Yanukovych from imposing president-appointed Oleksandr Popov as sole manager from 2010 to 2013.

Klitschko may well argue now that he defends the will of Kyiv residents. Yet his coming to power in 2014 was also the result of a deal he made with Petro Poroshenko. “Doctor Iron Fist”, as Klitschko was nicknamed, gave the “Chocolate King” his “UDAR – Strike” party to help him to win elections while he agreed to head Kyiv in order to make the capital city a partner of the new president. The deal was valid for 5 years until it became clear Poroshenko would lose the 2019 presidential election. Klitschko tried to establish contacts with the new Zelenskyy team instead. He even met with Donald Trump attorney Rudolph Giuliani in an attempt to defend his position. None of that helped. Klitschko has lost his political allies and his party. His last line of defence is now “the will of Kyiv residents”.

Because Klitschko’s mayorship is the result of an opaque deal that may have involved a Vienna meeting with controversial oligarch Dmytro Firtash (although it was never proved with certainty), his shortcomings are plenty. His informal relationships with dodgy businessmen did thrive over the past five years. The practice of illegal building did not stop. Some of his investments are criticised as mere cosmetics. The reconstruction of Kontraktova Square in the Podil historic district never came through. 80% of the city’s bridges are in need of intense reparations. An iconic glass bridge Klitschko opened on 26th May is marred in controversy because of its cost and design. Some glass panels broke on the very day of the opening. They were not yet replaced as of early September, despite repeated promises by the Mayor’s team.

Nevertheless, Klitschko is widely acknowledged as the Mayor who did most for the capital city in the past 28 years. The launch of the online “Kyiv Smart City” project and the efforts to increase budget transparency laid the foundations for a new city management. Vitaliy and his brother Volodymyr, two boxing icons, did promote Kyiv’s reputation during several trips across the world. Mayor Klitschko rejects all critics as unfounded political attacks. On the day the government fires him, he prides himself with his accomplishments and he announces an increase in the city budget from UAH 58 billion (about EUR 2,08 billion) in 2019 to UAH 64 billion (about EUR 2,3 billion) in 2020. Combined with an efficient communication strategy, opinion polls foresee his victory in a next local election. He already announced he will run.

Hence the ongoing dispute may end in a deadlock. In case Zelenskyy finds a way to fire Klitschko as both the head of the city state administration and the head of the city council, “Doctor Iron Fist” may be elected again head of the city council either in a snap election or in the local election that is constitutionally scheduled to happen on the last Sunday of October 2020. As it did in the past, the competition between the democratically-elected Mayor and the president-appointed head of the city state administration may lead to some paralysis of all projects and reforms in the capital city.

Given these difficulties, one may wonder about the motivations Zelenskyy and his head of administration Bohdan have to gain control over Kyiv. It is actually common in many countries that the capital city leadership and the executive power do not belong to the same political party. A functional cooperation in these cases actually demonstrates the maturity of the countries’ well-functioning institutions. Zelenskyy’s ambition to “clean up” all key institutions is a legitimate goal that is supported by an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians. Yet it should not be done in breach of constitutional rules. To push hard against Klitschko would send quite a frightening message to other mayors across the country, many of them quite controversial. Above all, it would send a negative signal as to Zelenskyy’s commitment to one of the most efficient reforms that has been implemented since 2014: the country’s decentralisation process and strengthened autonomy of local authorities.

Furthermore it is not obvious that the replacement of Klitschko would improve the situation in Kyiv. Several analysts mention Oleksandr Tkachenko as a potential candidate. A newly-elected MP inside the “Servant of the People” party, he is the former CEO of the 1+1 TV channel. His appointment would confirm that the 1+1 owner, oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy, does enjoy a strong influence over Zelenskyy. It would probably signal the continuation of several shady schemes. As political expert Volodymyr Fesenko puts it, “corruption may run not only through the elected Mayor but through the head of the city state administration, too”.

The President may gain more power in this battle against Klitschko under the pretexts of “cleaning up the system” and ending the rule of a discredited corrupt elite. Yet to win over the Kyiv municipality seems like a long and complicated struggle, one that would make him appear as a petty ruler who does not seem to respect the constitutional order. Zelenskyy keeps proving he wants to change everything in the country – and he can do so. He may be well-advised to use his large powers to finally end the archaic and idiotic dual leadership status in Kyiv, to shape and to support a candidate to the next elections for the capital’s city council and to let Kyiv voters effectively decide for themselves.

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