Despite winning local elections in a landslide in 2020, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko is still in the hot seat.
Klitschko has been embroiled in an on-again, off-again power struggle with President Volodymyr Zelensky since the latter took office in 2019.
Zelensky’s office unsuccessfully tried to deprive Klitschko of his powers in Kyiv only to experience a crushing defeat in the Kyiv mayoral election in October.
Kyiv’s constant traffic jams, corruption scandals and deterioration of critical infrastructure did not help the president depose Klitschko. The former heavyweight boxing champion won the election with 50.4% of the vote. Zelensky’s candidate Iryna Vereshchuk got 10 times less.
Now, nearly a year after relative peace, the conflict between Zelensky and Klitschko flickered again.
Starting in early May, the State Fiscal Service and the Kyiv prosecutor’s office conducted nearly 70 searches alleging corruption, tax evasion, abuse of office, embezzlement and fraud among Kyiv city officials.
A total of 11 people were charged, most of whom are incumbent officials connected to Klitschko.
Klitschko denies wrongdoing and accuses the President’s Office of political pressure. Zelensky has made public attacks against the mayor, directly accusing Klitschko and his allies of corruption. “
It seems to me that he forgot that he is a mayor and has begun his presidential campaign,” said Zelensky in a June 24 interview with 1+1 channel.
Political analyst Mykola Davydiuk says that it’s a longstanding conflict that will continue until the 2024 presidential elections.
“Zelensky obviously sees Klitschko as one of his potential political opponents,” Davydiuk told the Kyiv Post.
The new round of public brawls between Klitschko and Zelensky began in late May when the National Police, together with the Security Service of Ukraine, conducted searches at Kyiv’s utility services, the Kyiv City Council building and the home of Klitschko’s top ally, Artur Palatnyi.
The Security Service of Ukraine has also searched the building where Klitschko has a flat. The mayor cited pressure, while the authorities said they were searching Klitschko’s neighbors.
A total of nearly 70 searches were part of at least nine criminal cases.
Among these cases are embezzlement of state funds during the construction of two metro stations and the illegal sale of licenses to street vendors.
“They shouldn’t have stolen money from the budget,” said Zelensky when asked about the searches.
Klitschko responded by saying that the President’s Office has ordered searches to portray him as a “corrupt official.”
“The most valuable thing I have is my reputation,” he added. The ongoing investigations came after nearly a year of public peace between the president’s office and Klitschko.
In 2019, months after Zelensky took office, the president’s office began urging Klitschko to resign. Zelensky’s then-chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, called out Klitschko saying that the mayor is turning a blind eye to corruption in Kyiv.
In September 2019, the Cabinet issued a ruling to fire Klitschko from the position of the Kyiv City Administration. This appointed position, which is similar to a governor, is separate from the elected job of Kyiv’s mayor.
Yet, Ukraine’s legal limbo gave the mayor an unexpected victory.
According to a 2015 Constitutional Court ruling, the Cabinet had the authority to fire Klitschko from the position of the city administration’s head but it can only appoint an elected mayor to that position. This is why Klitshcko has effectively kept both jobs.
Meanwhile, Klitschko remains popular in Kyiv. A July Rating Group poll showed Klitschko being supported by 50% of Kyiv’s residents, while support for Zelensky stands at 36%.
According to an internal communication obtained by the Kyiv Post, the President’s Office instructed lawmakers from Zelensky’s 245-member Servant of the People party on how to speak with the press concerning Klitschko.
The messages list Klitschko’s shortcomings and ask lawmakers to publicly urge him to step down as the head of the Kyiv City Administration.
A lawmaker from the Servant of the People party, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has confirmed the authenticity of those messages.
“They hate each other,” says political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
“One of them must have violated a truce agreement they most likely had over the past year,” he adds.
Despite politics being heavily involved in the ongoing confrontation, Klitschko’s shortcomings as mayor are easy to spot.
Klitschko’s seven-year reign in Kyiv is marked by impoverished infrastructure, a lack of proper public transport, deteriorating historic buildings, haphazard construction, poor utility services, alleged embezzlement and corruption.
Ex-lawmaker Maksym Mykytas, who became a top-tier construction mogul under Klitschko, is currently under house arrest awaiting trial on embezzlement charges. Klitschko’s top ally Palatnyi was charged with embezzlement in May.
Furthermore, Klitschko has been taunted for his inability to meet deadlines in long-term construction projects like the two metro stations connecting the city center with the northernmost Vinogradar neighborhood and the Podilskyi Bridge, which has been under construction since 1994.
Klitschko publicly promised to commission the bridge by the end of 2020 but that did not happen.
In 2018, the city-owned Kyivmetrobud company won a tender to build the two metro stations for Hr 6 billion ($220 million). The construction was to be completed by the end of 2021.
On July 12, Lesia Zaburanna, a lawmaker from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, held a press conference together with several co-party members to talk about Klitschko’s shortcomings.
Zaburanna, who has been vocal about Klitschko’s mismanagement, said that Kyivmetrobud has already spent Hr 3 billion, but the project is only 26% complete.
The National Police are investigating potential embezzlement.
“It’s odd that a city with a budget of over Hr 60 billion ($2.2 billion) can’t even solve problems with traffic, yet continues to permit haphazard construction,” Zaburanna told the Kyiv Post.
“But it’s not only the mayor but also department heads, local utility services’ heads and the city council,” she added.
“I think that the separation of powers between the head of the Kyiv City Administration and the mayor will allow for a more transparent spending.”
Despite obvious shortcomings, Klitschko’s approval rating hasn’t been shaken by corruption scandals and accusations of mismanagement that have followed him since he became mayor in 2014.
Klitschko remains popular in Kyiv and is eyeing a potential return to the national stage.
“I have ambitions,” said Klitschko in May after Zelensky’s comments about the mayor’s potential presidential bid.
After finishing his successful boxing career, Klitschko found himself to be one of Ukraine’s most popular politicians.
During the 2012 parliamentary election, Klitschko’s UDAR party came in third with 14% of the vote.
In 2014, months before snap presidential elections, Klitschko, who was the second most popular politician in the country, abstained from running. Klitschko folded his own political project and ran in the 2014 Kyiv mayoral election.
Klitschko’s national recognition condensed to Kyiv and Fesenko says that the mayor is trying to use the ongoing animosity between him and the president to elevate himself back onto the national stage.
“Klitschko depicts himself as practically the main opponent of Zelensky and that the president’s office is afraid of him,” says Fesenko. “I think the president’s office has more important issues to worry about.”
According to Rating Group, the mayor’s UDAR party is currently supported by a mere 4.3% nationwide.
Davydiuk disagrees. “If Klitschko, who has a very low disapproval rating, constantly appears on Ukrainian TV, he has a good chance to increase his electoral support,” says Davydiuk. “That’s why Zelensky has essentially already begun his re-election campaign and is trying to sink his main political opponents.”
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