MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — Oleksandr Senkevych impressed many in November 2015, when he defeated a candidate from the old local elite for mayor of Mykolaiv, a southern provincial capital with a strong pro-Russian sentiment.

Senkevych, 35, an information technology director from the pro-Western Samopomich Party, beat ex-governor Igor Diatlov from the Opposition Bloc party, which was formed by former allies of fugitive ex-President Viktor Yanukovych.

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Now Senkevych is trying to prove he can make a difference in this city of almost 490,000 residents, some 500 kilometers south of Kyiv. Mykolaiv has suffered years of stagnation in independent Ukraine following the collapse of its shipbuilding industry.

Valuable resource

When the shipyards stopped, skilled workers and education centers remained. So Senkevych is trying to lure investors by promoting the skilled workers, who he calls the city’s “most valuable resource.”

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“They’re creative workaholics,” he told the Kyiv Post in an interview in his spacious office in Mykolaiv City Hall, just days after his return from a business trip to Turkey.

He added that the local people are ready to work for a relatively low salary. The average salary in Mykolaiv is only $270 per month. The city topped a ranking of European mid-sized cities in terms of cost effectiveness, according to fDi Intelligence Global Cities ranking 2016/17.

“I’m ready to lead every investor by the hand through the various commissions, go through all the procedures with them,” Senkevych said. “I’m ready to be a lobbyist for every reliable investor here.’

Scandals

But Senkevych admits investors are still wary about coming to Mykolaiv, fearing instability, lack of security and corruption scandals.

In June, Mykolaiv Oblast Governor Vadym Merikov resigned after his deputy was accused of receiving a bribe of possibly $100,000.

The new governor, Oleksiy Savchenko, who was appointed by a local selection committe in October after an open competition, also sparked a scandal after journalists from the Schemes investigative television program found that he had made dozens of grammatical mistakes in his test.

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Senkevych, however, said he had built a good working relationship with Savchenko. “He has also come from business, so we have no misunderstandings,” he said.

Savchenko, who is a member of President Petro Poroshenko’s party, came to politics from the banking sector.
Before going to politics in 2014, Senkevych co-founded IT company Quadrologic in 2005, and later also worked in the construction business.

Now he said he earns just his mayoral salary of some $370 a month, while his wife manages his businesses and supports the family.

“But for most public officials city management is just a way to become rich,” he said.

More transparent

Senkevych said now he’s trying to make the city policy more transparent and cut away all the “temptations” to use his post for profit.

“We’re creating the registry of communal property and plan to mark all city property on a special electronic map by April 30,” he said.

Senkevych said that thanks to his efforts, Mykolaiv has already risen in the rankings of the country’s cities.
According to an International Republican Institute municipal survey conducted at the end of 2016, Mykolaiv’s residents are the third least optimistic in Ukraine regarding improvements in the local economy. They were the least optimistic in the previous year’s survey.

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The city also came 13th out of 50 big Ukrainian cities in a local government transparency ranking conducted by the Kyiv-based International Center for Policy Studies in 2016.

Frustrated efforts

Senkevych said his priority for 2017 is to improve city’s environment and budget planning.

But he said the City Council, where most deputies are from the Opposition Bloc, often frustrates his efforts.

Senkevych’s Samopomich Party is now the main opposition force to Poroshenko. This also creates difficulties for the mayor, who tries to be on good terms with the present authorities, including Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman and his own party boss Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy.

“I don’t isolate myself from those in power,” he said, adding that the last time he met Sadovy was two weeks ago. He met with Poroshenko two months ago.

In September, Senkevych tried to help his party leader by offering to take part of the garbage from Lviv, which has experienced troubles with waste disposal. But local city council members nixed that plan, and the offer was withdrawn.

Smear campaign

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Another problem for the mayor is a smear campaign in the local media and even the delivery of free newspapers with anti-mayoral propaganda. Senkevych accuses the former governor, Merikov, of being behind the campaign.

Mykolaiv has five TV channels, five big newspapers and several dozen local news websites, most of which are dependent on either business or political forces, said Viktoriya Veselovska, who teaches at the local College of Press and TV.

But she said Senkevych is being criticized by the local media largely because he has failed to build a good PR strategy for himself, and his political enemies are merely taking advantage of this shortcoming.
“The mayor hasn’t given any press conference so far,” she said. “If it continues like this, we may see the revenge of the Opposition Bloc.”

High expectations

Olena Lik, 27, walking with her baby in the park along the city’s riverfront, agrees. Lik said she voted for Senkevych back in 2015, but now she’s disappointed with his performance.

“We had Lenin Avenue renamed and the road rebuilt there. That’s it,” Lik said. “Our European hopes can’t make us ignore the dirt and rubbish in the city.”

Senkevych admits he was elected largely due to the rise of patriotism in Mykolaiv. Many of his campaign activists worked for free to prevent a victory by pro-Yanukovych’s forces.

But since the expectations were so high, it’s hard to meet them all, especially so quickly, he said.
“It would be good to meet at least 1/10th of all the expectations people have of me,” he said.

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