The mayoral election in Kyiv, which was held simultaneously with the national parliamentary elections on March 26, produced a sensation. Leonid Chernovetsky, a maverick nouveau riche whose bid for city hall was hardly taken seriously in the beginning, came out ahead. While the two favorites in the race, incumbent mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko and former international boxing champion Vitaly Klitchko, heavily relied on the mass media and support from established political parties, banker Chernovetsky opted for door-to-door campaigning and what he calls “charity,” but prosecutors suspect to be a case of mass vote buying.
Chernovetsky won the election scoring almost 32% of the votes, trailed by Klitchko with 24% and Omelchenko with 21%. Klitchko hurried to congratulate Chernovetsky when just 15% of the votes had been counted. But Omelchenko, reluctant to vacate his post after a decade, has pledged to fight in the courts, claiming that his rivals used illegal methods. So, despite Chernovetsky’s victory in the election, the fight is not over for him.
After working as a prosecutor, Chernovetsky, 55, founded Pravex, now one of Ukraine’s top 30 banks, at the height of the perestroika era in the late 1980s. He ran for president of Ukraine in 2004, but performed very modestly in the first round, and backed Viktor Yushchenko in the subsequent rounds. Chernovetsky has sat in parliament since 1996, earning a dubious reputation for being simultaneously an ostentatious moralist and a troublemaker. He once nearly knocked down a rival tycoon in a fistfight and the Communists complained that he verbally insulted them from the rostrum, but he also drafted more than 120 bills, mostly on public morals and corruption.
Chernovetsky’s lifestyle is unique. Unlike many other post-Soviet tycoons, he does not try to hide his wealth. Chernovetsky was one of the first Ukrainians to buy a Maybach and a Mercedes McLaren, cars costing in the region of $500,000 each. As a prominent member of the Embassy of God, a Kyiv-based charismatic church, Chernovetsky once sent copies of the Bible to all members of parliament and, as he claimed in an interview on the church’s website, “to all judges in Ukraine.”
In his mayoral campaign, Chernovetsky targeted the poor and the underprivileged, especially the elderly, most of whom were impoverished by the wild capitalism that accompanied the transition to a market economy. He distributed his own newspaper for free, mostly in poor neighborhoods, so many of the better-off Kyivites apparently were not even aware of Chernovetsky’s mayoral ambition. His team also offered free legal advice and medical services and handed out food not only through his network of charity centers, but also directly delivered to the apartments of the needy.
What Chernovetsky calls “charity” his rivals allege is an illegal campaign tool. Omelchenko has sued Chernovetsky over the food and money handouts, demanding that the mayoral election be invalidated. On April 3, the head of the Kyiv electoral commission, Halyna Bilyk, announced that Kyiv prosecutors had opened a criminal case to investigate allegations of mass voter bribery by Chernovetsky. He promptly denied the charge and accused Omelchenko of trying to disrupt the election.
He may have a difficult time not only in the courts, but also in the city executive, where Omelchenko left behind many of his appointees and cronies. Immediately on hearing the news that he was ahead in the race, Chernovetsky said his first step as mayor would be to dismiss district heads in Kyiv. A bit later, however, he promised that he would not sack anybody. “Work quietly, I love and respect you,” UNIAN news agency quoted him as saying.
Chernovetsky, however, said that he would use polygraphs to determine who should work in the town hall and who should not. Among other non-conventional measures suggested by Chernovetsky are direct elections of district physicians and neighborhood police. A Russophone originating from eastern Kharkiv, Chernovetsky also pledged to learn to speak Ukrainian.
Chernovetsky’s eponymous bloc of parties also performed surprisingly well in the Kyiv city council race. The Bloc of Chernovetsky finished second behind the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, beating such usually strong parties as the pro-presidential Our Ukraine, Pora, the Party of Regions, and the Socialists. The Tymoshenko and Our Ukraine factions have already indicated their willingness to cooperate with Chernovetsky’s people. The composition of his bloc, however, may give grounds for accusations of nepotism; Ukrayinska pravda calculated at least three of Chernovetsky’s relatives will now sit on the city council, including his son Stepan.
(www.godembassy.org, July 11, 2004; ICTV, March 27; Darnytsya Syohodni, No 14, March 2006; Ukrayinska pravda, March 29, April 3; UNIAN, March 31; Delo, UT1 TV, April 3)