Zelenskyy Vs Klychko: Coercion to Loyalty or Neutralization of Competitor?
27 August, 2021
Collage Photo: Anton Shyshenok / hromadske

Things have turned even sourer between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vitaliy Klychko recently. The two exchanged informational blows during the week, and on August 20, the mayor of the capital became the villain of the next episode of the "Friday's National Security and Defense Council" series. Ukrainian politicians have been discussing for some time the possibility of "sanctions" against the mayor in the form of his dismissal from the post of the Kyiv City State Administration chairman.

These rumors surfaced during yet another wave of searches in the capital. First, the prosecutor's office visited the Kyiv City State Administration's education department due to "misuse of budget funds." Then the investigators came to the Department of Education of the Pechersk District State Administration because of the purchase of school furniture at inflated prices. Then the Prosecutor General's Office exposed a persistent criminal group of Kyiv City State Administration officials who abused the evacuation of private cars.

At the same time, there were protests over the demolition of historic buildings in the center and a conflict over the placement of a "Soviet installation" on Instytutska Street in central Kyiv.

Klychko himself called all this systemic politically motivated pressure on the Kyiv authorities. "This is done for one purpose: to tarnish my reputation and to create a basis to appoint, contrary to the Constitution, a vagrant protege – and not the one elected by Kyiv residents – as the head of the Kyiv City State Administration" the mayor said in his video address. Although Klychko remained in office after the National Security and Defense Council meeting, a bad patch between the president's and the mayor's teams has not ended.

hromadske looks into why the conflict between Bankova Street and Khreshchatyk is gaining momentum again, whether the President’s Office would get rid of the problematic mayor, and how this could be done.


Claims to the mayor

Servant of the People MPs consider Klychko's accusations about persecution unfounded. In a conversation with hromadske, the head of the capital branch of Zelenskyy's party Lesya Zaburanna assures: the central government has no problems with Klychko, but there are complaints of problems in the city.

"Are the people of Kyiv satisfied with the condition of the bridge crossings, the construction of infrastructure facilities, the ecology, the condition of drinking water? We see how the huge budget of Kyiv is distributed. Take the Shuliavskyi overpass, for instance. Its cost has increased four-fold since the construction began," says Zaburanna.

Мер Києва Віталій Кличко під час перевірки робіт із реконструкції Шулявського шляхопроводу в Києві, 20 березня 2019 року

Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klychko during an inspection of works on the reconstruction of the Shuliavskyi overpass in Kyiv, March 20, 2019. Photo: Andriy Skakodub / UNIAN

Party leader Oleksandr Korniyenko complains that he, as a Kyivan, "would not like to see Kyiv like this." He adds that they do not make any accusations against Klychko – objections are only to the people he appoints.

For two years, the President’s Office and the mayor of Kyiv had both conflicts and periods of understanding.

In July 2019, it became obvious that the president and mayor of Kyiv largely disagree. Then, for the first time, the idea was voiced that Klychko's positions would be divided – according to the law, the elected mayor of Kyiv should also be appointed head of the Kyiv City State Administration.

"I met with President Zelenskyy: they spoke calmly, the president confirmed the rumors about the division of powers. The head of the Kyiv City State Administration is his power structure, he is going to appoint his man there… This is a return to [Viktor] Yanukovych's methods," Klychko said in a video message at the time.

Already in September 2019, Oleksiy Honcharuk's government approved Klychko's dismissal, and in October of the same year, Oleksandr Tkachenko submitted his e-declaration as a candidate for the position of the Kyiv City State Administration chairman. Behind this was the then head of the President's Office Andriy Bohdan. The appointment of its head of the Kyiv City State Administration was seen as a starting point for the mayoral election. However, Bohdan failed to finish what he started.

When Andriy Yermak replaced Bohdan on Bankova Street, he and Klychko quickly found common ground. The mayor agreed to several appointments from Bankova. "There was a sense of agreement, constructive cooperation," said Volodymyr Fesenko – a political scientist close to the President’s Office – in a comment to hromadske.

Despite Zelenskyy's party's poor performance at the election in Kyiv, two members of the president's team immediately became Klychko's deputies. In total, the head of the Kyiv City State Administration currently has 13 deputies.

"After the election, the Servant of the People received a significant share of the positions of commission chairmen in the Kyiv City Council. There was no controversy or opposition to Klychko. Everyone worked together," recalls Klychko team representative Yehor Checherynda in an interview with hromadske.

However, Zelenskyy believes that Klychko violated the agreement. Bankova stated that they allegedly had the impression that the mayor was not as independent a figure as he made it out to be and was influenced by his entourage.

"The courtier retinue ‘wooes’ him from all directions. Namely Volodymyr Bondarenko, Artur Palatnyi, and, possibly, Vadym Stolar and Denys Komarnytskyi. In Klychko's office, he seems to be responsible for his words, and then he goes out and does things differently," an anonymous source familiar with the matter told hromadske.

Співробітники Служби безпеки України проводять обшук в офісі Дениса Комарницького, Київ, 31 жовтня 2019 року. Документи з комп'ютера Комарницького, вилучені силовиками, були нібито пізніше передані журналістам

Security Service of Ukraine officers search Denys Komarnytskyi's office in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, October 31, 2019. Documents from Komarnytskyi's computer, confiscated by security forces, were allegedly later handed over to journalists. Photo: Vyacheslav Ratynskyi / UNIAN

Vadym Stolar and Denys Komarnytskyi are involved in the investigation of the Bihus.Info project. According to journalists, during Klychko's tenure, the companies of these developers received billions’ worth of contracts.

But is there a corruption link between the mayor and the developers? "Obviously, Klychko as the mayor is connected with the capital's developers. Probably, he knows them and cooperates with them. To what extent there is corruption is a question for the investigative bodies," said Klychko's team representative Checherynda.

In an interview with UA: Ukrainian Radio, Klychko himself stated that he understood the importance: "of not defending the interests of developers under any circumstances." In the same interview, he admitted that there are certain problems in communication with the president.

In response to a question from a Ukrainian Radio journalist whether he wanted to call the president to discuss controversial issues, Klychko said: "I tried many times during the year, and then I realized that it didn't make sense – he was very busy." In May, the mayor mentioned in an interview with Ukrainian Radio that he had not seen Zelenskyy for six months.

But after the appointment of Yermak as head of the President's Office, everything was different – he established a dialogue with the mayor. However, now Yermak is allegedly the one who started a new war with Klychko.

"After Yermak felt his strength in the president's team, and the president's team realized that they no longer needed any allies, even situational ones, they decided to replace Klychko," said Checherynda, commenting on another round of searches in Kyiv.

The second wave of aggravation in the relationship occurred in May. Then law enforcement officers "accidentally" visited Klychko's apartment. They claimed to have come to search his neighbors.

Мер Києва Віталій Кличко виходить зі своєї квартири в будинку, куди навідалися з обшуком правоохоронці, Київ, 18 травня 2021 року

Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klychko leaves his apartment in a house visited by police, Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, May 18, 2021. Photo: Borys Korpusenko / UNIAN

Klychko himself had a different version of why those "guests" paid a visit. "We have been warned that if the mayor of Kyiv continues to call on all local government leaders to unite, you will have problems," he told Ukrainian Radio. At the same time, Klychko said that regular meetings are held to discuss the activity of the Kyiv mayor.

The president's team denies that law enforcement officers coordinated to act against the capital's authorities. The activity of law enforcement, according to our source, comes in waves. Last week, we witnessed the third wave of aggravation – searches and regular talks about dismissal.

Zelenskyy's main sparring partner?

In addition to pressure, Klychko complains of intentions to destroy his reputation. And the mayor's associates are convinced that this is being done to get rid of a competitor in the presidential election.

Checherynda notes the high level of trust in Klychko – and this is confirmed by a sociological group "Rating" poll. Even though Klychko's current popularity as presidential candidate is only 2%, the level of trust can be a good start for the presidential campaign. "This means that there is a large margin for electoral growth. With a good campaign, with favorable political events, the rating may increase, and Klychko may well become the main competitor of the incumbent president," said a representative of Klychko's team.

At the same time, Checherynda adds that Klychko, like Zelenskyy, is still perceived as a non-systemic politician. The two leaders may share the electorate, and, accordingly, fight between them for these voters.

Zelenskyy's team recognizes the intersection of the audience with Klychko. However, they add: this is a problem exclusively for the mayor, because now those voters are on Zelenskyy's side. In addition, Bankova believes that Klychko has no presidential prospects.

"First, he is not regarded as a national politician. Our mayors are turning into Groysmans: a good prime minister, a businessman, an economist, a minister. But not a unifying politician. Secondly, the people still remember the story of [Petro] Poroshenko and Vienna (the agreement in the spring of 2014 to participate in the elections, which may have been reached with the participation of oligarchs Dmytro Firtash and Serhiy Lyovochkin – ed.). That's why they need an extremely strong [impulse]," said a representative of Zelenskyy's team.

At the same time, he reveals what they can really be wary of when it comes to the political prospects of the Kyiv mayor.

"Klychko is now playing a parliamentary story. And he can try to become the protagonist in [Rinat] Akhmetov's sector, where [Ihor] Smeshko, [Volodymyr] Groysman, [Oleh] Lyashko are. Maybe he will even capture a little of Poroshenko's electorate. That's why I would be afraid of Klychko. This may be an application for an attempt to form a coalition with us in the next parliament," explains a representative of Zelenskyy's team.

As part of this parliamentary campaign, Klychko is trying to unite local government leaders. The President's Office instead set up by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, headed by Yermak. It is noteworthy that the mayor of Dnipro Borys Filatov, with whom Bankova also fought last year, cooperated with the president.

From notable figures, Klychko was able to recruit the mayor of Chernihiv Vladyslav Atroshenko to his Association of Cities. In late July, the two mayors announced that their parties would run in the parliamentary elections together.

Мер Києва Віталій Кличко під час пленарного засідання Конституційного суду України, в Києві, 12 грудня 2019 року. Того дня КСУ розпочав розгляд справи щодо можливості поєднання посад голови КМДА і мера Києва та повноважень президента призначати й звільняти голову Київської міськдержадміністрації

Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klychko during the plenary session of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, in Kyiv, on December 12, 2019. On that day, the CCU began consideration of the case concerning the possibility of combining the positions of the head of the Kyiv City State Administration and the mayor of Kyiv and the powers of the president to appoint and dismiss the head of the Kyiv City State Administration. Photo: Andriy Skakodub / UNIAN

How and who will replace Klychko in the Kyiv City State Administration?

"It's a little sad that Klychko didn't turn up," Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksiy Danilov summed up the meeting on August 20. In the absence of the mayor, the NSDC discussed the uncontrolled construction and destruction of historic buildings.

The possibility of removing Klychko from the post of the head of the Kyiv City State Administration by the decision of the National Security and Defense Council is ruled out by the president's team. Currently, the working option for Bankova is to split the positions of the head of the Kyiv City State Administration and the mayor.

"This is a question of the city's management system, in which there is a contradiction. It lies in the fact that in the Constitution itself (and, as a consequence, throughout the country) there is one system of governance of the region: there is the head of the regional state administration and the district state administration, who are appointed by the president on the proposal of the Cabinet. Kyiv has its own way, which up-ends everything," Korniyenko, the head of the Servant of the People party, told journalists. Thus, he explained the need to reform the management of the capital through amendments to the "Law on Kyiv".

A spokesman for the president's team also said he wanted to split the two positions due to a change in the law. However, he admits that this path has certain difficulties, in particular due to the need to amend the Constitution. To do this, you need to get at least 300 votes in the Council, and they may not be enough.

"In the end, we will divide the positions. Klychko will moan a lot. He is unlikely to gather the Maidan for this, but will use it as a starting point for UDAR to promote the party in the elections," said a representative of Zelenskyy's team.

Klychko, in turn, assures that he will hold onto the position of the chairman of KSCA. But he warns that the separation of the two positions could lead to problems with city management. "In simple words: here you get in a taxi and see two drivers. Everyone has their own plan on how to get there, so you run the risk of getting to the very first intersection and crashing there," the mayor warned against dual power in the city during an interview with Ukrainian Radio.

Рекламний щит із зображенням Ірини Верещук, кандидатки на посаду міського голови Києва, 23 вересня 2020 року

Billboard with the image of Iryna Vereshchuk, candidate for the position of the mayor of Kyiv, September 23, 2020. Photo: Maksym Polishchuk / UNIAN

Klychko's team member Checherynda suggests those who want to gain power in Kyiv a democratic way: to try to defeat Klychko in the early elections and also to hold two positions. In last year's election, Iryna Vereshchuk, a representative of the presidential party, received only 5.44% of the vote in Kyiv.

In addition to the legitimate procedure, the appointment of a new head of the Kyiv City State Administration from the president's team has one more goal: to determine a person who will be able to share dual power in the capital with Klychko.

During the week ahead of the NSDC meeting, Minister Oleksiy Chernyshov surfaced as a possible replacement for Klychko in the Kyiv City State Administration. But he himself denied the possibility of this.

A representative of the president's team tells hromadske that the shortlist of candidates for the post of head of the Kyiv City State Administration has a dozen people, and Chernyshov is not among them. "They thought about Yuriy Holik (in charge of Zelenskyy’s 'Great Construction' program – ed.), MP Olena Shulyak, MP Yuliya Hrishyna, MP Lesya Zaburanna, MP Iryna Vereshchuk, and KCSA first deputy head Oleksiy Kuleba," he said.

He also adds that not everyone supports the war with Klychko. There is a group of deputies who prefer friendship with the mayor. Moreover, the Servant of the People faction in the Kyiv City Council is divided into four groups, and each has its own interests.

Bankova demonstrates to everyone that the decision on the capital is the Office’s prerogative. And although Zelenskyy's team is currently experiencing another aggravation of relations with the mayor, everything may change – with the mayor of Dnipro Borys Filatov being a recent example. If only there is a will to concede in personnel, and, consequently, financial issues.