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The personal battle for Kharkiv

September 30, 2014

Today, much media time and headlines within Ukraine will be given to the toppling of the enormous statue of Lenin in Kharkiv last night.

A symbolic statement to be sure – and one that Lenin himself would have approved of having made clear in his life he did not want to become a personality of cult status.

Whether the act was illegal is somewhat unclear.  It is said that regional governor Igor Baluta signed an order to dismantle the statue moments before it fell – although that order may well have been a face-saving effort in what was a fait accompli.  The statute was going to fall anyway, legally or otherwise.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov stated orders had been given to the police to insure the safety of the crowds – but not that of the statue.  An entry on his Facebook states “Lenin? Let him fall.  As long as people don’t get hurt. As long as this bloody communist idol does not take more victims with it when it goes.”  – As well as a clear statement that those who would exploit the situation and turn it into a violent clash would be met with force.

Fair enough.  The regional governor signs a decree to dismantle the statue before if falls, the Interior Minister orders the police to insure public safety but not intervene in the removal of the statue, and Lenin himself may lie a little more at ease in his mausoleum as the largest statue to him in Ukraine to the cult personality he forbade is removed.

However, Gennady Kernes, Mayor of Kharkiv states that the statue’s removal is illegal and that he will restore it on the Kharkiv City website.

Why?  Gennady Kernes is no Leninist, needs public support to remain in office, and having already been almost fatally shot this year by persons unknown and for any one of a number of reasons, has been far more reclusive since – until now.

At the time of his shooting I wrote this “…….Kharkiv stood 2 days ago with a huge Ukrainian unity rally, and yesterday the city mayor, Gennady Kernes was shot and seriously injured.  Who wants to be next to allow their town or city to rebuff Kremlin advances if that is the fate they will face?

This is writing on the presumption Mr Kernes was shot for political reasons – and not over nefarious business dealings with Pavel Fuchs and Alex Shishkin. More inquiring minds may look beyond the obvious and toward the ЗАО Завод Здоровье company in Kharkiv and a few pharmaceutical deals in Germany and Switzerland involving Messrs Kernes and Fuchs for alternative motive – it remains to be seen which is the case.  Their relationship apparently took a turn for the worse over the past 6 weeks. Enough said.  Perhaps we will never know if his attempted assassination was due to politics or business – perhaps it is both.”

The reason for Mr Kernes’ response is more likely to be seated within a long standing personal feud with Mr Avakov.

Both men have been involved in the murky world of Kharkiv business and politics since the late 1990s/early 2000s.  Mr Kernes (Party of Regions) and Mr Avakov (Batkivshchyna) running for Kharkiv Mayor in 2010 with Mr Kernes emerging victorious with a margin of 0.63%.

In 2012  Mr Avakov was forced into exile in Italy when charges were laid against him regarding allegedly nefarious land deals.  Later that year he became a Batkivshchyna RADA MP and the court charges dropped allowing his return to Ukraine.

Mr Kernes was initially overtly pro-Separatist earlier this year – a position that publicly softened when Kharkiv stood rather than fell to Kremlin proxies – whilst Mr Avakov was (as he remains) acting Interior Minister and thus by default pro-Ukrainian.

In short, there is a clear and deep-seated personal dislike between these two men – Lenin’s statue is an irrelevance to both, other than something public to cross swords over once more.

That yesterday Mr Avakov as Interior Minister was happy to see the Lenin statue removed, it almost inherently means that Mr Kernes will replace it.  That one maintains its dismantling was legal, the other will claim it illegal and vandalism.

This latest spat, with elections one month away, is quite likely to turn into a public and ugly spectacle – though their personal feud and designs over the future development of Kharkiv, will be on-going for years.

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