Death of Kharkiv mayor Kernes marks end of era

On December 17, 2020, Kharkiv’s controversial and influential mayor Hennadiy Kernes died in Berlin from Covid-19 complications following months of treatment. The death of 61-year-old Kernes marks the end of a political era in Ukraine’s second largest city. City Council Secretary Ihor Terekhov now assumes the role of acting mayor.

Kernes had been a fixture of Kharkiv politics since he was first elected to the city council in March 1998. With his degree in jurisprudence, Kernes quickly moved up to Secretary of the City Council by April 2002. The Secretary of the City Council is an influential position in Ukraine, with considerable power to control the agenda. In total, he would win election to three terms on the city council (1998, 2002, and 2006).

In the October 2010 Kharkiv mayoral election, Kernes ran as the candidate for the ruling Party of Regions against Arsen Avakov, who had served as previous Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko’s pick as governor of Kharkiv Oblast from 2005 until 2010. In what turned out to be the closest election of the year, Kernes prevailed over Avakov by just 0.6% out of almost 430,000 votes.

Avakov would later be forced to flee to Italy on trumped up criminal charges for the remainder of the Yanukovych administration. However, he returned to Ukraine during the 2013-14 Euromaidan Revolution and became Ukrainian Interior Minister. Avakov remains in that post to this day, almost seven years later.

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Throughout his career, Kernes proved to be a remarkably successful political survivor with an instinct for following the prevailing winds. Though he backed the Orange Revolution in 2004, he switched to the Party of Regions by the time of Ukraine’s 2006 parliamentary election.

During the 2013-14 Euromaidan protest movement, Kernes was a strong backer of President Yanukovych and faced accusations of ties to “titushki” gangs (hired thugs used by the authorities to provoke violence against protesters). Due to his alleged activities during the Euromaidan protests, Kernes would face a criminal case involving death threats, kidnapping, and torture of Euromaidan participants. Ultimately, he would escape prosecution.

Just a couple weeks after Yanukovych fled Ukraine and escaped to Russia, Kernes announced in March 2014 that he had been a “prisoner of the Yanukovych system” and began cooperating with the new Euromaidan government. His change of heart, or at least political orientation, helped thwart Kremlin-backed efforts to establish a separatist republic in Kharkiv.

This last and most dramatic of perceived switches came at a high price. In April 2014, Kernes was the victim of an apparent assassination attempt by an unknown sniper while out jogging in Kharkiv. Amazingly, he survived the gunshot, but was confined to a wheelchair thereafter. Despite this life-changing injury, Kernes cruised to re-election victory one year later. In the October 2015 mayoral election, he won a commanding 66% share of the vote.

Kernes owed his undoubted popularity as mayor to a reputation for effective governance, which helped secure particularly strong support among older Kharkiv residents who grew up in the Soviet system. He ensured responsive constituent services, city transport that ran on time, and made sure communal services costs remained inexpensive. In short, the city functioned reasonably well under his stewardship.

Kernes last appeared in public on August 23, 2020, when Kharkiv celebrated its annual City Day holiday. Three weeks later, he sought medical treatment in Germany. However, not even coronavirus could prevent another landslide Kernes election victory. On October 25, the mayor was re-elected with 60% of the vote. Despite this impressive win, Kernes would never return to Kharkiv. Eight days after taking the oath in absentia for a third mayoral term, he passed away.

During the October 25 city council elections, Kernes’ political party, Successful Kharkiv, won the most votes, receiving 34 of 84 seats on Kharkiv City Council. Ihor Terekhov, who served as First Deputy Mayor of Kharkiv and had been Kernes’ loyal lieutenant since 2015, was re-elected to the council, this time as City Council Secretary, a post once held by Kernes.

Under Ukrainian law, when a mayor dies in office, the City Council Secretary takes over as acting mayor. Thus, 53-year-old Terekhov now takes over the reins of the city, with the governing coalition led by Kernes’ party still intact. In an ironic twist, Terekhov originally received his big political break as Deputy Governor to Kernes’ arch political rival Arsen Avakov back in 2007.

The key tasks for Terekhov will be to maintain the governing coalition, continue to provide city services, and outmaneuver political rivals who now see an election on the horizon. Under Ukrainian law, Terekhov must apply within 15 days to the Ukrainian parliament with a petition to call a new mayoral election. Parliament then has 90 days to consider the petition terminating the deceased mayor’s powers.

Following approval of this petition, a new election can then be scheduled which includes the appropriate period for campaigning. Given the political importance of the Kharkiv mayor’s office, as well as the uncertainties of how Covid-19 will affect the country, an election may not take place any time soon. It is expected that parliament will not rush to set a new election date, so in all likelihood, a vote will not happen until at least mid-May 2021.

Having an essentially “open seat” for the office of mayor in a special election is sure to attract a number of political candidates, ranging from President Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party to an Avakov-appointed candidate, since the interior minister still plays an influential role in the life of the city. They will all compete against acting incumbent Terekhov. As Kharkiv adjusts to life after Kernes, we can expect this strategically and economically important city on the border with Russia to be one of the focuses of Ukrainian political activity during the first half of 2021.

Brian Mefford is the Director of Wooden Horse Strategies, LLC, a governmental-relations and strategic communications firm based in Kyiv, Ukraine. He is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: Long-serving Kharkiv mayor Hennadiy Kernes died in Germany in December following months of treatment for coronavirus. (REUTERS/Stringer)