Political portrait of the warring Kharkiv region: Top-5 political transformations
77 years ago, World War II ended in victory over Nazism, which the civilized world honors with the slogan «Never again». However, Ukraine has already been experiencing this “impossible recurrence» on full scale for 77 days, and the fiercest fighting takes place, in particular, in the Kharkiv region, where during the war 22 of the 56 territorial communities turned out to be in full or partial temporary occupation.
Analytical center “Observatory for Democracy” represents the first part of monitoring the political life of the Kharkiv region during the war. A general “political portrait” of the region in individuals whose positions and actions turned out to be surprisingly different and sometimes unexpected is composed of the brightest personal cases in this material.
Source: photo collage made up of photos available in open access and social networks.
№1. Konstantin Nemichev (Head of the battalion of Kharkiv special unit «KRAKEN», Head of the regional organization «National Corps»)
26-year-old Konstantin Nemichev is not a completely “new face” in Kharkiv politics – in 2019 he nominated his candidacy for the Verkhovna Rada in the 170th district (Moscow district in Kharkiv), in March 2021 he was elected as a chairman of the Public Council at Kharkiv Regional State Administration, and in Autumn 2021 Nemichev ran in the early mayoral election (took the 4th place with a result of 4.26% or 12,295 votes). Last year’s citywide campaign certainly helped the profile of young politician to rise in Kharkiv. But in 2022, relatively speaking, the transition to the “major league” occurs with Nemichev. In the video from February 19 Nemichev delivers a powerful speech before the start of the training “Do not panic! Get ready!” organized by the “National Corps”, and from this and the subsequent speeches of the politician it is visible how more harmoniously and confidently he feels in such a format, than in studios of TV channels on pre-election debates. At the beginning of the war, Nemichev became a leader of the battalion formed of volunteers from the KRAKEN special forces, combining military and political activities. Nemichev is one of the few Kharkiv politicians invited to join the National Telethon. The audience of his personal telegram channel has grown tenfold and is now approaching 50,000 subscribers. And on April 17, Nemichev organized the dismantling of a bust of Georgy Zhukov in Kharkiv, about which disputes with the city authorities lasted for years. The Kharkiv leader of the «National Corps», of course, belongs to the type of politicians whose element is war, and given this, it will be interesting to watch the reverse incarnation after its completion. The obvious trend and demand for the military (in a broad sense) gives Nemichev good prospects, but at the same time he will have to develop more comprehensively as a politician to remain relevant to voters in the future.
№2. Oleg Synegubov (Head of Kharkiv Regional State Administration)
Appointed on December 24, 2021, the Head of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration Oleg Synegubov became the fourth head of the region in 13 months. Some political telegram channels even claimed that Sinegubov tried to resist his transfer from the position of the Head of the Poltava Regional State Administration (where he spent more than two years) to “troubled Kharkiv”, where the rotation of governors took place in such a “turbo mode” that residents did not have time to memorize the leaders. Given the subsequent events, it can be stated that Sinegubov’s intuition did not disappoint as his new role and front of tasks are radically different from what he would have to do in Poltava. But it should be noted that in current conditions Oleg Sinegubov looks organic and effective – at least in terms of public communications (his effectiveness as a crisis manager for the socio-economic situation in the region can be assessed later). Possibly, this is helped by a balanced background, which is the experience in law enforcement and a university career. If the level of recognition of several previous leaders of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration was objectively low, and some of them deliberately avoided public communication (especially Aina Tymchuk), Oleg Sinegubov became known as the head of the region to the general public in a relatively short time. Currently, his personal telegram channel has almost 300,000 subscribers, and the Head of the Civil- military administration himself is one of the most quoted Ukrainian politicians. After the appointment of Sinegubov, expert circles discussed how independent the new head of the region will be in personnel policy, and, apparently, he received some carte blanche to form his own team. Two weeks before the war, Vita Kowalska was appointed as the Deputy Head of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration, and on April 27 there was information that the Cabinet of Ministers had approved another deputy, Igor Panchenko (however, there is no mention of him on the Kharkiv Regional State Administration website in the “Guide” section yet). Kovalska is in charge of the humanitarian bloc in the regional administration, and 30-year-old Panchenko, according to media reports, will be responsible for digital transformations in the region. It is noteworthy that both worked with Sinegubov in Poltava, which means that the first personnel steps of the Head of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration was to attract his team from the previous position. Oleg Sinegubov also often appears at public events alongside two people’s deputies of the «Servants of the People” from Kharkiv, Oleksiy Krasov (district №180) and Pavel Yakymenko (№98 on the party list). If Krasov is a well-known majority deputy, who was considered, among others, a possible Head of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration (and Sinegubov was Krasov’s proxy in the 2019 election), Yakymenko, elected on the list, remained private and little known among Kharkiv residents for almost three years. One way or another, in these less than three months Oleg Sinegubov has shown signs of becoming an influential public and political entity in the regional dimension, trying to determine the team and the circle of close people, minimally dependent on the balance in the regional council or the whims of local business groups.
№3. Serhiy Zhadan (writer, singer)
As in 2014, one of the peculiarities of Ukrainian society’s reaction to Russian aggression was the massive surge in “horizontal self-organization”. Abstracting from the question of why the state budget was short of equipment and the need for voluntary gatherings to equip the military again, it should be noted that the volunteer movement has opened a “second breath” after a relative weakening in 2016-2021. In both current areas, which are equipping the army and giving humanitarian aid to the population, a large number of organizations and foundations currently work in the Kharkiv region, many entrepreneurs help, in particular, not publicly. In this context, it is not entirely correct to single out someone, but even if we choose the personification of this volunteer movement and civic consolidation, the arguments in favor of the person of Serhiy Zhadan seem quite strong. The well-known writer and vocalist of his own band has retrained as a freight forwarder since February 24, which he systematically reports on social networks, while encouraging his more than 100,000 personal audience to raise funds. Zhadan also records interviews with military experts, rectors of Kharkiv universities, government officials, plays concerts and reads poems in the subway, etc. What is characteristic in the political sense is that it acts as a “common denominator” for the traditionally diverse “patriotic camp”. For example, recording interviews with the Deputy Chairmen of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration Roman Semenukha and Oleksandr Skakun and delivering the humanitarian aid together with the head of the European Solidarity faction Oleg Abramichev, who, by the way, is a co-founder of the Serhiy Zhadan`s Charitable Foundation. In 2013-2014 Serhiy Zhadan became the “voice of Euromaidan”, but at the end of February 2014 he left the Kharkiv Euromaidan Coordination Council (in particular, due to “political confrontations that began between Kharkiv residents”). It is possible that Zhadan’s second transformation from “just an artist” (by the way, nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in March 2022) to an influential public and political figure in the crisis period for the country will help further consolidation of the “pro-Ukrainian Kharkiv”.
№4. Mykhailo Dobkin (Mayor of Kharkiv in 2006-2010, Chairman of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration in 2010-2014)
Back in 2018, Mikhailo Dobkin found himself under Russian sanctions, which, however, did not affect his status as a “pro-Russian politician” in the mass perception. And while taking part in the early elections of the mayor of Kharkiv in 2021, Dobkin reminded why he had such a reputation. Emphasis on the protection of the Russian language, the red banner of victory on May 9, agitation support from Shariy and many other elements of “political labeling” justified Mikhail Dobkin’s attribution to what the media called a “pro-Russian” political camp. However, on February 27, Dobkin made a statement on his online pages condemning the attack by Russian troops and expressing support for the Ukrainian army. This was Dobkin’s “first reincarnation”, some of whose subscribers began to resent his “betrayal”. The second reincarnation took place on March 17, when Dobkin made a loyal post in support of Volodymyr Zelenskiy (in his comments he also complimented the current Mayor of Kharkiv, Igor Terekhov). And on April 8, to complete his new image, Dobkin became a deacon of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. It is worth noting that the topic of religion has previously played a significant role in Dobkin’s political rhetoric and activities. For example, he called his personal party project “the Christian Socialists” in 2018. It is unknown whether the church’s dignity means sacrificing the former Mayor of Kharkiv political career. Meanwhile, deacon Dobkin decided to donate his own collectible motorcycle, which he publicly offered to exchange for a minibus for the needs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
№5. Oleksandr Yaroslavsky (owner of the financial and industrial group DCH, president of FC Metalist)
In December 2011, on the eve of Euro 2012, the Polish TV company TVP1 presented a documentary film called “King of Kharkiv”, dedicated to Alexander Yaroslavsky. The next 10 years were full of ups and downs for the businessman, but in December 2021 Yaroslavsky could feel royal again. The city was full of the revived Metalist’s logos on billboards (and even on the walls of the university where the businessman was awarded with the title of “honorary doctor”), and Yaroslavsky’s political stake in the mayoral election played a role. Everything changed on February 9 due to a fatal accident involving a car from Yaroslavsky`s motorcade. Forced emergency flight to London, reduction of political influence, and not surprisingly, for Yaroslavsky war was the opportunity to regain what he has almost lost after February 9. But this required taking an unequivocal pro-Ukrainian stance, reaffirming political loyalty to the president, and really helping the army and his hometown financially. And, of course, all this had to be done from Kharkiv, not London, while reporting daily on the results. However, Yaroslavsky’s further actions turned out to be incomparably smaller than his “royal” ambitions. In early March, the businessman announced the launch of the program “World4Kharkiv”, in which he promised to raise $ 1 billion aid for Kharkiv. Among the purposes of fundraising, Yaroslavsky, in particular, noted the “reconstruction of Kharkiv ,where, probably, Yaroslavsky’s DCH will take an active part in the development of this fund. But one way or another, in March the businessman really showed activity as he announced the sale of his own yacht and handed over (for the funds raised under the “World4Kharkiv”) the ambulances to Kharkiv. For unknown reasons, this activity did not spread in April and May and Yaroslavsky himself made his last public statement on March 27. Instead, volunteer Roman Donik reported that Yaroslavsky refused to help the Armed Forces of Ukraine to defend Slobozhanshchyna. From the point of view of political rhetoric, it should be noted that even after all the crimes committed by the Russian military against the two hometowns of Yaroslavsky, which are Mariupol and Kharkiv, no condemnation of Russia by the businessman was heard. The position may be influenced by his personal and business ties with Russian businessmen Oleg Deripaska and Roman Abramovich. One way or another, the ambiguous position of Yaroslavsky, who did not spend a single day of the war in Ukraine and Kharkiv, is likely to strike a significant blow to his authority. And if on February 1 Yaroslavsky boasted while recording a video of diving into the ice-hole on the territory of his estate in the village of Martovo (currently occupied territory on the left bank of the Siverskyi Donets), in these three months more and more Kharkiv residents became convinced that the “king is naked”.
The full-scale war launched by the Russian leadership against Ukraine on February 24 has naturally become a real stress test for the regional political regime in the Kharkiv region. Given the high urgency of social demand for public politicians and candidates for various positions, which is what they were doing during the war, we can expect a redistribution of influence, in particular, in the Kharkiv region. The Head of the Civil-military administration Oleg Sinegubov now looks like the biggest “center of gravity”. If a few days before the war some of the Kharkiv businessmen spoke rather harshly about the fourth head of the region (whose appointment they publicly tried to block in December 2021), now he is gaining prestige, forming his own team and is the media speaker №1 from Kharkiv region for the information space of Ukraine.
Physical reality often constructs the social one, so many politicians who stayed in Kharkiv try to cover their activities on social networks as much as possible (this opportunity is found not only by volunteers, but also by those who joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine, such as the ex-mayoral candidate Denis Yaroslavsky or the deputy of the City Council Igor Chernyak). Involvement in volunteering, territorial defense and the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ascending) is objectively an element of the “socio-political lift” for the future in electoral (election) or selector (appointment) policy. Many of the large Kharkiv businessmen who could be labeled as “political groups of influence” are now actively and publicly helping the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the residents of Kharkiv. For example, Vsevolod Kozhemyako, according to the words of Igor Terekhov, financed the creation and equipment of a special battalion to protect Kharkiv. In the same interview, the mayor noted that “Igor Abramovich (non-partisan people`s deputy elected from the “Opposition platform- for life”, who was called one of the “patrons” of Terekhov before the war) helps the most”. Yuriy Sapronov regularly reports on his volunteer activities, charitable foundations of Vitaly Danilov, Alexander Feldman, Vladimir Skorobagach and others are working.