The work of the Kharkiv City Hall during the war | Center for Political Analysis «Observatory of Democracy»

The work of the Kharkiv City Hall during the war

Due to its geographical location only 40 kilometers from the Russian border, Kharkiv met the beginning of the war with fighting on the ring road of the city in the morning of February 24. The prevailing uncertainty of the first days in the city, as well as life in the conditions of constant shelling during all the following days of the war, required determination and efficiency from the city authorities.

In the fourth part of monitoring of the regional political process during the war, the research focus of the Analytical Center «Observatory of Democracy» is the work of the Kharkiv City Hall. This material focuses on the main actions and statements of Mayor Igor Terekhov, as well as the gradual return of politics as a specific space for public competition of ideas to Kharkiv.

Symbolic policy of the Kharkiv City Hall : the choice in favour of Ukraine and step-by-step de-Russification

Source: the photo collage consists of screenshots of videos from Igor Terekhov’s telegram channel, as well as the photos posted on the Babel.ua website and Volodymyr Chystylin’s Facebook page.

On February 24, at 11:00 am, Mayor of Kharkiv Ihor Terekhov recorded a 30-second appeal to the city residents to stay at home. These were the first public words of the Mayor after the start of the full-scale war. The Mayor avoided any evaluative judgments, categories such as “war”, “Russians”, “Ukrainians” – single-rooted variations on “Kharkiv” sounded from the toponyms only 4 times and he also noted that “hard times have come.” By that time the city had already acquired the characteristic movement of the first day of the war, long queues stretched around cash machines, and traffic jams formed at the southern and western exits.

On the same day at 4 pm Igor Terekhov reported on the current situation to the concerned Kharkiv residents and journalists gathered on the platform of the metro station “Universytet” together with  megaphone. During this time, the Mayor has already stopped the work of the subway, moving its stations in bomb shelter mode. Terekhov reported the threat of missile strikes and the first hit shells in boiler houses and called on to help each other. In his sincere enough and naturally uncertain speech, the division into “us” and “them”, “Ukrainian army “and” enemies “, whose armored vehicles surround Kharkiv on the ring road has appeared.

The only public statement that could indicate some ambiguity in the position of the mayor was made by Terekhov on February 25, also on the platform of one of the stations of the Kharkiv subway. Carefully selecting accurate wording on the Russian invasion, the mayor said that “this is  the situation already and “we have to sit down and agree that none of the people will be harmed.” The mayor’s compromise rhetoric provoked a demonstrative reaction from two sides.

Russian propaganda resources immediately began publishing this video with headlines and comments in the general tone of The Mayor of Kharkiv is preparing to surrender the city”, and in later publications Terekhov’s speech was accompanied by a video appeal by Kupyansk Mayor Gennady Matsegora to strengthen the manipulative effect of the inevitability of the Russian occupation of Kharkiv and the Mayor’s willingness to cooperate. On the other hand, Terekhov’s team also understood that the statement could be interpreted ambiguously, and almost all the media publications and links to Terekhov’s video speeches have been removed so far (although the Internet has not been completely cleared of the traces of this media report).

In the future, Igor Terekhov did not allow himself any statements that gave even the slightest reason to doubt his pro-Ukrainian position and unequivocal condemption of Russian crimes (in fact, the situation with the destructions in the city inclined the Mayor to this unambiguity every day). Pessimistic predictions of the opponents of the Mayor of Kharkiv, who called him a “pro-Russian politician”, did not come true (actually, as in the case of Odessa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov, Acting Mayor of Kryvyi Rih Yuri Vilkul and many other similar cases).

Both at the national level and at the Kharkiv level, the initial shock of the first days of the war contributed to consolidation and suspension of the political struggle, including disputes over the symbolic sphere. In the first weeks, few people cared what language Terekhov spoke in his appeales or whether the names of the streets in honor of Russians would remain in Kharkiv as the question of the physical existence of these streets in the future was much more relevant than the symbolic dimension. However, sometime in late March and especially in April, politics returned as a sphere of ideological and value conflicts. The overthrow of the bust of Marshal Zhukov on April 17 can be considered the culmination of this return. Igor Terekhov reacted to the event with restraint, offering to return to the issue after the war.

In general, if you look at this “symbolic confrontation” in the dynamics since 2014, you can clearly see the “step-by-step retreat” of the  Kharkiv City Hall. For example, in September 2014, Gennady Kernes accused the “nationalists of vandalism” and promised to “restore the destroyed monument to Lenin”, but within a year he stated the exact opposite which was that the monument to Lenin will definitely not be restored. The Kharkiv City Hall retreated, and the line of public debate shifted to Zhukov Avenue: from 2016 to 2021, the city authorities (led by the successor of Kernes Igor Terekhov for the last year and a half) resisted renaming the avenue in honor of Petro Grigorenko and guaranteed that the monument to Zhukov will not repeat the fate of the monument to Lenin. For example, on May 9, 2021, Terekhov claimed that the monument to Zhukov “stood, stands and will stand” (Kernes used the same verbal construction in 2013-2014 for the monument to Lenin).

After the demolition of the monument to Zhukov in April 2022, Kharkiv City Hall seems to be taking an another step back. Firstly, it is due to the change in public sentiment in Kharkiv itself (and all the positions of Kharkiv City Hall in the “symbolic confrontations” have always been dictated by electoral and conjunctural calculations). Secondly, it is due to the external context and the possible reaction of the presidential vertical: taking responsibility not for preserving, but for restoring the monument to such an ambiguous historical figure during the full-scale war with the Russian occupiers is a too risky decision from which Terekhov receives more problems than winnings.

In fact, the Mayor has already begun to abdicate this responsibility, gradually proceeding from the image of the “defender of the memory of the marshal of Victory”: in late April Terekhov announced that the fate of the monument after the war will be decided by Kharkiv itself, because “it must be a conscious decision of Kharkiv, not the personal opinion of the Mayor”. It can be assumed that the step-by-step retreat of Kharkiv City Hall in symbolic confrontations will further push public debates towards Pushkinska Street and monuments to Russian cultural figures, about which the pro-Ukrainian activists are already expressing radical initiatives, and Kharkiv City Hall  will probably defend the “culture outside politics”.

But so far only the first series, initiated by Terekhov himself, have taken place in the expectedly protracted “toponymic confrontation”. On May 1, the Mayor announced his intention to rename the largest district of the city ( the Moscow District), the eponymous avenue, as well as Belgorod Descent and Belgorod Highway. It is unlikely that any of Kharkiv’s politicians could publicly oppose such an initiative, but the controversy still began through, firstly, the new names and, secondly, the very procedure of resolving acute toponymic issues.

Promising to involve Kharkiv residents in the process of choosing new names, Igor Terekhov de facto limited himself to two things, which were creating a special section on the  Kharkiv City council website (where those interested can suggest which streets should be renamed and how), and conducting a poll on the new name for the Moscow District, which consisted of self-proposed options in his Telegram channel. Finally, at an extraordinary session of the Kharkiv City council on May 11 (the first one since the beginning of the full-scale war), deputies voted for 4 renamings, de facto, determined by Terekhov personally. From now on, Saltiv district will appear in the city, as well as Heroes of Kharkiv Avenue, Kharkiv Highway and the Rescue Heroes Descent.

The day before the session, an open letter was published online by the Kharkiv Toponymic Group Public Initiative to Mayor Igor Terekhov and the Kharkiv City council demanding for the renaming to be carried out not behind the scenes, but transparently and professionally. The letter was open to signatures that citizens could leave in the comments. In some places, these signatures were accompanied by the wishes to perpetuate the memory of the defenders of Ukraine and not to “spam” with tautological names about Kharkiv. Such a renaming looks especially absurd in the context of a highway, which usually indicates the direction of movement to another city – in fact, this direction was indicated by the Belgorod Highway, or it is indicated by the Kharkiv Highway in the city of Kyiv. From the toponymic point of view, Kharkiv Highway in Kharkiv will point out to self-cycling movement to nowhere. And from the political point of view, this seems to be a continuation of the step-by-step tactics that Kharkiv City Hall traditionally chooses in matters of decommunization and de-Russification, preferring not “pro-Ukrainian”, but more neutral “pro-Kharkiv” options.

Crisis management: transport dilemmas and the economics in conditions of uncertainty

Source: the photo collage is composed of materials posted on the sites “NewsMaker”, “Kharkiv.Comments”, Facebook pages of Dmitry Bulakh and the Main Directorate of the State Emergency Service in Kharkiv region.

However, the priority tasks of any local government during martial law are not so much in the field of “symbolic policy”, but directly in ensuring the viability of the city, in functioning of public services and in stabilization of the humanitarian situation. In the first days of the war, Igor Terekhov coped with these tasks as much as it was possible.

The mayor’s first decision to stop the subway and turn its stations into permanent bomb shelters seems justified, and at the same time it exposes the problem with the system of bomb shelters in the city’s buildings. Land transport continued to operate until February 27, although traffic lights in the city were turned off. Public educational institutions have closed, and early holidays have been announced in schools since February 28. The city authorities have set up a humanitarian headquarters and called on those who want to volunteer, in particular, to help with the delivery of bread on their own vehicles.

In general, the humanitarian situation in the city was quite heterogeneous due to the objectively different intensity of the shelling. Due to the lack of transport links, in March and April Kharkiv became a totality of almost unrelated areas, where there was a completely different rhythm of life and different degrees of risk for residents.

While residents of neighborhoods such as Nothern Saltivka or the Pyatihatki neighborhood were forced to survive in conditions of the absence of light, heating or water, isolated cafes began to open in the central areas and communal workers were planting flowers. It can only be imagined how hard this contrast was experienced by those Kharkiv residents who found themselves in the areas with the greatest destruction and what they thought about Terekhov’s initiative to launch fountains in the city on April 18. Under the pressure from public opinion, the Mayor promised to “postpone the fountain season until victory” within a day, but continued to insist on planting annual flowers along the city streets, which most Kharkiv residents still had nothing to move around with.

To restore the viabitity of the city, to which the Mayor actively called on to, in particular, the entrepreneurs, the launch of public transport was obviously much more important than the launch of fountains . However, Terekhov insisted that returning land transport was too dangerous, it was needed to resettle all the people who live in the subway permanently to start it, and then it would take about 2 or 3 months (!) to restore the technical capacity of trains (although in Kiev it took several weeks, not months).

Later, in mid-May, Terekhov withdrew his words and it turned out that the subway could return to the carriage of passengers in just 10-14 days after the evacuation of its “permanent residents”. Probably due to the liberation of the settlements around Kharkiv and a significant reduction in the intensity of shelling, in mid-May Kharkiv City Hall changed its position on public transport – on May 16 trolleybuses and buses started running in the city again,  the launch of trams and, finally, the subway was put on hold.

It is on the topic of the prospects of trams in Kharkiv that Kharkiv City Hall came under a barrage of criticism – it was all because of the dismantling of the tramway on Vesnina Street in early May. Even before the war, the city authorities announced their plans on dismantling to unload the street, but were opposed by the public as it especially affected the interests of the residents of Saltivka, which was connected to the city center by a tram route. In the end, taking advantage of the public attention to the events at the front and the shelling during the May holidays, Kharkiv City Hall implemented its plan. On May 11, at the session of Kharkiv City council, Terekhov announced that not trams, but electric buses, the purchase of which is six times cheaper for the city budget, will be running on Vesnina Descent.

The general economic situation in Kharkiv remains unknown. According to the latest changes made on February 18 (crediting of intergovernmental transfers), the city budget revenues for 2022 were planned in the amount of 19.3 billion hryvnias. Almost half of them (9.4 billion) should be provided with personal income taxes, another 3.1 billion – through a single tax. In conditions when some employers (tax agents) have reduced the number of employees or the amount of payments, or when businesses (both legal entities and individual enterpreneurs) have moved to other cities and pay a single tax outside Kharkiv, the city budget is doomed to significantly lose the share of income. Accordingly, part of the expenditures of the local budget will not be able to be financed, which sharply raises the issue of priority of various budget items for the life of the city. However, these painful and important issues for Kharkiv were not discussed at the session of Kharkiv City council, and the city authorities do not report on the state of budget execution, at least formally posting relevant materials on their website.

Igor Terekhov tries to compensate for the uncertainty and opacity in the local budget process with optimism in numerous interviews, where he announces large-scale reconstruction of the city and a large number of jobs for everyone. The mayor’s statement on compensation for Kharkiv residents who lost their homes and plans to build new neighborhoods is indicative: «The functions of the state and the city must be separated, and as for compensation, it is the prerogative of the state».

The outline of the general plan to “restart the economy” of the city- to receive money from the state and attract private investors is traced here. How quickly this can be done in war conditions is an open question. Probably, there is a similar calculation for writing off all the debts for utility payments with the funds of state, not the city, for Kharkiv residents, whom Terekhov allowed not to pay for “communal services”. One way or another, it is the economic block of questions that will need the most balanced and effective answers from Kharkiv City Hall, and these answers should not be limited to the traditional transfer of responsibility to the central government.

Conclusions

On March 6, 2022, by the decree of Volodymyr Zelensky, the Mayor of Kharkiv Igor Terekhov was awarded with the Order “For Courage” of the II degree. And even the opponents or critics of the Mayor mostly acknowledge the validity of such an award. If from today it seems that the city authorities and Igor Terekhov personally have taken the only possible rational position,  back then on February 24 everything did not look so unalterable. The Mayor, whose main sponsor was Pavel Fuchs (a businessman with an ambiguous reputation close to Gennady Kernes) and whose symbolic policies were based on theses to protect the Russian language and the memory of Soviet heroes, could behave differently under total uncertainty. And when the mayors of other cities “at risk” went to a safer area, staying and personally managing the life of the city in the early days of the war is an act that should not be devalued by future views, where it is known how the events in Kharkiv will unfold in Spring of 2022.

At the same time, it is sometimes easier for political leaders to show determination and courage “at the moment” than efficiency and consistency “at a distance”. After the initial shock of the first stage of the war, politics gradually began to return, at least to the information space of Kharkiv. And on a number of issues of both symbolic economic and nature, the Mayor gave rise to criticism with his statements and actions. His calls for the resumption of business activity in the city with the public transport system being paralyzed at the same time seemed inconsistent. Terekhov’s accents on planting annual flowers, which few citizens will be able to see are quite strange in terms of life priorities of the city. The general economic situation is absolutely opaque as at the session of Kharkiv City council the Mayor did not raise the issue of the percentage of budget execution, there is no information in a special section of the budget on the Kharkiv City council website (last update – February 21). Instead, the main attention of the public is shifted to the “symbolic” area and, in particular, to toponymic issues, in which Terekhov actually made the first decisions alone, creating the illusion of public engagement.

The removal of the Russian occupiers from the villages and settlements around Kharkiv in May helped to reduce the intensity of the shelling and to gradually return the city to a relatively normal life. At the same time, right now the city authorities have to face the consequences of those decisions that were made by them in the first days of the war. Thus, now Kharkiv City Hall needs to take responsibility for making a number of extraordinary decisions, without which it is difficult to imagine a “restart of the economy” in the city. And the tragic lessons of the war should lead to a change in priorities in the city budget expenditures, because, no matter how much tulips or fountains look like the symbol of victory, renovated and habitable bomb shelters will do much more to bring this victory closer.