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Why Ukraine's Separatist Movement Failed in Kharkiv

But Now, Recovered From Gunshot Wounds, Mayor Gennady Kernes is Back in Town


Kharkiv’s colorful and controversial mayor Gennady “Gepa” Kernes returned home on Tuesday, some seven weeks after being shot in mysterious circumstances. He was met at the airport with a hero’s welcome by up to five thousand Kharkiv locals, who had been bussed in specially for the event. A much smaller crowd, eggs and posters in hand, assembled on the fringes. They were there for a different reason—to protest Kernes’ involvement in bloody clashes that shook the city over the winter.

Kharkiv today is hard to compare to the one of late February. Then, the separatist scenario seemed very real: Russian flags had showed up here first, some time before they did in Slavyansk, Donetsk, and Luhansk, today's rebel strongholds. There was also much that bound the city to Russia. Most of the city's 1.5 million citizens identify closely with Russia, the language, and with family and friends who live just across the border. The city has strong bilateral trade, political, educational and cultural links with Russia, not to mention its shifty role as a gateway for drugs and contraband.

During Kharkiv’s troubled winter months, the Oplot Fight Club was a particularly controversial point on the city map. Located in downtown Kharkiv near to the hippodrome, the Fight Club was the centerpiece of an improbable conglomeration that combined hard-core, pro-Russian violence, with supermarket retail, “audit” services, medical clinics and sports clubs. Oplot’s leader was a former cop named Yevgeny Zhilin, once suspected of organising an attempt on Kernes’ life, but later noted for business and collaboration with the tenacious mayor.

For much of the winter months, Oplot’s anti-EuroMaidan position coincided with that of Kernes. During the worst days of the troubles, the group infamously sent several dozen fighters to the capital to assist Yanukovych’s riot police; these were the notorious “titushki” thugs, who shot, beat and threw hard missiles at unarmed demonstrators. The Kharkiv police later returned the favour by turning a blind eye to Oplot’s violent assault of pro-Ukrainian rallies in February and March. 

Today, however, the Oplot Fight Club stands symbolically deserted. Colourful banners have been replaced by bare walls, painted Ukrainian flags, anti-Russian, and anti-fascist slogans. Inside the building, the viewing gallery has been broken up, furniture trashed and the cage gutted. Zhilin is on the run in Moscow, and over a hundred Oplot militants are in jail. Many of those who weren’t rounded up abandoned the city and joined fighters in neighboring Donetsk, where they have since played a leading role in the rebel uprising.

The containment of Oplot speaks to a more general frustration of the pro-Russian movement in the city. Why their agenda failed can be attributed to a combination of factors directing life in Kharkiv, not least the dominating Kernes.

In late February and early March, Kernes was almost certainly entertaining the idea of supporting pro-Russian militants. His position was sufficiently worrying to Kiev authorities that, on March 13, they placed him under evening house arrest. Soon after that, however, Kernes’ mind changed—or was changed for him—and he suddenly began espousing unequivocal pro-Ukrainian views. With his new position came a new order in Kharkiv. It didn’t last long. On April 26, Kernes was shot while cycling on a highway outside Kharkiv. He was airlifted to a hospital in Israel, and the city was left stunned.

There are numerous versions about why Kernes might have been shot—politics, criminal links, or his belated decision to support a united Ukraine. Some in the city even raised doubts as to whether he was actually shot, or if he had deliberately shot himself. Such suspicions seem a little uncharitable given the clear evidence of injury, but they do say something about the character of a man whom even supporters say governed Kharkiv like a “sly dictator.”

Kernes got his start in the Kharkiv underworld. He was a black marketeer during the dog days of the Soviet Union, and went on to become a professional thimble rigger at the central market in the early 1990s. His craftiness transferred well into politics. 

After supporting the Orange Revolution in 2004, Kernes switched sides to organize the victorious mayoral campaign of his friend Mikhail Dobkin, then a rising figure in the local Party of Regions. When Dobkin became regional governor in 2010, Kernes beat his political nemesis, Arsen Avakov (currently interim Interior Minister in the Kyiv government), in a race for the newly vacated position. Within a year or two, Kernes had strengthened his grip on local power—partly by changing the city constitution, partly by force of personality, and partly by winning over locals with a micro-managed building program.

The exact sequence of events that led to Kernes’ transformation into a Ukrainian patriot is murky. According to Yuri Sapronov, former vice-governor of Kharkiv region, Kernes is “a chess player” who needed time to “gauge strength of feeling in the city.” Speaking over coffee at his golf club on the edge of the city, Sapronov said that within “a week or two” of Yanukovych leaving the country, Kernes had come to the conclusion that there was little appetite to go the way of Donetsk and Luhansk. “He understood there were at most 4,000 committed pro-Russian activists, and their behavior was becoming increasingly incompatible with the moderate, cautious, intelligent ways of Kharkiv."

Sapronov is right that the people of Kharkiv strongly resisted the separatist scenario. Demonstrations for Ukraine were consistently well-attended, despite the obvious threat of violence. A university city, the fragmented nature of Kharkiv is quite distinct from the unitary, proletarian nature of rebel-held Donbass.

But for Kernes it would seem that there was more at play than an extended chess game. There was certainly an attempt to force his hand from Kiev, as his house arrest demonstrates. 

A meeting with Pavel K., an officer serving within the Ukrainian Security Services who asked that his full name was not published, offered other insights. We met in that most cliched of places—a bench in the city’s central park. Pavel sat nervously, his eyes dancing as they scanned the surroundings for hostile behaviour. He began by expressing confidence that the situation had been brought under control. The unreliable Kharkiv police force had been disarmed, he said; even those officers with special permission to keep weapons at home had had them taken away. Each Kharkiv district now had a self-defense brigade, largely made up from retired officers, new battalions had been created, and reinforcements had been brought in from neighboring regions. “Their role is not to repel Russian tanks, which would be difficult, but to provide a line of defence against ‘friends’ arriving from Donbass,” Pavel said.

When I asked him about Kernes’s wavering positions, Pavel smiled awkwardly. “Kernes is the dominating public figure in the city," he whispered. “But you need to understand there is a legal system in criminality that is even higher than him." There had been a “conversation” with “authorities” from the Kharkiv underworld," Pavel explained. “This set things out in simple terms: Kharkiv would be Ukrainian."

Soon after that decision was made, money flows from Russia into Kharkiv’s separatist organizations began to dry up, he said. The money had been coming from “Russian and Ukrainian politicians” — in Moscow, Belgorod and Rostov in the main—“sometimes 10 million roubles ($290,000), sometimes 5 million, sometimes 2 million." The sudden evaporation of cash undermined the pro-Russian movement. It was already chaotically split: apart from the “sportsmen” provided by the likes of Oplot, there was the now-illegal “Russian bloc”, the Communist-leaning Borotba ("struggle"), Communists themselves, and other groups formed around the personalities of Sergei Yudayev, Anton Gurianov, and Sergei Agakov, a man fond of boasting about his participation in the “Ukraine’s got talent” TV show. Each group had its own plan, and there was little to no collaborative thinking.

Now forced underground, separatist forces in Kharkiv are trying to co-ordinate their actions better, and a new umbrella organization has been formed. The “Committee for Popular Accord” is organized with cell-type structure; only the leaders of sub-groups ever speak to one another. The central figure in the Committee is a former landscape architect who styles himself “Horus”. Flanked by two tough-looking individuals in sportswear, “Horus” told me the group was now concentrating on agitating for the cause. “Horus” was convinced the best months lay ahead for the movement. An army of sorts was being formed, he said—“surely, just not as fast as we had hoped."

A few miles away in Kharkiv’s drab suburbs, at a location they urged me not to disclose, another group was also busy persuading me of their battle readiness. These were representatives of Kharkiv’s “ultras” — a nationalist, far right, slightly racist grouping of Metallist Kharkiv football fans. Like their pro-Russian rivals, the ultras were keeping a low profile in the city. Their reason to be worried were revenge attacks following their role in the tragic Odessa fire on May 2. After databases revealing passenger details from trains between Kharkiv and Odessa were leaked on Russian social media, presumably by the Kharkiv police, many of them received death threats.

The ultras came to play a crucial role in the Kharkiv stand-off, getting involved after riot police shielded pro-Russian fighters as they threw bricks on February 25. While never more than a small percentage of the pro-Ukrainian movement, the ultras became its visible frontline by virtue of their street-fighting skills. Valentin, a short-fused man in his late twenties, is leader of a “firm” of thirty ultras. He explained to me that “fighting police and gangsters” was nothing new for them. “We were born in the street, and our opponents are beginning to better understand it,” he said. The ultras were prepared for any eventuality, he added, including getting hold of guns should the situation demand it. 

Valentin was, however, pleased to have found an unlikely ally in Kernes. “If Gepa is for Ukraine, if he saves us from Russia, then we are all for Gepa," he said.

Kharkiv seems to have come to the consensus that the city’s newfound stability is all thanks to Kernes. But people have two very different explanations as to why: Half say it’s because Kernes survived the shooting, and the other half say it’s because he spent seven weeks far away, somewhere where he couldn’t muck things up.

Interesting times lie ahead.