Michel Tereshchenko: “We have to clean all of Hlukhiv of corruption”
The new mayor of Hlukhiv, a descendant of the renowned Tereshchenko family, talks about his team, how he plans to cooperate with other mayors in Sumy Oblast, how the city’s economy can be realistically revived, and how to shore up the border with the Russian Federation, which is only 15 kilometers away
You’ve been elected mayor in a town where the seat has not changed hands in 18 years. How did you manage such an amazing victory? What are the conditions you will have to work under and what kind of people will you have to work with now?
Actually, people from Hlukhiv asked me to run in this election. I agreed and offered my proposals: the city needs to be cleaned of corruption, businesses need a shot in the arm, and we need new jobs. These are not predominantly political issues, but they have to be dealt with for Hlukhiv to get on the right track again. I’m not a politician. I don’t belong to any parties and I never thought that I would run for the job of mayor here in Ukraine.
I support all the really democratic parties that there are in this country. But the political games going on today are a real surprise to me. For instance, the Volia Narodu or Will of the People party that fronted my opponent for the mayor’s office, a former Party of Region’s man, Yuriy Burlaka, got into some strange negotiations with the Poroshenko Bloc and bought it out in Sumy Oblast like some kind of franchise. The residents of the oblast couldn’t really figure out what the difference was between the Poroshenko Bloc and the Will of the People during these local elections.
Hlukhiv is a historical town that has a lot of meaning for all of Ukraine. So it shouldn’t be run by mafias, bandits and smugglers. It’s not meant to be a buffer zone. I want to see it become one of the most beautiful towns in Ukraine and in Europe. Can this be done? Absolutely. We not only have to build the border of Ukraine today, but the border of Europe, actually. Hlukhiv is a border town. It’s important that it become a kind of showcase, a lighthouse, and a magnet that will draw people.
I intend to work outside party lines, in a non-partisan manner. We need people who are willing to work openly, transparently and professionally because we have to clean all of Hlukhiv of corruption. Strong community organizations can really be of help in this by putting pressure on all the parties and government offices. I’m going to help one of these organizations get registered this week. From what I can see, political parties in Ukraine have lost the trust of voters. They are mostly business clubs that foster their own interests and don’t understand that voters expect something very different from them. It’s wrong for government institutions to be on the side of one candidate or another during an election campaign.
You have managed to set up a competitive European-class manufacturing facility in Hlukhiv, you’ve attracted investors to a depressed town, and you’ve generated new jobs. What approach will you use as mayor to improve the economic situation?
A lot of locals are living on contraband right now. 18 years ago, Andriy Derkach, a national deputy (and deputy leader of the Will of the People group – Ed.), came to Hlukhiv from Dnipropetrovsk and has controlled most of Sumy country to this day.
What changed in all those years? Well, we had 10,000 jobs in this town, because four large, powerful enterprises operated here. All of them are in suspended animation today. The local food processing industry was also very strong but 12 years ago, raiders took over the meat packing plant and all that’s left now is a ruin, even the bricks have been stripped away. The dairy plant stopped working a few years, same for the cheese-making plant. Three months ago, the Hlukhiv commercial bakery closed its doors. There was once a food-processing plant that produced ciders, juices and jams. It’s a hollow shell today. The linen plant is still standing, but it’s not working, either. I bought out the local textile plant that has stood here for over 20 years. All that was left of it was ruins and scrap metal. This company has been re-equipped and some smart investors were attracted. It’s operational today.
Why is Hlukhiv filled with ruins? Why isn’t anyone investing in the town? I have shown that it’s not that hard to put some capital into this place. Obviously, those who were running Sumy Oblast for the last 18 years find it more convenient for locals to be poor and jobless. That makes it easier to buy them off and take control of all the public resources.
Hlukhiv is really on the verge of collapsing today because it has no jobs and its residents are incredibly poor. And because of corruption, water costs twice as much here as in Kyiv. Everything that possibly can be privatized has been, including the local cemetery. People now have to pay around UAH 5,000 for a plot to bury someone. Next to Hlukhiv is a sand quarry that belongs to the former mayor, his friends and relatives. And this was the only place in Hlukhiv where you can buy sand. Yet not a penny from that quarry found its way into the local budget. Everything from the hilltop to the valley was privatized. Corruption is growing by the day and the city is dying. Only those who are corrupt and the customs service are doing well. For young people, Hlukhiv offers few prospects: smuggling, corruption or working for Customs.
And all this is happening on land where you cannot only grow flax and non-narcotic hemp, but much more. My ancestors grew sugar beets here and built a lot of sugar plants. Today, these plants are closed, chopped up for scrap metal and sold. There’s plenty of demand for what you can grow in the soil around Hlukhiv. And there are markets all around Ukraine where this kind of product can be sold as well. I already mentioned the linen factory: there are 47 looms in good condition standing there and someone could be making canvas. The Ukrainian army could really use that today, because it’s importing canvas from Russia right now. The director of this factory preserved the equipment and the workforce and he’s ready to start working as soon as he has some orders. I went with him to Kharkiv where I met the person in charge of buying canvas for the Armed Forces and when we finished negotiating, she finally gave us an order.
What kinds of steps do you plan to take now and further to improve the defensive capacities of the northeastern border with Russia where Hlukhiv is situated?
Putin’s plan for Ukraine is to break the country up into three parts. The first was to be occupied territories: Donbas, Crimea and whatever else Russia was able to take. The second, in Western Ukraine, was to be a weak agricultural state mostly based in Halychyna, similar to Moldova, which would join the EU and NATO. The third section, between these two, was to be a buffer zone. That might include Sumy Oblast, but I have no desire to see Hlukhiv turned into that kind of zone. The problem is that no one seems to want to strengthen the northeastern border. Possibly it’s more convenient for some people the way it is, because there’s no control. The situation with oversight of the border and customs services is no better here than in Mukacheve, Zakarpattia Oblast. French cheeses and other banned goods go to Moscow through Hlukhiv and we don’t know what comes to us in the opposite direction.
There are other risks as well. If Russia opens a second front against Ukraine, then it’s most likely to come through the section of border near Hlukhiv. Why is no one reinforcing this section of the border or controlling what comes through it? 12 kilometers from the international border next to the city are empty army barracks that no one is using. The first line of defense at Konotop is 80 kilometers further west than Hlukhiv. Why is there no battalion or even group of battalions? Is everyone really that indifferent to the situation? I want to talk about this situation with the president because we need to protect our people, our land and our assets.
Every mayor has his team. Who is already working with you in Hlukhiv and whom else are you planning to bring into the team?
I already mentioned that I am helping one local organization get registered. There are people who want to join our team in order to help clean up Hlukhiv and get the city working normally again. If I may say so, we have our own laboratory of practical research. Through Facebook and e-mails, I have received a slew of CVs and we are in the process of selecting those with whom I will form a team. It will include 10 volunteers who will assist me in coming up with rapid and responses to urgent issues and with unplanned tasks. This group will operate in parallel with the city council. I’ve used what Mikheil Saakashvili did in Odesa Oblast as a template, when he announced an open competition for those who wanted to work in his administration. Nearly 3,000 people applied at the time, folks with degrees and MBAs. These people were prepared to work on his team as volunteers, getting UAH 3,000 a month. They won’t work for decades, but a year or two. They find this interesting.
The city council will function normally and it’s important that it also have specialists doing specific jobs. We have the majority on the council and I don’t expect too many surprises. Maybe altogether this will change this system that is like gangrene eating up Ukraine. There are lots of people here who say the right things but few of them are actually doing the right things. The results of our team’s work should be evident pretty quickly, what’s working and how—and what’s not.
The city you are now head of is a Hetmanate capital that most Ukrainians only know about from their school history books. It’s not easy to get there. What do you plan to do to make it more of a tourist attraction?
It’s true that Hlukhiv is one of the historic capitals of Ukraine, the place where four hetmans set up residence, and where the idea of the Ukrainian state was born. The First Malorossiyan Collegium also took place here, a body set up by Pyotr I to turn Ukraine into Malorossiya or Little Russia. In the end, the tsar had to disband the council because it brought together under one roof the great intellectuals and administrators who began to formulate the idea of Ukrainian statehood! In the 18th century, Hlukhiv was a very beautiful town, you might even say a very European one. For instance, from 1725 to 1914, it had a theater that performed plays exclusively in French.
For starters, to bring changes in this corner of the country, the highway that goes through the city should be renamed from the Moscow Highway to the Hlukhiv Highway. This route is also important because 80 kilometers from Hlukhiv is Baturyn, yet another hetman capital. That’s where the Razumovskiy palace is situated and the Kochubey Family Museum. Yet there’s not a single hotel or restaurant in the town. We intend to set up the necessary tourist infrastructure in Hlukhiv and to make the center of the town no less beautiful than Lviv. Our history is just as impressive. Not only do we still have the 10 buildings erected by the Tereshchenko family to which I belong, but also the premises where the Malorossiyan Collegium met. The downtown was very beautiful a few centuries ago. War and the bolsheviks left it shattered. The only thing they did was erect a statue to Lenin. Who needs it?
We could do something with Hlukhiv like the Americans did with Jamestown or Williamsburg, which was the capital of Virginia and the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. In every one of these towns, a historical district has been established, where the atmosphere and style of the 18th and 19th centuries has been preserved. People walk down its streets dressed in the style of that era and life goes on the way it was a few hundred years ago. I think that if we do something like this in Hlukhiv, we can interest tourists.
Michel Tereshchenko is an entrepreneur and a descendant of the Tereshchenko family, famous Ukrainian industrialists and magnates. Over 1981-1990 he lived in the US and served as an officer in the submarine fleet of the US Navy. Since 2003, he has lived in Kyiv and Hlukhiv. He founded the Tereshchenko Heritage Foundation, whose purpose is to support work on buildings erected by his ancestors in the two cities more than 100 years ago. Meanwhile, he is expanding his flax and beekeeping businesses in Hlukhiv, where his forebears lived for several centuries and supported the town in so many ways. On March 21, 2015, Tereshchenko was granted Ukrainian citizenship. On October 25, he created a sensation by taking more than 60% of the vote in local elections and winning the mayoral race in Hlukhiv.
The shambolic renovation of the Central Electoral Commission, which has been in progress for several years now, looks about to be finally concluded. On Feb. 5, the President submitted a list of candidates to the Verkhovna Rada and this suggests that the process is finally being unblocked