Kamianets-Podilsky: Historic City defends Democratically Elected Mayor

The city of Kamianets-Podilsky in the Khmelnytsky oblast has been buzzing since 20 September. On that day Security Service [SBU] officers arrested the city’s Mayor, Anatoly Nesteruk, and the Chief Administrator in the City Executive Committee, Mykola Nechai. Nechai is alleged to have been caught red-handed accepting a bribe from a businessman.

The Mayor himself, when called in by SBU officers and told that his subordinate had been caught, needed a doctor and spent a few days in hospital under the guard of SBU “Alpha” Special Force officers.

Both men are being held in the regional SIZO (remand centre) alleged to be implicated in a scheme involving a 300 thousand UAH bribe.

The nuance in this apparent tale of SBU vigilance and rigour in the fight against corruption is in the reaction of the city’s population. There is total disbelief and outrage over the arrests with public protest mounting.

It is, of course, for the courts to determine the facts of the case, however close scrutiny seems called for given the degree of public indignation as well as the timing of the arrest, just over a month before local elections.

Information, including in the reputable newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, comes from local people and cannot be guaranteed objective. On the other hand, it is hardly usual to have thousand-strong protests over the come-uppance of corrupt officials.

One of the protesters sent the following message:
“Our beautiful city, Kamianets-Podilsky, finds itself in a terrible situation. For the fifth day already we have been protesting over the imprisonment of our Mayor and major inspections within the City Council, and persecution! There are rallies everyday, civic opposition protests, gathering of signatures in support of our right to choose our local authorities! We elected our Mayor and will not allow him to be so brutally treated – he has been held for a week already, in a bad state of health, in the SIZO. The community is up in arms. At the same time, an information blockade has been set up around our city. They don’t let any channel into us, don’t provide objective information in any news report, although the information that Mayor Nesteruk was a briber on SBU commission sped in an instant around Ukraine!!!” (http://blogs.pravda.com.ua/authors/tsybulko/4ca2e76f2a109)

Nesteruk’s working career dates back to 1976 and he is well-known in Kamianets-Podilsky and the Khmelnytsky oblast generally.

During snap elections for Mayor in June 2008, Nesteruk received 86% of the votes. According to the people of Kamianets-Podilsky, he spent the next two years doing something not overly common in Ukraine – keeping his pre-election promises. These included making the old city not only a tourist attraction, but a comfortable place for its residents, and economic reforms, including to the housing and communal services system, were carried out.

The swoop by the SBU on 20 September was a total shock to the city’s residents and they do not believe the allegations against their Mayor.

On 24 September, following the court ruling to move the men to the oblast centre SIZO, several hundred people picketed the SBU. Nobody came out to talk to them, they moved to the City Council, where the crowd became much greater. A Committee for the Defence of Democracy has been formed and decisions taken regarding indefinite protest actions.

The demonstrators have called on representatives of all political forces in the city to support one candidate – Nesteruk. At a special meeting of the City Council on Sunday, 26 September, all deputies voted for an appeal to the law enforcement bodies to replace detention in custody for a signed undertaking not to abscond.

Neither this, nor the crowd of several hundred who picketed the regional court of appeal, were heeded, and the court upheld the custody order.

The newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnya points out that nobody they spoke to believes that the criminal investigation will be objective (http://www.dt.ua/1000/1550/70518/). They suspect that the men were set up and point out that it is long-established practice for businesspeople to make contributions to the social needs of the city. This is effectively part of the cost of leasing land, etc. Like so many other such methods for coping with chronic under-funding, the arrangement is not entirely legal. On the other hand, the money does appear to be spent on the needs of Kamianets-Podilsky and its residents.

The newspaper points out that it would be difficult to verify this now as all documents have been removed by the investigators.

An economic reason for the turn of events is postulated, with businesspeople perhaps aggrieved after Nesteruk reinstated city ownership of the municipal energy company. Most, however, believe there is a political reason. Although Nesteruk formally left (Yulia Tymoshenko’s) Batkivshchyna Party on 14 September, saying that a Mayoral candidate should not be affiliated to a specific party, and even Batkivshchyna had put forward another candidate, it was clear that Nesteruk had every chance of being re-elected. The person believed to be planning to stand for office from the Party of the Regions is the Chief Tax Official in the region, Mykhailo Simashkevych.

There have been a number of high-profile cases involving arrests, checks by the tax police, SBU, etc, which have aroused concern, by no means only in Ukraine. The “fight against corruption” has seemed all too often to be directed against political opponents of those now in power.

The situation here may or may not be different. Without public attention, and willingness to listen to the citizens of Kamianets-Podilsky who would seem to be fully behind their Mayor, then one thing seems certain. The actions of the Security Service on 20 September have removed from the running the candidate some 70% of the city’s residents were likely to vote for.

In the last few days there has been a warning from the Head of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine that popular mayoral candidates might simply be removed from the running (cf. http://www.khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1285881661 ). On 29 September the SBU detained the Head of the Lviv Regional [Territorial] Electoral Commission [and member of the Ukrainian Social Democrat Party, Ihor Kravchuk, also alleging bribe-taking. Once again, there is no objective evidence of wrongdoing by the Security Service however Batkivshchyna has claimed that Mr Kravchuk has been punished for refusing to accept the candidacy of a breakaway Batkivshchyna faction (http://www.khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1285881366).

Seriously flawed electoral legislation has already brought about ratios of top electoral commission posts favouring the parties in the ruling coalition. This was only one of the perceived threats highlighted by Ukrainian and international analysts to the running of fair and honest elections. Under these circumstances, it is crucial that the voices of so many residents of Kamianets-Podilsky are not ignored.

It is their democratic rights which are at stake.

Halya Coynash

( categories: Editorials )