Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Michel TERESTCHENKO: “Hlukhiv is my ‘ATO’”

22 October, 2015 - 11:44

Hlukhiv, currently a town in Ukraine’s backwater Sumy oblast, once the capital city of the Hetman State, appears to stand a chance of having a bona fide mayor after decades of rigged elections, after Michel Terestchenko, Paris-born grandson of Mykhailo Tereshchenko of the legendary Ukrainian family of businessmen, politicians, and patron of the arts, decided to run in the municipal race after receiving a Ukrainian national passport from President Poroshenko in 2015 and in response to numerous requests by the Hlukhiv electorate. Needless to say, the local oligarch, a smart political timeserver, responded by applying the administrative resource. Not so long ago, the Ukrainian French aristocrat visited Kyiv and kindly agreed to an interview with The Day. He was willing to give straight answers to straight questions, about the reasons behind his decision, the election campaign, and his principled stand in combating the local clannish oligarchic system. The time has come for all healthy political forces to rally round Michel Terestchenko, so he can win the campaign in the former Cossack capital city and eventually in Ukraine.

Mr. Terestchenko, you are running for Hlukhiv mayor. How would you describe the election campaign?

“It’s a small town, so it is hard to figure out a detailed sociology pattern. From what my campaign HQ knows, my candidacy is being supported by over 50 percent of the electorate. In fact, I can see this when talking to people on the street and during campaign meetings. These people seem rather enthusiastic, so there will be no problems if the elections are held on a fair and lawful basis. The previous elections five years back produced only one candidate, considering that all his serious rivals had had to step down for various reasons, including arrest, intimidation, and so on. In the end, half the electorate did not go to the polling stations. The rest were against all. This is proof that the current mayor’s ratings are very low. He [Yurii Burlaka] and his patron, oligarch Andrii Derkach, used tenders to privatize almost all utilities, so that now the utility bill is a very heavy burden on the rank-and-file family budget. Hlukhiv is dying, there are no jobs. Our firm, Linen of Desna, is actually the only working business that keeps investing in Hlukhiv and providing jobs (we have over 150 people on payroll). This isn’t enough, of course.

“There were 6,000 jobs in Hlukhiv 10 years ago, there were four working businesses: a strong meat processing plant, dairy, bread-baking, and woolen cloth ones. Now these businesses are closed as a result of corruption and war with Russia over the past two years. Contraband is the only flourishing business. With the sanctions imposed on Russia, French cheeses are being supplied to Moscow through Hlukhiv. We don’t know what they are receiving from Russia in return, but we know that this is something dangerous, something that keeps our Mafia funded, probably including the LNR and DNR.

“The young residents of Hlukhiv are well educated. We have the National Pedagogical University and the Agrotechnical Institute, but our young people have no prospects for professional careers. Contraband or customs service is the only opportunity. I realize that for the local authorities such total unemployment is the best scenario, that they will try to keep it that way, having Hlukhiv and the north of Sumy oblast under control. Impoverished people are easy to handle. They are easy to bribe and manipulate by satisfying their basic needs, by using the administrative resource. In fact, all this is being done at a head-spinning rate.

“After the Maidan, 65 percent of Hlukhiv residents voted for what they were told would be living a new and happier life. In Hlukhiv, the very idea seems more like wishful thinking, considering that there are many families with men fighting in the east of Ukraine or who are back, wounded in action, that the economic crisis is still there, very much so, with the hryvnia plummeting and no jobs, with those ‘upstairs’ remaining their good old corrupt selves, feeling free to act as they please. This might be proof that Poroshenko did make a deal with Derkach during the presidential race, with Derkach receiving full control over Sumy oblast in return for securing Poroshenko’s victory.

“The populace has long become disillusioned and will not put up with this situation. Five or six years back they spoke well of Russia and believed that the border town of Hlukhiv was actually part of Russia. Now these people have become more patriotic. Each official event, each festive occasion takes place under the national colors. The people of Hlukhiv see their future in the West. They know about the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine. They want changes for the better. The local authorities, regrettably, are making every effort only to keep their seats.

“MP Andrii Derkach, who has won the municipal elections for a number of years, is a timeserver. He was smart enough to be in Kuchma’s, Yushchenko’s, and Yanukovych’s good books. Now he seems good enough for Poroshenko. The man is actually good enough for only one person. Himself. He used to bring a number of titushky to the Antimaidan and finally found himself exposed to lustration. Derkach said it was a mistake and the judge failed to prove his guilt. The man was reinstated. The incumbent mayor of Hlukhiv is again running for office. I’m afraid that this time people will lose hope if the local administration is not replaced. What makes the bad situation worse is the geographical position: Hlukhiv is far from the West, from Kyiv, and from the sea. People may finally decide that Russia is the only option, that they might find a better living there.

“It is very important to show the residents of Hlukhiv that they have another option, that they can open up new horizons and build a new country. Hlukhiv is located 10 km from the Russian border, but we can show that we are capable of living in a civilized way, that we can attract investments and provide jobs. This is important for Hlukhiv and the rest of Ukraine.”

What made you run for mayor? Was it your initiative or someone else’s? You must have realized that the competition would be severe.

“In fact, I didn’t realize that the competition would turn into a dirty game. The decision to run in the race came suddenly. Hlukhiv Mayor Yurii Burlaka wrote on New Year’s Eve that he would not allow the monument to Lenin to be torn down, because he was a ‘man who builds, not destroys things.’ He also promised that he would build a monument to the Tereshchenko family. Burlaka must’ve figured out that he would thus receive popular support for preserving the monument to Lenin. I wrote a letter in response, saying there would be no monument to the Tereshchenko family in Hlukhiv for as long as the one to the Soviet leader remained; that Lenin had wanted my grandfather executed, that our family had had to leave Ukraine because of the Bolshevik regime and spent their lives longing for the Ukrainian homeland; that there was the law of Ukraine on decommunization, that it read that you get rid of Soviet symbols, and that I would help build the monument to the Tereshchenkos after the removal of the one to Lenin.

“These letters were picked by the media and then people in Hlukhiv started asking me to run for mayor: ‘Why not? You’re the only one who is investing in Hlukhiv.’ I wasn’t prepared to do just that, but they reminded me that my great-great-great-grandfather Artemii Tereshchenko was burgomaster of Hlukhiv in 1841-45, that his son Mykola followed suit in 1851-72; that during that period two construction projects were carried out, that these structures are still part of downtown Hlukhiv: the Pedagogical University, the former home for orphans and children from poor families (currently High School No. 3), two hospitals, the Church of Three Saint Anastasias, a gymnasium high school for girls (currently High School No. 1), one for boys (currently the Agrotechnical Institute), the bank, and the family mansion (currently the Institute of Bast Crops).”

How do the officials in charge of the institutions on your parental premises treat you as a member of the Tereshchenko family?

“There are many activists and volunteers who are assisting the Ukrainian army. I’m also involved in the project, but we need activists in the economic domain. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to help produce jobs. Naturally, in wartime no big companies in the West will build production facilities and provide thousands of jobs in Hlukhiv, which is so close to the Russian border. I have proposed four lines of business that can each offer a thousand jobs. We’re planning four conferences relating to Hlukhiv’s economic development. The first will deal with flax, hemp, and natural fibers, all very promising lines of business considering that they are in big demand on the world market, and that we can both produce and process flax and hemp, and supply ready products. The second one will deal with foodstuffs. I have in mind a meat packing plant, a dairy factory, and a bread-baking one. Also apiculture. By way of example, I bought a food plant where they make juices, cider, marmalade, jam, and honey. The third one will deal with alternative energy sources and biogas. We’ll discuss ways to save gas that we have to import and replace it with other energy sources. The fourth one will deal with downtown renovation, green and historical tourism. Hlukhiv was once the capital city of the Hetman State. It accommodated the Collegium of Little Russia that ruled Left-Bank Ukraine for 40 years. It was the seat of four hetmans of Ukraine. We want to revive and keep this historical memory, in one way or another.

“Hlukhiv downtown today boasts just the monuments to Lenin and Vasily Tsiganok, although previously there were cozy cafes, a fountain, and so on. Tsiganok was an anarchist from Kronstadt, dispatched on January 1, 1918, by Lenin’s government to control Hlukhiv. We want to renovate downtown Hlukhiv, dismantle the monuments to Lenin and Tsiganok, and change the public park to make it look like Williamsburg, a place fit for historical reconstructions, so people can see historic figures like Polubotko, Apostol, Skoropadsky, and Razumovsky clad in costumes belonging to their epochs. We could also reconstruct the Collegium of Little Russia in miniature, so history teachers could bring pupils and adults, and conduct classes in the ‘natural environment.’ This town could host Christmas and New Year festivities, Forefeast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, and the Flax Blossom Folk Fest. Tourists would be thrilled to visit this historic capital city of Ukraine, even for one day. This would give fresh impetus to the local restaurant and hotel businesses.

“I made arrangements with the director of the Agrotechnical Institute and we held the first conference on flax on the campus that proved a success. The next day, however, the man received a phone call from Andrii Derkach who sternly warned against this happening ever again. Ever since we have been unable to use the campus for our conferences. The same is true of the Pedagogical University. The rector, being a nominee of the parliamentary group People’s Will, said we should address the issue to the City Hall. We knew we’d find no help there because previously they had told us we couldn’t use the local House of Culture for our event, allegedly because the central heating system was malfunctioning, and that if we wanted to, we could hold the conference out on the street. The district House of Culture seemed the only option. The manager said OK, but the next day Derkach called him and we were notified that the premises were unavailable until the end of the election campaign. In other words, I can’t hold conferences on my ancestors’ premises.”

What about the Svoboda Party? First, they supported you, but finally came up with their own candidate?

“All I can say is that the local Svoboda people are absolutely decent individuals and old friends of mine. This year we have been carrying out our joint civic projects. On the Day of the National Flag we unfurled a 50-meter flag that covered Hlukhiv’s thoroughfare.

“Before the mayoral campaign I did not think I was the best candidate. At one point I told my friends among the leadership of Hlukhiv’s political parties, including Svoboda, that I was pulling out of the race. Some of them even cried and told me I just couldn’t do that, that I was their only sure chance against Derkach and Burlaka. Finally, I agreed and then was surprised to learn that Svoboda had nominated a candidate of their own, my rival. Then ex-MP Ihor Miroshnychenko called to say he needed to talk to me. I refused to meet with him. I knew what he wanted to talk about. I respected Svoboda’s ideals too much to hear something from their people I wouldn’t want to hear. Now I knew that Svoboda was the source of the ‘black PR’ being spread against me, free of charge. I had previously assumed it was Derkach, Burlaka, and Boiaryntsev’s people.

“A number of my MP friends told Derkach at the Verkhovna Rada that they were closely following the situation in Hlukhiv, including all such ‘unpleasant surprises’ as were likely to come my way. Derkach replied that his hands were ‘perfectly clean,’ that he respected the Tereshchenko family. He must’ve made a deal with some Svoboda people and the result was their nomination of Mykhailo Podolin. Technically he was Derkach’s nominee. He is a former member of the Party of Regions and has a criminal record. Technically speaking, an ideal candidate for those ‘upstairs.’ He will try to pull away from me some of the supporting electorate. Derkach will be perfectly content to see me lose 2-3 percent of the votes. What really saddens me, however, is that the decent, dedicated Svoboda members in Hlukhiv know nothing about spin doctoring and will be easy prey.”

Have you met Andrii Derkach?

“We met on two occasions. First, in August 2009, during a charity soiree. Then in 2011. We had dinner with the new French ambassador who wanted to learn more about nuclear engineering in Ukraine. Derkach was then trying to get reinstated as Enerhoatom CEO and the French wanted to figure out ways to offer cooperation. They knew that the situation with nuclear engineering in Ukraine was fraught with danger. I had been asked to arrange for a meeting between Derkach and an official of the Commissariat а l’energie atomique. Visiting France, I had met with Mr. Frederic Mondoloni, head of the Commissariat, and asked if he could meet with Andrii Derkach. He had said absolutely not – they knew who and what Derkach was all about. They wanted to have nothing to do with the man.”

The Mayor must have support from the City Hall, otherwise all his efforts may end up being sabotaged. Candidate CH members nominated by the parties that supported your candidacy are being pressured into stepping down.

“The slates contain many names that belong to decent and honest individuals, members of Batkivshchyna, Samopomich, UKROP, Party of Honest People, For Ukraine, and the Radical Party. Political parties mean little to me because I am not a politician. I know that there are many well-wishing people who are eager to help Ukrainian society and this town. I meet with Hlukhiv residents on the street, they all want changes for the better, they all want to take part in making these changes a reality. That was why we organized the Active Hlukhiv Citizens’ Center. Many people can’t afford to help the army, but they have the time and desire to sew uniforms and make camouflage nets. The important thing for these people is not to be scared to cast their ballots. Traditionally, 50 percent of the electorate never turn up at the polling stations. They have to realize that this time they must carry out their civic duty. Another important thing is not to sell one’s vote in return for 200 hryvnias because one will have to pay a far bigger price in the next five years. If these people say no to corruption and show a mass turnout, I think they will cast their ballots for the right candidates who will proceed to make changes for the better and keep an eye on law and order in this town.”

Your opposition is made up of individuals who are sitting pretty, having steady and rich contraband incomes. These people are very dangerous. They’re fighting you because they want to keep their incomes. Is there anything to indicate that your life or that of your supporters is in jeopardy?

“When I decided to run for mayor, I knew about the risks involved. Any political confrontation is dangerous, it may turn into [an armed] conflict. I was on the Euromaidan on February 20, by the Hotel Ukraine, I saw the bodies of the activists. Had I been younger, I would have long been in the ATO ranks. At my age, with what little I know about firearms, I guess that Hlukhiv is my ATO. Here I may prove really useful. I know that I will have to act under uncomfortable, even dangerous conditions, but this will be less dangerous than at the front.”

Why do you think Derkach has held this oblast as his own under various presidents and Cabinets?

“If you look up Andrii [Andrei] Derkach on rumafia.com, you will read that his father Leonid Derkach, currently residing abroad, keeps in touch with Semyon Mogilevsky, and that the two of them are running the racket that keeps Sumy oblast under control. All this spells very big money, of course. Andrii Derkach is one of the wealthiest Ukrainian oligarchs, although no one mentions the fact because he is an ex-KGB/SBU officer, graduate of the same KGB school as Vladimir Putin, with whom he made friends. I think no one can even imagine the role he’s actually playing. Proceeding from Putin’s plan for dividing Ukraine into three parts – the occupied southeast and Crimea, the west, the buffer central regions and the north – the latter is an ideal option for Derkach, paradise on earth for smugglers and gangsters.

“I don’t want Hlukhiv to be part of that buffer zone. Hlukhiv must become one of the most beautiful cities in Ukraine, a European showcase for the neighboring power. Many people living across the border near Hlukhiv are also Ukrainians. When they see that Ukrainians know how to live a normal life in Ukraine, this will be like a magnet. The important thing for me is to make Hlukhiv into a strong and prosperous city with ample economic and cultural opportunities. We could even come up with a new kind of capitalism that would be good for society, the kind my ancestors practiced.

“Regrettably, this scenario is unacceptable to Derkach. The man would prefer the buffer zone as his domain. The impression is that Derkach and all the presidents that have ruled Ukraine over the past decade have made a deal, so that no one would dare challenge his ways in this region. He gives orders to the governor, chief of the local SBU, every justice, the customs authorities, and police. His people keep them under control. It has got so that a janitor at a local boarding school can be replaced only if okayed by Derkach. This is not what the man in the street regards as normal life. A message was sent to the president of Ukraine, but he does not seem to hear the voice of the people, not on this occasion anyway. The Presidential Administration appears to be busy organizing the political system in this region. They do not seem to realize that the populace is absolute against it, that they want changes, reforms. These people want to live in a different way and do not understand why nothing is happening that way.

“I realize that if I win the elections, I’ll have to talk to the president to have his support for reform and for the local authorities to function properly. Derkach and his team are throwing monkey wrenches in the works of the administrative reform and any other projects that are truly important for Ukraine. He is afraid to lose access to the administrative resource. It is important to understand that the newly elected mayor of Hlukhiv will accomplish nothing if resisted by all government structures. He won’t be able to do anything about the customs authorities, let alone contraband. He won’t be able to cleanse the authorities of corruption. That’s not his jurisdiction. All he can do is make his town comfortable to live in. I hope the president will hear me and instruct the local authorities to help me make changes for the better, something the populace needs so badly.”

Good to hear about your immediate plans after being elected as mayor. And your brave spirit deserves every praise. You are right: your message must be conveyed to the people. The residents of Hlukhiv and Sumy oblast must know that Derkach is keeping them under tight control. Ukraine is closely following your campaign, along with world media and international organizations.

“There are OSCE observers in Hlukhiv who have visited the police HQ and courts of law, considering that I’m under criminal prosecution. It is very important for us to have Hlukhiv in the limelight rather than way out of it. There is a conference scheduled for October 22. It will deal with tourism and urban development. We realize that they won’t allow us to hold it indoors, so we’ll hold it outdoors. Some MPs have promised help, among them Olha Bohomolets, Hanna Hopko, Pavlo Kyshkar, Viktor Romaniuk, Viktor Kryvenko, Oleh Medunytsia, to mention but a few. Also, everything that happens is for all people of Hlukhiv to see. I believe they have made their choice. More than 50 percent of the electorate will cast their ballots for me. No black PR will change the situation.

“One other thing. We were recently denied lease of the main campaign billboard and shortly afterward saw it display the Opposition Bloc’s ads and clips. People must know this. Acting that way, the local authorities are only adding to our support in Hlukhiv. Now we have to see about falsifications. There will be falsifications, of course, but we’ll have to reduce them to 15 percent at the most – although this is bad enough. We have an army of volunteers. We have our people on each election commission and every democratic party in Hlukhiv is supporting me. These are experienced people who have taken part in the election process for a number of years. They know what kind of falsifications to expect and where. I keep telling my electorate: ‘I’m your candidate, but your task is to keep your choice under control,’ because there is only so much I can keep under control.”

Hlukhiv is getting to be a new reference point, politically speaking. These elections are an important nationwide phenomenon. The role your family has played in Ukrainian history is also very important.

“I wanted to do something useful for Ukrainian society. I agreed to run for mayor in Hlukhiv because I saw no other way to help the populace. It is important for me to keep this campaign on a fair basis, without any falsehood, on our part at least. Ukraine is standing a fantastic chance of building an essentially new country after the Maidan. This must happen now or never. We need changes on all levels. Unfortunately, past year showed that there is no 100-percent guarantee.”

Interviewed by Larysa IVSHYNA, Ivan KAPSAMUN, Alla DUBROVYK-ROKHOVA, Dmytro KRYVTSUN, The Day. Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day