Hennadiy Kernes, the seemingly timeless mayor of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest Ukrainian city located in northeast of the country and a crucial industrial center, passed away on the night of December 16 to 17 in Berlin's Charité clinic where he was undergoing treatment. He died of cardiac arrest.
"That's a pity. Two weeks ago, when there was a session of the City Council, he was so cheerful and joyful. He said, 'Well done!' He had normal speech despite a tube in his throat. We were happy that he felt better. Two days later, his kidneys failed. After that, the doctors said that he might survive only by a miracle. We hoped that it would happen. The last time I talked to him was three days ago. I could hear already some weakness in his voice. He was saying that he had stabbing pain in his heart," Pavel Fuchs, a Ukrainian businessman and Kernes’s friend, told the media.
The information about his death was confirmed by Igor Terekhov, the secretary of the Kharkiv City Council. "Tonight my friend passed away,” he wrote on his Facebook account. “He was a person who was endlessly in love with his Kharkiv. He had worked for the revival of the city both day and night for the past 16 years.”
On September 15, 2020, doctors confirmed that Kernes had contracted the novel coronavirus. Since September 17, he was treated at the Charité clinic in Berlin.
Information that Kernes’s state was deteriorating and his both kidneys were failing appeared on December 11. This was reported by Yuri Sidorenko, the head of his press service. Following the mayor’s death, the city declared three days of mourning. All entertainment events were canceled. Kernes was buried on December 22 in Kharkiv.
Serious health issues began in the wake of an assassination attempt in the spring of 2014 after which he was confined to a wheelchair.
There is one interesting fact that should be added to this information. In the fall of 2020, local elections were held in Ukraine. Kernes ran for the post of the mayor of Kharkov as a self-nominated candidate and created his own Successful Kharkiv electoral bloc. He was first elected mayor in 2010. Before that, from 2005, he was the secretary of the city council under them mayor Mikhail Dobkin, one of his closest friends and partners.
Kernes won the mayoral election in the first round with about 60% of the votes. Representatives of his bloc won 34 mandates out of 84 in the city council. In the 2015 local elections, Kernes' party had 57 of 84 seats. On November 4, 2020, the territorial election commission announced these results.
At this point, the mayor was already under medical treatment. There were a lot of rumors about his health condition. Even the question of whether he was alive arose. Despite this, the 38th session of the Kharkiv City Council of the seventh convocation elected in the 2015 was held on December 2. Changes to the regulations of the Kharkiv City Council were one of the decisions it made. In accordance with them, the deputies of the new convocation could hold their first session without the re-elected Mayor Kernes.
During the opening of the first session Olga Mozgovaya, the chairwoman of the City Election Commission, said that Kernes had been registered as a mayor in accordance with the election results. She added that Kernes had already served as Kharkiv Mayor and had previously taken the oath of office. Therefore, he had been declared mayor without his personal presence.
After Kernes' death the duties of the mayor are performed by Igor Terekhov, the secretary of the Kharkiv City Council. Kernes himself nominated his deputy for this post remotely. According to Alexander Klyuzhev, an analyst of the OPORA civil network, and Olga Aivazovskaya, the chair of OPORA’s board, further steps in terms of local legislation might be following. First, the city council was expected to acknowledge Kernes’s death officially. As of the moment they did so, his powers would be terminated ahead of schedule. Then the Verkhovna Rada must appoint a special mayoral election no later than 90 days from the date of early termination of Kernes' powers.
According to Klyuzhev, this process is likely to be slow due to the City Council receiving a copy of the mayor's death certificate and "the possible delay of the final decision by the Verkhovna Rada." According to Aivazovskaya, the scheduling of a special election might take a lot of time. "As long as there is the person to perform the functions of the mayor and there is the consensus of the local elites’ opinion in this, it is unlikely that the election of the mayor of Kharkiv will take place in the near future," she said.
The talk about what would happen with the city and the region in case of death of Kernes, its long-time mayor, had been circulating for some time. However, as nobody seriously believed that he might pass away soon, the information space is still overloaded with conjectures, assumptions, hypotheses, and forecasts. The Office of the President of Ukraine gave an unexpected response to the death of Kernes, the mayor of the city of 1.44 mln residents that is informally referred to as "the First [Ukrainian] Capital." "The attitude towards Hennadiy Kernes was not univocal, and it could not be different. This is understandable. His life account definitely makes it impossible to give unambiguous assessments. If the next mayor can provide the same quality of urban management and the same socially oriented urban policy, it will be the minimum tribute that the memory of Mayor Gennady Kernes calls for."
There are at least two improprieties in this condolence. First of all, very blatant hints at the odiousness of Kernes, the politician who had won city elections three times. Secondly, impetuous remarks about a new mayor when the former was not even buried.
“Kernes passed away,” Ukrainian political analyst Yuriy Romanenko said. “This means that [Interior Minister Arsen] Avakov is likely to gain control over the city of Kharkiv. More precisely, he has already been doing it. Igor Terekhov will be the acting mayor, and he is on good terms with Avakov. The Verkhovna Rada is supposed to schedule the election in 90 days but it is not likely. There will be no time for it."
"Hennadiy Kernes passed away,” said Denis Kazansky, the popular Ukrainian blogger and political commentator. “It was a long time coming, and his entourage was well aware of it. They knew that Kernes became disabled, that his life was in the balance, and that, in any case, he would not be able to perform the mayor’s duties. Nevertheless, this information was hidden for the period of the elections. A new term was arranged for the incapacitated Kernes. The truth about his health was unveiled only after his "taking an oath" when he was already in a coma. Now, people whom no one chose will rule Kharkiv and piggyback on Kernes’s name."
Kharkiv has been always one of the most important centers of influence on Ukrainian politics. The events of 2014 showed that the region differs from the rest of the country. It did not join the pro-Russian people's republics, following the example of Donetsk and Lugansk. Simultaneously, it did not give up power to Ukrainian radical political forces. It became possible also through Kernes' efforts. Experts believe that even after being injured and with his health deteriorating, Kernes managed to maintain a difficult balance of power. Thanks to his efforts relative peace and stability was maintained in the city.
There is no doubt that representatives of the pro-presidential Servant of the People party and the party of Petro Poroshenko, the former president of Ukraine, will make an attempt to hold early mayoral elections in Kharkiv as soon as possible. Both in 2010, 2015 and 2020, their losses at the mayoral elections were tremendous. So, it is time to take revenge. However, more cautious representatives of these political forces and external consultants say that, given the current moods, in the city this haste might lead to another victory for opposition and non-power parties.
The question of a successor is also of high importance. Kernes’s outstanding and charismatic personality did not make it possible to create a new generation of promising city politicians. Now, Kernes' team is faced with a dilemma. They may either fall into oblivion themselves after losing their patron or select someone from their supporters who can try to take his place. So again, Kharkiv is in the spotlight right now. Time will show which pathway will be chosen.
In conclusion, here is a very relevant quote from Alexei Chesnakov, the head of the Russian Center for Political Conjuncture: "Kernes passed away. RIP. Was the deceased a moral person? It is not our business to judge. However, he was a brilliant political technologist and politician. In the decades and years, all politicians starting their careers will learn from this video. It is classical!"