Behind the Mystery of Kiev's Missing Mayor

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Kiev Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky shows his good health to reporters on March 18, 2009

Some said he was holidaying in Georgia, others said that he had asked for political asylum in Israel — then there were those who joked cruelly that he had gone back to outer space. Kiev Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky — known as "Cosmos" for his eccentric behavior — had not been seen in public since last fall, and his extended absence had set off a flurry of rumors about where he was and why he'd disappeared. But when he finally appeared on TV Wednesday evening, he didn't explain why he'd been away. Instead, he went on the attack, saying the government was trying to discredit him and that his allies in Kiev were being "persecuted" by corruption investigations.

"I really was in Georgia," Chernovetsky said during a 45-minute interview on Channel 5. He noted that he'd carried on fulfilling his duties from abroad. "They brought me documents to sign," he said, appearing to confirm earlier local press reports that papers were being flown out for his signature. Political analysts have their own theories about his temporary disappearance, and all are connected to attempts by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's government to consolidate power in the country by sidelining officials not allied to the ruling party and launching investigations against former officials from the previous government, a move criticized by both U.S. and European Union officials.

Chernovetsky, a multimillionaire former banker, isn't in the opposition, and he supported Yanukovych during his 2010 presidential campaign. But the government has made it clear it wants him out of the way. In recent months, the mayor has had his power eroded by the national authorities amid mounting accusations of corruption over land sales and mismanagement of city affairs. Kievans, inclined to agree that he's been a poor leader who hasn't solved the city's massive infrastructure problems, have not put up much of a fight to keep him.

Some political analysts suggest that his disappearance was part of a deal he had struck with the government in return for not facing charges. Others say he left to avoid getting caught up in the investigations into other top city officials, who are accused of selling land at knock-down prices. Chernovetsky and his allies deny all allegations of corruption.

Whatever the reason for Chernovetsky's absence from the public eye, it was unusual. The mayor is not shy about appearing before the people. He has used press conferences to demonstrate his (awful) singing voice, and once stripped down to his swimming trunks to prove to reporters that he was physically and psychologically fit for office after some officials had questioned his mental stability.

But following Yanukovych's election last February, the new government has shown little patience for the mayor's antics. A presidential ally, Oleksandr Popov, was appointed as Chernovetsky's deputy and appeared to take over the running of the city. In November, a parliamentary decision separated the job of head of city administration from the role of the mayor; Popov was appointed head of administration, leaving Chernovetsky in a mainly ceremonial role — or, as Prime Minister Mykola Azarov remarked snidely, "like the Queen of England."

Chernovetsky was elected Kiev mayor in 2006, ousting an unpopular incumbent, as opponents accused him of bribing poor, elderly voters with food parcels during the campaign. He quickly lost public support amid claims of incompetent management and insider sales of land and municipal companies. Chernovetsky has always denied involvement in any illegal deals; still, a 2010 survey found that 89% of Kievans thought he was performing badly as mayor. Last winter, the mayor's inability to deal with the havoc caused by the snow piling up on Kiev's streets prompted the Prime Minister to issue an ultimatum. "Stop messing around," Azarov recalled saying to Chernovetsky. "Grab a spade ... and clear away the snow, or we'll clear you away."

In Wednesday's interview, the mayor said he had no intention of quitting, adding that he is upset at how newspapers and government officials have "poured dirt" on him "in order to make me look like a bad leader." He claimed that the corruption accusations against him are a political move to keep him under pressure. "There's not one politician in the country ... who wouldn't be afraid of or expect some kind of political persecution," Chernovetsky said.

But that explanation seems unlikely to gain him much sympathy among disgruntled Kievans. "I'm glad he's back in Kiev as he deserves to sit in jail, not on holiday abroad," says Kiev resident Olena Popova.