There’s an old Ukrainian saying, “A sacred place never stays empty.” I mostly remember this when the cat comes and sits on my chair just as soon as I get up to get a drink of water or change the movie in the VCR. Kyiv’s mayor found out that the same thing goes if you take a break to run for different office.
There was no doubt that 2001 was Oleksandr Omelchenko’s year. While protesters lined the streets shouting Ukraine without Kuchma, the mayor was busy prettifying the country’s capital for its tenth birthday.
Sure, you could hear plenty of spiteful comments later about the statue of Ukraïna looking like a pinhead. Perspective does that. But there were also complaints that a younger Mrs. Kuchma had been the model. Some said the baroque gilding looked like a portrait of red-haired Mr. K himself. Yet, when the parade marched down Khreshchatyk Aug. 24, one elderly lady in a soft silvery boufant turned to us with a big grin and said in Russian, “Take a good look at all this, Mr. Putin, and eat your heart out!”
Not only was Omelchenko the man behind it all, but he and his president seemed the best of buddies. Kyiv’s own Dynamic Duo.
Then, Kuchma began putting out the message, Kyiv without Omelchenko.
I think it all came back to the Maidan.
Just about a year earlier, Ukraine was in a bit of an uproar. People were angry about a dead journalist called Georgiy Gongadze. They were angry about a dismissed vice premier called Yulia Tymoshenko. And they were angry about tapes of a foul-mouthed president called Leonid Kuchma.
For the first time since independence, Ukrainians were expressing their opinion with their feet. And where else in Kyiv should they have done it than on Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square?
The Maidan is the very heart of Kyiv. Five streets run down the hill to the granite-paved Maidan framed by bushy chestnut trees and boasting a good-sized fountain. In front of it runs Kyiv’s famous cross-town avenue, Khreshchatyk.
On a typical weekend afternoon, thousands of people milled around here, getting their pictures taken, buying Ukrainian books and tapes, and eating ice-cream – even in the dead of winter. On special occasions, such as Kyiv Days or Independence Day, the Maidan’s fountain was covered over and a huge stage erected for music festivals. More than 300,000 people crowded the area to hear a single final concert of Chervona Ruta, a biannual rock talent festival.
In other words, the Maidan was a major gathering place.
But in late February 2001, the mayor broke up the tent city that protesters had put up. Shortly afterward, bulldozers began breaking up the Maidan itself – all in preparation for the 10th Anniversary. Residents of the capital knew nothing about it. There were no city hall debates, no published renderings. But grandiose plans were in motion and all anyone could do was sit and wait to see what materialized.
Meanwhile, protesters were hard-pressed to find a place to gather. They tried Shevchenko Park. They tried Mariïnskiy Palace, next to the Verkhovna Rada. But it wasn’t the same. Soon, the scandal died down and the placards disappeared.
By Aug. 24, the Maidan was transformed.
The fact that the original Maidan was still half-boarded up didn’t matter. Or that the underground mall would take another two years to finish. Nor did doubts as to the soundness of the construction have any dampening effect. But you’d be hard-pressed to fit 2-3,000 people into the remaining open spaces
The Omelchenko-Kuchma axis had never been stronger.
Next the mayor went hog-wild.
First he put a statue of Kozak Mamai to the right of Ukraïna. He put the founders of Kyiv to her left. All three are by different artists.
He went to work across the road on the Maidan. A glass dome on the grassy knoll was joined by several more skylights, all revealing the depth of the still-unbuilt shopping mall.
Down came St. Michael the Archangel – stiff as a tin soldier and admittedly pretty awful. He was replaced on his column by an electric blue spinning globe. A replica of the old gates – whose remains had been “accidentally” destroyed during construction – went up kitty-corner. On top stood a new St. Michael. Paint was already peeling in places on this pastiche of the Arc de Triomphe before three months had passed. And poor Michael was so glitzed in gold, he looked like a baroque drag queen.
Meanwhile, the mayor rearranged some political furniture too. He launched a new party called Yednist, ostensibly to campaign for the Verkhovna Rada in Spring 2002. In private, he admitted that mixing with the hoi polloi in the VR was not his ultimate ambition. The presidency was.
In February 2002, a popular television channel accused Omelchenko of conspiring to remove its license. Omelchenko threatened to sue.
The next day, Kuchma appointed an acting mayor to replace him.
Omelchenko now accused the premier of conspiring against him. He tried to withdraw his request for leave during the VR campaign. The Guarantor of Ukraine’s Constitution laughed in the mayor’s face. He told his one-time buddy. “Too much power is concentrated in one man’s hands in the country’s capital.”
The ensuing squabble over who controlled city accounts and council meetings was even more embarrassing than the architectural kitsch on display downtown.
But there you had it. Two thin-skinned power-hungry men. One was upset about being spoofed on TV. The other was upset that everyone was making fun of his hairline. Truth was they were both balding and sagging.
Was there anything else these two could try going after? An American friend said at the time, “The best thing about Kyiv is the Dnipro River – and they can’t change that!”
As I looked at the white sand beaches, I hoped he was right. •