Amazing story on how a frenchman with a Ukrainian passport, Michel Tereshchenko, became a Mayor of Hlukhiv in provincial Ukraine, and is building a European-style town there. By Dmytro Syniak for focus.ua.
“I had never planned on living in Ukraine. When I first came here back in 1994 I was, frankly, glad that my grandfather’s family had emigrated. Yet I felt something that I could not explain in words. I felt obligated to help the people. Just like my ancestors had.”
His ancestors are sacred to him, so he is a bit nervous when he talks about them. He speaks with a strong French accent. Michel Tereshchenko is a graduate of the Paris School of Economics and Business, one of the best such schools in France. In Paris he worked as a business manager. He was born in Paris, served in the French armed forces, has lived in Florida, where he had a business selling diving equipment, then in Madagascar and in the Philippines, where he raised edible red algae that is considered a delicacy. He has sailed around the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Seas. His three grown children and two grandchildren live in France.
These days he has other worries.
After last year’s local elections, contrary to the predictions and in spite of the strong opposition from the local authorities, Michel Tereshchenko became the mayor of Hlukhiv, the regional center of Sumy Oblast which has a population of 36 thousand residents. To be able to run for office, Michel gave up his French citizenship and as a consequence has lost his pension in France.
“All the authorities here were against me during the campaign,” Michel says. “I was not allowed[to rent] a single billboard for advertising. All the billboards advertised the Opposition Bloc party and the People’s Will party. I could not get a single room from where I could run my campaign. I was forced to appear before voters on the street. Five criminal cases were filed against me, four of which have not been dropped to this day. It was in the interests of the previous municipal authorities to keep the people poor and unemployed. Factories were closed, jobs were cut, and year after year the city suffered greater and greater decline.”
Michel was surprised with his unconditional victory in the first round of elections.
“I thought it would be primarily young people who would be voting for me,” Tereshchenko says. “After all, the things I talked about were the things youngpeople care about: a visa-free regime, new jobs, and de-communization. But in fact I got the most support from the pensioners. I was constantly surrounded by the local grandmothers, as if they were protecting me. You know, in Ukraine,the opinion that pensioners are passive prevails – the image of the pensioner being bought off for a kilo of buckwheat cereal is widespread. But in Hlukhiv they are not at all like that.”
Michel’s victory in the elections does not mean that his political opponents have given up.On the contrary: they have stepped up sabotaging his ideas and policies and they are building a stronger resistance. They have swamped the town hall with all sorts of requests for information and with lawsuits: the town hall is presently embroiled in nine trials.They are doing everything they can to make sure that the Tereshchenko city administration has as little time as possible to do any effective work. The local press continues to publish compromising material about the new mayor.
“I dislike giving interviews because very often my words are used to launch new lawsuits,” Tereshchenko tells me. “Would it be wise for me to say anything about the well-known ex-Party of Regions people who for 18 years had managed virtually everything in Hlukhiv and are now filing lawsuits against me? Most of them still hold power, including having control over the local press.” [The journalist and the mayor took a ride to a kindergarten where the childrens’ parents had requested a meeting to resolve some issues; a meeting at the regional administration office was next on the agenda.]
A critical issue will be discussed at the regional administration office: will Hlukhiv retain its status as the regional center after the integration of several communities. De-centralization has reached the Ukrainian heartland. Theopponents of the new mayor have seen to it that the plan to split Hlukhiv into two separate administrative centers would be upheld by the authorities in Sumy [the Oblast center].
“This split would eliminate the opportunity for the effective development of the city,” Michel declared. “I am in the process of negotiating with two major gas station franchises. The owners are willing to not only build the filling stations, but agas distribution hub, as well. But they would do so only if Hlukhiv retains its status as the regional center. I’ve already come to agreements with the heads of village councils and neighboring towns. I think we will succeed in creating a unified center in Hlukhiv by integrating adjacent counties.” [Walking along a street in Hlukhiv, the journalist notices the name of the street they’re walking on. It is Tereshchenko Street.]
Michel smiles when a beautiful red palace with high arched windows and white columns is pointed out.
“Mykola Tereshchenko, my great-grandfather had built the palace for himself,” he says. “But then when it was completed, he bestowed it to the university which still occupies the building. He built a clinic, too, which until 1917 served as a free health center known as St. Ephrosynia Hospital. And that school over there, too, which housed a women’s gymnasium [high school]. And that home over there was the bank he owned. In Hlukhiv my ancestors built an orphanage, two hospitals, two schools, and the cathedral.”
The surname Tereshchenko played a significant role in the mayoral elections. The name is respected in Hlukhiv. People still remember the names of the chief benefactors ofHlukhiv in the late XIX and early XX century. Having made a fortune in supplying provisions to the army during the Crimean War of 1853-1856Tereshchenko created one of the largest commercial-industrial conglomerates in the Russian Empire. In the XIX century every tenth Ukrainian worked in one of the Tereshchebko enterprises. Their enterprises served the community, their main objective being the improvement and enrichment of the community. Tereshchenko had invested 1.5 million pre-Revolution rubles into the infrastructure of Hlukhiv, and 9 million in Kyiv.
Michel supports the Children’s Center of Cardiology in Kyiv and provides scholarships to the talented students of the Kyiv Conservatory. In Hlukhiv Michel sponsors free concerts of classical music. With his support Hlukhiv has held a flax blossom festival for five years already. He owns land on which flax and non-narcotic hemp are cultivated.
“It was impossible to have a business here if you didn’t have some kind of relative or close connection to the authorities,” Michel says. “The only reason they let me in is because they took me for a half-crazy Frenchman who would never rival the existing order. But when they realized that I could actually become the mayor, they unleashed their ruthless war against me. Had the elections been held 3-4 weeks later, most likely I would have lost everything and would have been run out of here.”
A delegation of the local regional authorities arrived in Hlukhiv to update the dominant plan, that is, to persuade the local councils to vote for the status quo rather than to discuss the government mandated de-federalization of the region. A heated debate unfolded regarding the budget [allotted by the federal government] for de-centralization and de-communization. An unperturbed Michel, a graduate of the Paris Business School and an advisor on investments to the French embassy seemed out of place here among the rude provincial functionaries and heads of village and town councils. It seemed, though,that all those present sensed this, and when Tereshchenko, the most passionate debater,spoke, everyone listened.
“I feel I must remake the city, the place where my ancestors were born and buried. On land as rich as this, populated with hardworking people, poverty should be nonexistent. Poverty has been artificially instituted. In Marseilles I had 30 people working in a company I owned. Forcing them to work Saturdays was practically impossible. And if there was a need to work Sunday, that was perceived as an absolute catastrophe! In France no one will work 5 minutes past 5 o’clock. I have 153 employees in the companies I own here in Hlukhiv and here everyone is willing to work Saturdays, Sundays, days, nights, as long as they get paid. For investors this is paradise!”
“Given the chance, most Ukrainians would not hesitate to move to France. Meanwhile you have left a sated, prosperous life to live in a complex, corrupt country, and not only that, but you are willing to work as a civil servant in Hlukhiv! Why?” jounalist asked.
“This is where my life has meaning. I can see what a high price today’s young people are paying for the mistakes of their parents. They are poor, sick, hopeless, and have no faith in their own strength. Until the Maidan, I saw Ukraine through the eyes of a tourist. And when I saw corpses on the Maidan I was shocked. In Hlukhiv when people encouraged me to run for office, I felt I did not have the right to refuse. Here in Hlukhiv there has been no change these last two years. On the contrary, things have gotten worse. In 1872 MykolaTereshchenko built two hospitals. Today both hospitals are in horrible condition. People are dying because there is a lack of modern equipment and medicines. The surgeon who lives 16 km from the city receives 1800 UAH per month.”
According to Tereshchenko, in four years it will be possible to create 4,000 jobs in Hlukhiv.
“The owner of a bread-baking plant that had closed last May has agreed to reopen the plant, to invest in it 300 thousand euros, and to open new outlets when I assured him there would be no corruption. A Syrian businessman has agreed to restore the dairy where up to 30 people would be working by the end of the year. An investor who purchases flax from my company has promised to invest half the funds required in the creation of a garment factory which could employ close to 600 people. I’m looking for someone who could invest the rest of the funds needed to complete the project.”
The construction of alarge three-story military barracks has begun in Hlukhiv. The requirements for fuel will increase for the farmingindustry and for the military, which will necessitate the development of a fuel storage facility and a network of gas stations.As a result the city budget will increase by 5-6 million USD.
Tourism should be developed, as well. 54 cultural and historical objects are situated in Hlukhiv, the most treasured and beloved being the church of St. Nicholas where four hetmans [elected leaders of the legendary kozaks] received blessings. It was in Hlukhiv, in 1708, in the presence of Peter I that Mazepa [hetman of the kozaks] was pronounced eternally condemned [Mazepa had forged an anti-Russian coalition with Poland and Sweden] by the traitorous Metropolitan of Kyiv, Joasaph. Michel dreams of the day when Hlukhiv will host a national festival at which the lifting of the anathema on Mazepa would be the feature event.
“I won the mayoral election even though I wasthe candidateleast likely to win. Perhaps it was my great-grandfather, Mykola, who like me, served as mayor of Hlukhiv – perhaps he had helped me win the election? If so, I must fulfill his will: to restore life to the city of Hlukhiv. And to restore the cathedral, the burial place of my ancestors. They deserve that.”