"A year is like a day, like Groundhog Day." The mayor of Mariupol about the first days of the Russian invasion, the support of the people

18 March, 02:44 PM
Vadym Boychenko, Mayor of Mariupol (Photo:NV)

Vadym Boychenko, Mayor of Mariupol (Photo:NV)

Mariupol is the largest city in Ukraine to be almost completely destroyed during the full-scale Russian invasion. Most of its residents lived under a complete siege for almost two weeks, without the opportunity to escape from the shelling. In some parts, this period stretched for almost a month.

Over the past 7 years, Mariupol had managed to become an "updated showcase of Ukrainian Donbas," and served as an example to many Ukrainian cities. New jobs were created, higher educational institutions were opened, the city’s infrastructure was renovated, and international investors allocated tens of millions of dollars for development. At the same time, Mariupol was only a few kilometers from the front line.

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In the span of just a few days, all these achievements were destroyed. For almost a year, the executive committee of the Mariupol City Council has been operating outside the city. Some city council members went abroad, and some even went to collaborate with the aggressor. But Vadym Boychenko and almost his entire team remained in Ukraine. Their main focus is on humanitarian aid for the people of Mariupol.

Mayor Boychenko is ready to share his experience with other cities and the country as a whole. We met with him at one of Kyiv’s YaMariupol (I am Mariupol) centers and spoke about the first weeks of the occupation, the role of dictator Vladimir Putin in the destruction of Mariupol, and the opening of a "green corridor" for the evacuation of citizens. Separately, Vadym Boychenko talked about government transparency, which had been developing for several years before the full-scale war, and which today is helping facilitate cooperation with international donors and partners. Together with these partners, the city provides humanitarian aid and is forming a vision for the future of Mariupol after its liberation.

Interview of Vadym Boychenko, Mayor of Mariupol (Фото: NV)
Interview of Vadym Boychenko, Mayor of Mariupol / Photo: NV

Weeks of uncertainty and the final occupation

- The year 2022 turned out to be so difficult for Mariupol that it is even difficult to describe it in words. At what moment did you finally understand that the city was occupied and your plans for this year will not be fulfilled even partially?

- On Feb. 23, we held a session of the city council. They had planned to build an airport near Mariupol, which they wanted to name in honor of Arkhip Kuindzhi. The development budget was one that we had not had before: UAH 6 billion ($160 million), rather than 1.6 billion ($42.9 million). But on Feb. 24, everything changed. At 5:07 am, the governor called – and that's how I found out that there was a war.

I met the war in Mariupol, and time stopped there. It was winter then and it is winter now. I saw no spring, no summer, no autumn. One day, a sort of Groundhog Day, has been happening all year round.

The local leaders of the city's defense at that time - we can talk about this now - did not fully understand what would happen tomorrow. Events happened very quickly. That is why we worked all this time to support and help the defenders of the city. Everyone carried out all their duties. There were no orders from their [our defenders’] side - they asked, we found a balance. But I emphasize that events then happened very quickly.

- And yet, when did you realize that, as the saying goes, “this rain is going to fall for a long time?"

- When the last of our soldiers left the Azovstal plant - May 20, 2022. When the defense of Mariupol ended.

From that time I realized that... [he pauses - ed.] This is a comma, this is not a period... And we will have to prepare and move towards de-occupation, to the freeing of our city.

- Which period of the year was the most difficult for you?

- The first days of the war were the most difficult – when you understand what is happening, but you have no way to affect it. When you try to start an evacuation, and you realize that your desire alone is not enough. That Russia has other plans. They carry out their assault, they destroy the city.

- What challenges stuck out to you the most?

- Evacuation in impossible conditions. When Putin has no desire to open the city... Why do I always say ‘Putin?’ I am confident in my words thanks to [Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro] Kuleba, who was supposed to meet with [Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei] Lavrov in Istanbul on March 10.

Vadym Boychenko (Фото: NV)
Vadym Boychenko / Photo: NV

It so happened that we talked on the eve of this meeting. I asked – begged – for only one thing: to open the city. And for people to have the opportunity to escape. We already understood then that the city was being destroyed and thousands had been killed there.

He held three hours of talks with Lavrov! 80% of this communication was about Mariupol. And at the end, Lavrov says: "I do not have the authority to make decisions about Mariupol." Therefore, we understand who had the authority, who was driving this harsh approach, and who made the decision.

- Is this revenge for 2014?

- I think so. I emphasize that this is my personal opinion. The second is that we had development. But in Donetsk, which was occupied, this did not happen. There was a decline. This is their reason for rage.

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- In your opinion, what made it possible to open a green corridor through which people were able to drive through by car?

- Many factors came together here. It must be understood that we had been making efforts since March 1 to make this corridor work. Unfortunately, it was not Putin's wish. Macron, Erdogan, the Pope, and the Orthodox Church worked to make it happen on March 13. The whole world united and pressured Putin: "Open the city, let the people out!" All this pressure paid off.

- It seemed that they deliberately forgot about one route...

- They didn't forget, they opened it. My mother traveled this route on March 15 from Mariupol. I was in the Drama Theater. She also says that they left themselves, no one evacuated them. And I ask her: "Have you passed the checkpoint? You’ve done it! Were there people there? There were! Were you released? You were! And they could have not let you out!

Interview of Vadym Boychenko, Mayor of Mariupol (Фото: NV)
Interview of Vadym Boychenko, Mayor of Mariupol / Photo: NV

Vadym Boychenko first became the Mayor of Mariupol in 2015. For many years before that, this city of half a million people was in the shadow of neighboring Donetsk - one of the most important financial and industrial centers of Ukraine. But unlike the regional center in Donetsk, Mariupol on the shores of the Sea of ​​Azov was able to regain its freedom in 2014. Fortunately, at that time, the people of Mariupol had already learned about the horrors of occupation, and the war only touched Mariupol a little. The most terrible crime committed by the Russians and their henchmen was the shelling of the Skhidniy neighborhood in January 2015. More than 30 people died in the incident.

Mariupol was able to resist, recover, and start rapidly developing. Rinat Akhmetov's Metinvest Group was the first to believe in it. They invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the reconstruction of two metallurgical enterprises, setting an example for others. But before the war, only international financial organizations, which invested in updating the city's infrastructure, dared to make large investments in Mariupol. In the fall of 2019, Mariupol hosted a large investment forum in which the newly elected President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, took part.

Thanks to the transparent work of local authorities, the city changed and developed. It seemed that private foreign investment was about to arrive. Even McDonalds announced its readiness to return to Mariupol.

At that time, there was no development in Russian-occupied Donetsk. But there was a huge desire to stop the development of Ukrainian Mariupol.

Transparency as a key to success

- You mentioned the contrast between Mariupol and Donetsk which arose over the previous eight years. What role did anti-corruption measures play in the development of Mariupol, in particular those implemented with the support of the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative in Ukraine?

- A big role. We rose from 57th place to first place in the Transparency International rating. We taught our people to be transparent, to be open. This gave our community quality services and experience, which transformed into Mariupol's openness to international financial organizations. Back in Feb. 2022, I was in the EBRD office, and we spoke about additional investments in the city. And we agreed on them. This included 60 electric buses that we were supposed to receive at the end of 2022.

Why did we receive these investments so quickly? Because there was a lot of work behind it. For almost three years, we worked very hard to begin working with microfinance organizations ourselves. And then there were almost no restrictions.

- Because you have become not just a municipality, but a partner...

- Yes. We had a credit rating for the city that was better than the whole country’s. That is why IFC, EBRD, and EIB wanted to work with us. The French government provided EUR 65 million for the construction of a water treatment plant.

This showed that we had created an image for our city. And the experience that European anti-corruption partners gave us, the tools they gave us - we transformed it into trust in our city.

- To what do you attribute the ability to achieve this transparency?

- There must be political will. Change is not a very easy task. Sometimes changes need to be made through main force. And it all starts with the mayor. If the mayor is the engine that drives his team forward, then there will be changes. If he understands what all this is for and sees an ultimate goal, then the changes will happen.

Through these anti-corruption tools, we first of all had to create a transparent and open city, and second of all to create conditions for attracting investments. Moreover, since 2014, Mariupol has been a front-line city.

- What is happening now with the resources which you attracted but could not spend? Loans, leasing... Because there is, for example, public transport that was destroyed.

- Our partners from IFC and EBRD understand what happened. The trust we mentioned means now that they want to write these loans off due to force majeure.

- Are these large sums?

- EUR 33 million.

And the French money, the European investment money, has not been unpacked. It is in the state treasury accounts.

Interview of Vadym Boychenko, Mayor of Mariupol (Фото: NV)
Interview of Vadym Boychenko, Mayor of Mariupol / Photo: NV

Before joining the city government, Vadym Boychenko worked in managerial positions at Metinvest. Many other top managers of Azovstal and the Illich Iron and Steel Works came with him to municipal and communal enterprises.

The experience of working in a large corporation, and the formal and informal support of its main shareholder, played a role. In seven years, it was possible to put most utility issues in order. As a result, Boychenko enjoyed tremendous support among Mariupol residents, thanks to which he was elected for a second term. And the political party bearing his name won the majority of seats in the city council in 2020.

This centralization of power periodically caused indignation among the city’s political opposition and even the population. But in the loudest cases, the city council listened to its citizens. Thus it was, for example, with the change of location the building of Metinvest's corporate university in 2021.

Business experience and development

- In addition to political will and desire, you had the financial resources for change. Large industrial enterprises which filled the local budget.

- A nice idea, but I don’t accept it. This is a myth.

It was very simple. Let's take Mariupol. How much did the city earn? UAH 4.6 billion ($123 million). We are comparable with other cities, but only in per-capita terms – for example, Dnipro. Mariupol had earnings of UAH 7,600-7,800 ($203-209) per person, while Dnipro had UAH 10,500 ($281). But Dnipro is a bigger city. Let's take an equivalent. For example, there is the nice city of Zaporizhzhya nearby. They have UAH 10,200 ($273) per capita. That is, more money. Why are there changes in Mariupol, but no changes there?

The answer is in the middle. This is a 60 by 40 formula. 60% is expenses for maintaining communal enterprises, and for keeping the lights on. And 40% are investments.

For example, the water supply utility [before the arrival of our team] reached approximately UAH 350 million ($9.4 million) in revenue! In 2020, the level of utility tariff subsidies was below the national average – zero! And in this tariff there were also investments of UAH 30 million ($803,000).

- Is it a myth that it was easier for you to make changes thanks to your more rigid power vertical than in other cities of Ukraine?

- Has our team taken everything under control? (smiles)

- So. If you didn't even want to do it, you should have done it. But at the same time, you apparently had the right goals.

- I agree with you 100% that this requires a will, a team, and that there should be a sort of central line from the head of the city so that there are no [internal] irritations.

But we had not only a goal, but also a strategy for 2030, which we had been developing for Mariupol for 1.5 years alongside with USAID experts and adopted in Dec. 2021.

- You joined the city government from a business in which you were a top manager. After the transfer of a large number of other top managers to the city vertical, I even heard a joke that a new division appeared in Metinvest:  "Mariupol"...

- This is the first time I’m hearing about it, but it's nice (smiles - ed.)…

- What is the most important thing from business that you managed to bring to life in the city?

- There are several things that can work both in business and in the municipality. The first thing is to understand what your goal is, where you are going. We needed to form a plan. We called it a city strategy. The second is the team. Without professional people who can professionally move this or that direction towards the goal, it is impossible. Third... What is business about? About money.

We came from a business that optimizes and effectively manages financial flows, and saw that the municipality is an unmanaged world. And you first have to put everything into a pile, then sort it out according to functions, rethink everything that was before and what won’t work. I said that we are a service for people. Change was needed, but some of the old leaders were not ready. Therefore, over my seven years of work, we changed managers of the heating network five times. Five!

- How many people worked in Mariupol in the vertical of the municipality and communal enterprises?

- Just in education and healthcare, there were 16,000 people. The salary fund (in the entire vertical - ed.) was almost UAH 2 billion ($53.6 million).

- That is, for you as a professional in the field of labor resources management, it was a bigger challenge than in metallurgy?

- I think it was 1000% bigger. I didn't fully understand where I was going and what the challenges would be, but it was an interesting experience.

Starting from April 2022, YaMariupol social support centers will be created throughout Ukraine, and their capacities are  constantly increasing. This interview takes place in one of these centers where humanitarian, medical, and psychological assistance is provided to people from Mariupol. They can spend time here and talk to their fellow Mariupol residents.

Hundreds of people, most of whom were left with nothing, have the opportunity to receive food, household supplies, warm winter kits, and more here. But for many residents, the most important thing is the opportunity to get advice in a single place from lawyers, doctors, and other specialists on how to manage a particular life situation. For example, how to properly file a police report about a destroyed home or restore lost documents.

Perhaps the experience of these centers will be useful at the state level as well.

The city is on a business trip

- We are sitting in one of the YaMariupol centers where you help Mariupol residents. How did the experience working with international partners and donors help you when creating these centers?

- I will say one word - trust. To this day, we have been building trust with our partners and donors. Part of this, of course, is to the credit of EUACI. Our breakthrough in our transparency and openness ratings made it possible to attract donors.

We attracted UAH 590 million ($15.8 million) without spending money from the local budget. We made it possible for residents of Mariupol to receive humanitarian, hygienic, psychological, and medical assistance. 21 such centers are already operating, and 4-5 more will open in the near future.

- How did the idea to create these centers come about?

- People left Mariupol in very difficult conditions. They were all psychologically traumatized. Destroyed, I would even say. We saw eyes that had no life in them. And one must understand that these people wanted to go only to Ukraine. There were more than 200,000 of them.

We started preparing for the opening of the centers in advance. On April 27, the first YaMariupol in Dnipro was opened.

After the withdrawal of the last soldiers from Azovstal, there was no longer any systematic work for evacuation. Therefore, the head of the Donetsk Oblast Military Administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, instructed us to focus on this issue. We decided to use the experience we gained when meeting evacuees in 2014 and 2015. We had family support centers. We made an upgrade, I formulated a proposal, and came to an agreement with the head of the military administration. He said, "Go ahead!" And so we went, opening a new center every 10 days.

Photo: NV

- Why don't other cities open something like this?

- It is difficult to say. My personal opinion is that fortunately for other cities and unfortunately for Mariupol, they have not gone through such a terrible tragedy. No city has been under siege under heavy fire when there is no way to leave the city. This is a special case, therefore the attitude towards these people should be special.

- Are there any other funds from which the centers are financed, apart from donors?

- No. If we talk about the local budget, we unpacked it only in July. This became possible only because we had partners: Save the Children, World Central Kitchen, and others. Very, very many.

When the budget was unpacked, this money was directed to purchase military bonds, to support the Armed Forces – more than UAH 1 billion ($26.8 million). Should the donors leave, we have a security cushion that will allow us to keep going.

- Is the city budget still somehow being filled?

- Are soldiers working? Our Azov, our border guards, our TRO. They are still [registered] in Mariupol. We spend budgetary funds very transparently. The first priority is helping people. If there is help from donors, we will have savings. The second is assistance to the Armed Forces. The third component is preparing to return to Mariupol. Help will be there and will remain there.

But the second component of the return will be the revival of municipal and utility companies. And we have to prepare for this. And after the interview at this table, we will discuss it [with our colleagues on the city executive committee].

- Is it necessary to create similar centers not only for Mariupol residents, but for all IDPs?

- Other cities have asked for our experience. Some of them even wanted to join our centers. But they understood that there is a different philosophy.

- How so?

- Here, Mariupol people work for the sake of Mariupol people. Those people who had difficulty leaving Mariupol through the "green corridors" that were created after March 13, work here, work with other people who left Mariupol. This is where the first adaptation and socialization takes place. There is a feeling of "I've come home." There are these YaMariupol houses in Kyiv, Dnipro, Ivano-Frankivsk, and other cities. Like the Ukraine House in Warsaw. If you feel for what and for whom you are working, then it works. Otherwise, no.

- And at the level of the President's Office or the Cabinet of Ministers, are you being approached for experience in order to make a sort of Center for Administrative Services for IDPs?

- This experience is unique. I believe that this can be taken and distributed to support residents of other cities. But someone has to do it. I received an order from the head of the Donetsk Oblast Military Administration, so I did it. When there is an order to share what we've learned, we are ready.

- How many people are registered in Mariupol, and how much assistance have they received?

- We give out 11 tons of humanitarian aid every day. 265,000 people visited our centers last year. 65,000 are permanently registered, although 200,000 have left. But not everyone gets help.

- What is the overall distribution of Mariupol residents?

- Approximately 120,000 people live directly in Mariupol. About 150,000 in Ukraine at large. Some 150,000 are abroad, including somewhere in Russia. There are maybe 30,000 of those. And the delta which doesn't add up - we need to determine where all these people are...

- General Director of Metinvest Yuriy Ryzhenkov said in August that 50% of the workers of Mariupol enterprises have not gotten in touch. This is a very large share...

- It is difficult to say, but the time will come when it will be necessary. We were all very frightened by the situation in the Dnipro. 48 people died in just one building section. In Mariupol, according to the lowest estimates, 1,000 multi-story buildings were destroyed. On average, these have 2-2.5 sections. If we take at least the number that was in Dnipro, the number is frightening.

Vadym Boychenko's team is already thinking about the future. More precisely, about the restoration of Mariupol after its liberation. Disappointing statistics show that some Ukrainians cannot find themselves outside their home town, village, or city. Therefore, after Mariupol returns to Ukrainian governmental control, tens of thousands of people will return there in a very short time.

But what can they do there?

Metinvest has publicly declared its readiness to resume metallurgical production, at least, at the Iron and Steel Works. This fact can become the engine of Mariupol's post-war recovery. However, an enterprise cannot exist without a city. Therefore, residents should, at a minimum, receive high-quality household and communal services. And all together to create a new city. What will it contain beyond the memory of all that has been lost? The mayor and his deputies have sought an answer to this question, including immediately after the end of this interview.

Interview of Vadym Boychenko, Mayor of Mariupol (Фото: NV)
Interview of Vadym Boychenko, Mayor of Mariupol / Photo: NV

On thoughts about the future

- We understand that in the future, after liberation, the city will be different - just physically smaller. How do you account for this in your plans?

- We understand that. We divided our work on the revival of the city into three components. The first, which we are doing together with our partners from USAID, is the search for an answer to the main question: why should we return? What will push us forward to go there? There are two approaches. The first is to rebuild the city that was. The second is to build a new city. When we build a new modern European city, it will form the reason why people will start returning from Lviv, Dnipro, Kyiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and other cities.

The second component is the speed of return. We have to understand exactly what we are doing in every three month period after our return. We are setting aside 18 months for our rapid action plan. During this period, the municipality and communal services should work as a coordinated mechanism, automatically: infrastructure, traffic lights, buses, schools, etc.

- What should become the mainstay of the city's new economy?

- The first component is big business – namely industry with new approaches to iron and steel production. Pure metallurgy, built from scratch.

- But why build it in Mariupol?

- First of all, because there is a port here. And it is logistically convenient. Why are Kametstal and Zaporizhstal not working at full capacity? Because there are no logistics.

- To be completely honest, when logistics appears in Mariupol, it will appear in other cities as well...

- Taking into account the fact that we will liberate Crimea and remove this bridge, the Mariupol port will be able to process up to 21 million tons of cargo per year. The sea is an opportunity for both business and tourism. The sea itself is the second component that we should emphasize, creating opportunities for recreation and education. The third component is the construction industry. A city will be built, including houses, factories, schools, sports facilities, hospitals, and a water purification plant.

- An agricultural sector?

- Yes, this is the fourth direction, which we had begun to develop very intensely before the war. There were even almonds being grown near Mariupol, and a winery was opened.

- Mariupol is called the city that has made the most progress in the Cities of Virtue program. Are you ready to share your experience with others?

- This example already exists. We are helping the city of Lviv today. Mr. Sadovyy (the mayor of Lviv -ed.) recognized our achievements and personally turned to me for help. Our specialists have already become advisers who are helping to implement changes in areas like heating, water supply, public transport, and park construction. They have colossal resources that can be spent not on supporting these enterprises, but on the development of the city of Lviv.

The project was created with the support of the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative in Ukraine (EUACI)

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