"War is a time for change and a chance to become better." The mayor of Mykolaiv about the first year of the invasion, support from partners
Oleksandr Sienkevych, the mayor of Mykolaiv (Photo:NV)
Mykolaiv is one of the three regional centers of the Black Sea region of Ukraine. It was the city which stood in the way of the Russian invaders who tried to "cut through" the land corridor from Crimea to Transnistria. It took a huge amount of rocket fire. But this city of half a million people seems to be in the informational shadow of neighboring Kherson and Odesa.
NV visited Mykolaiv and spoke with its mayor, Oleksandr Sienkevych, in order to find out first-hand what the city is like, which, after the liberation of the right-bank part of the Kherson region, was able to breathe in a relief.
The Kyiv-Mykolaiv train arrives early in the morning. Some of the passengers have to go further - to liberated Kherson. But the station employees ask them to gather at one point to follow a bus. An announcement is heard over the loudspeaker that there will be no rail connection with the nearby regional center in the coming days.
"Maybe the orcs blew up the tracks, or maybe something else. There is also a gray area," one of Mykolaiv's residents thoughtfully comments on this event. In a radius of a few kilometers around the station, almost all the houses have broken windows, shop windows have been boarded up with OSB boards, streets have been blocked with concrete fortifications, and trenches have been dug at major intersections. But life goes on.
We stayed for half an hour at the invincibility point near the railway ticket offices - we needed to recharge our gadgets. Here, as throughout the Ukrzaliznytsia network, there is tea and tables laden with power outlets, but there is no competition for them. Except me, there is only a railwayman who looks after a stove, raging with heat. Finally, someone else enters the hall - this is a woman with two teenage children, who are constantly arguing among themselves. The mother buys train tickets, the children sit down to charge their smartphones. And we’re going to the city center.
The press service warned me that Sienkevych's schedule may change suddenly, so the meeting may move in any direction and it is better to be near the city council. I am waiting for a call in one of the coffee shops, where, in addition to coffee, desserts from Uzhhorod are sold, which once again emphasizes the connection of the city with Ukraine. Suddenly, the door opens, and the mayor personally appears in the caffe. He orders two cups of coffee at once, and we start a conversation.
- What was the year 2022 like for Mykolaiv?
- As for everyone: difficult and heroic. Until November 11-12, we were bombarded almost every day: from four to 38 rockets. During the record firing there were 42, but some were shot down. On that day, Oleksiy Vadatursky died. In total, there were only 46 days of silence.
- What was the biggest challenge for you?
- The main priority was to save people, to preserve life, because the shelling was both day and night. They fired at the bus stop - 12 people died, 60 people were injured. And they were not just cut by glass, but steel shrapnel that cut into the legs and flew out on the other side, with part of the bone. Therefore, we had the urgent tasks of rescuing the people, removing debris, handling the aftermath, etc.
We told people: "Everyone who is not occupied with the maintenance of critical infrastructure - leave the city. In order to not be killed." During the war, 156 people died in Mykolaiv. This is a huge number - practically an airplane’s worth of people.
But it could have been much more. In one of the last shelling attacks, one and a half portions of a 5-story building were destroyed. These were 40 apartments. Seven people died, and if people had not left, it would have been much more.
- How did utility companies operate in these conditions?
- They were preparing for winter, because after the bombings, thousands of windows were broken, and most of the apartments were uninhabited. Therefore, it was necessary to block the windows on the towers from the outside with OSB boards, to fill them with foam until the owners come back. When some were dealing with the issue of resettling refugees and distributing humanitarian aid, we were dealing with the issue of preparing for the heating season and the permanent elimination of the consequences of bombings.
- What other difficulties were there?
- Lack of clean water. On April 12, Russians fired at a water pipeline that supplies water from the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast to Mykolaiv. In order not to feed salt water into the heating system, we drilled wells and filled the system with drinking water purified by reverse osmosis systems.
- Did you have these systems?
- No. Some of them were purchased by us, but most of them were received in the form of aid from our partners, including Denmark – which handed over 50 such installations to us. In total, there are more than 150 of them. Purified water is distributed to people on the streets.
- For free?
- Why is it not possible to fix the situation with clean water?
- After the liberation of Kherson, we restored the water supply. But the Russians fired again at our water intake station, and destroyed it. Therefore, we pump water not from the Dnipro, but from the Southern Buh River, and it is salty there.
Indeed, salt water flows from the tap in the coffee shop.
"The city authorities will have to change water supply networks more quickly," jokes the owner of the establishment, adding that the townspeople are actually happy even with such prosperities.
Utilities are probably the largest civilian employer operating in Mykolaiv, as the lack of clean water prevents large food producers and other enterprises from operating. And the Mykolaiv sea trade port, where the leading exporters of agricultural products were located before the war, is not included in the list of ports for the "grain initiative" yet. Moreover, part of the terminals was destroyed by rocket attacks.
- Has active economic life in the city also stopped?
- Almost all large enterprises were closed almost immediately. Others stopped when they were bombarded.
- And small and micro business?
- For a long time, when the city was shelled, we had 200,000-220,000 inhabitants out of half a million. And the majority were pensioners who lived with the thought "what difference does it make where I die." In addition, we had no water at all for a month. No enterprise could work.
Some people were sent to a forced retirement. Those who went abroad and did not work did not receive a salary either.
- Do you mean the workers of communal enterprises?
- But I noticed that now they are working, cleaning. There is public transport.
- Half of our transport is mobilized for the army. Another quarter was bombed during shelling. Warsaw gave us 6 buses, which was very helpful when the electricity supply was stopped. We are currently negotiating with our partners from Denmark regarding the supply of buses and other necessary means of transport. There is also a lack of drivers.
- At the beginning of the invasion, all cities recorded a failure of revenues to the local budget, which was managed to be corrected by the end of 2022 as a result of taxing the salaries of military personnel. How about in Mykolaiv?
- We reduced expenses as much as possible, so at the end of the year we had 1.2 billion UAH left unused.
- So it is not thanks to the increase in the salaries of the military, but thanks to savings?
- Yes. Mykolaiv performed the budget by 80% despite the fact that nothing worked here. But even such an indicator was obtained at the expense of the personal income tax of military personnel of Mykolaiv. Before the full-scale war, our city was one of the most militarized in Ukraine. We had 11 brigade-level units here.
And when, at the end of last year, the Verkhovna Rada raised the question of transferring personal income tax of military personnel from local budgets to the state budget, I said at the Verkhovna Rada committee that in that case it would let us turn off the lights, turn off the water, and leave the city of Mykolaiv.
Fortunately, they changed their minds.
- How did the life in the city change after the de-occupation of Kherson?
- Some residents have returned. Today, there are approximately 350,000 in the city. That is, the total number of consumers of city utilities has increased by 100,000. The last major bombing was on December 31. There was an opportunity to consider things.
- Do you provide any support to Mykolaiv business?
- About 120 small and medium enterprises applied for help: finance, repairs, equipment. We collect this information through the Department of Economics and transfer it to international partners: UN, UN DP. They want to move from buying food for people to helping small and medium-sized businesses. To help people earn money and buy this food themselves. We support this approach and will support it in every possible way. And we are also using this time for conditional "homework" - together with the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative in Ukraine, we are starting to review all regulatory acts. As a result, we strive to provide businesses with comfortable business conditions, transparency of processes, and cost reduction. Without an active business in Mykolaiv, there will be no rapid recovery.
In the center of the city stands the partially destroyed Mykolaiv Hotel. My family and I stayed here in 2020 during a vacation trip to Arabatskaya Strelka, which has been occupied since February 2022. Nearby is a line of citizens waiting for humanitarian aid. In the morning, we also saw another queue - young people stormed the second-hand shop almost with violence.
“In youth slang, it's called a drop – when traders buy brand-name items cheaply and then resell them," explains one of Oleksandr Sienkevych's assistants.
However, this sign of a peaceful life is an exception. In Mykolaiv, everything recalls shelling and war. The streets are half-empty and concrete shelters have been installed near public transport stops. And opposite the closed McDonalds restaurant stands a huge semi-trailer of the humanitarian organization World Central Kitchen. It houses a kitchen where 5,000-6,000 hot meals are prepared every day for residents of Mykolaiv and Kherson. But with the decrease in shelling, the number of residents and humanitarian issues that the municipality is solving together with international partners is increasing.
Humanitarian issues for all and sundry
- You mentioned saving the lives of the townspeople. While I was walking from the station, I noticed the concrete shelters installed at the bus stops. When did you realize that they needed to be built?
- After the second rocket strike on a public transport stop. It was there that the most people died simultaneously. Therefore, we made these simple shelters, which immediately caused a scandal. Journalists reported that we overpayed for them. But they relied on the price of the shelters, which were given to us by private companies - UAH 350,000 ($9,485). And ours cost UAH 1,095,000 ($29,676) . However, our walls have a thickness of 40 cm, versus 15 cm. They are equipped with emergency call buttons, an anti-vandal monitor, and a video surveillance camera.
I believe that we made them the cheapest and best in Ukraine. In addition, they are collapsible, and after the end of the war, they can be used to build underground shelters near communal facilities that do not have bomb shelters.
- How many such shelters already exist in the city?
- 14 in the city, and 5 donated.
- Why do people die at bus stops? Do you think the Russians are doing this on purpose?
- No. In Mykolaiv, these are the consequences of shelling with cluster shells that explode high in the sky and hit a large area. They shelled the whole city to create panic so that people would shout "Surrender!"
- Do you register forcibly displaced persons?
- After the liberation of the right-bank part of Kherson Oblast and Kherson, IDPs began to appear here - already almost 10,000.
- How do you organize the provision of humanitarian aid?
- I think that we have one of the most organized procedures for issuing humanitarian aid in general. When we started cooperating with UN food distribution programs, we made something like a social card. People registered using their personal identification number, because some received it three times a day, and some not even once. Therefore, we decided to streamline this process.
This became especially relevant after mass investigations by law enforcement regarding the misuse of humanitarian aid in other oblasts. The policemen were very surprised that everything was so organized here.
Mykolayiv was the last to join the Integrity Cities program of the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative in Ukraine - at the end of summer 2022. The main focus is transparency and accountability, especially of recovery processes. The Kingdom of Denmark took over the patronage of the city, on March 7 Sienkevych and the Danish Ambassador to Ukraine, Ole Egberg Mikkelsen, signed a memorandum on the reconstruction of Mykolaiv.
After the interview, we get into Sienkevych's car, which he personally drives. We are going to audit one of the communal enterprises, which received a new life actually during the war.
"Before the full-scale aggression, we went to Mariupol to learn from the experience,” explains the mayor, looking carefully at the roadsides and houses of his native city.
“Today, several specialists from there work for us. One is meant to radically reform Mykolaiv parks, which will be responsible for all green areas of the city.”
He shows me sites of the most deadly and tragic Russian missile and shelling impacts. After seeing a fence destroyed after a road accident, he asks the head of his press service to quickly inform those responsible for landscaping - there must be an order to fix it.
- Are there any peculiarities when working with international partners during the war?
- In fact, due to the war, many processes are happening much faster and in a larger volume than it was conventionally before, and we are very grateful to our partners their goodwill, understanding, willingness and targeting on specific benefits for the citizens. Although, of course, establishing effective cooperation is a challenge for all established organizations with their own practices and procedures. For example, recently there was a report that Mykolaivvodokanal (the local water utility) bought chlorine at a record high price. I'm starting to check. They actually bought chlorine from the same supplier as in the summer, but 30% more expensive. But as it turned out, it was bought by the Red Cross for us. And the price is higher because the Red Cross has its own requirements for delivery: smaller batches, additional security issues, longer delivery routes. This is all written in the contract. But unfortunately, journalists did not analyze it.
But today you and your colleagues have 20% or even 120% more responsibility than before.
- As soon as information about possible abuses appears, the SSU, the prosecutor's office, and the police investigative department are immediately interested in it. And there are also international partners. The narrative about Ukraine as a corrupt and inefficient state is most beneficial to our enemies. It is important not to recklessly harm Ukraine, not to play along with the Russians in the information war, in the war of images. Don’t get me wrong, the government needs to be accountable, and it is especially urgent now, but everyone needs to do their work professionally and carefully.
- So you are serious about issues of transparency and accountability?
- Yes. Now, together with the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative, we are working on revising and implementing effective anti-corruption practices in the work of the City Council. This will make it possible to maximally protect everyone who works for us from the desire and possibilities of fraud in procurement, and also to increase the efficiency of certain processes through their digitization, optimization, and openness. Take, for example, the recent situation with the purchase of generators, which was reported by Our Money (a Ukrainian TV investigative program -ed.). An official investigation is currently underway, the results of which will be publicly announced. But experience shows that often the problem is not so much in potential corruption as in inefficiency, the inability of purchasers to carry out quality procurement for many reasons. Therefore, we are currently working on various options on how to eliminate this problem structurally, for example, through the centralization of the process, training of purchasers, etc. Another personal focus of mine is improving the efficiency of our Internal Financial Control Department, which will now also oversee assistance received from international partners. Mykolaiv is probably one of the first cities in Ukraine to adopt the Procedure for Internal Control of Humanitarian and Charitable Aid, and the team is currently working on the report for the past year.
- What is your motivation as a city leader to do this?
- I am not interested in stealing on generators or cobblestones. I have no construction companies or paving stone manufacturing concerns. My family has a company that deals with fire safety systems - it does not operate in Mykolaiv Oblast. We have an IT company, but all of its customers are abroad.
I simply believe in systems, in mechanisms that limit people from abusing their duties, because if a person can earn a year's salary on one tender, then he can give in to this temptation. It is necessary to make a system without any temptation.
- How can this be done?
- This includes digitalization of the city's work - electronic document flow, geo-information systems, and various electronic property accounting systems.
We asked EUACI to evaluate the work of our water utility and propose concrete steps to improve its work, so that we could improve the system of spending money already during the war.
- To what extent does systemic transparency and accountability of the authorities help in cooperation with international partners?
- This is a matter not only for the city council, but for the whole community. If it exists, it is very well received by our foreign partners. First, it is important for the entire community. It is important that people return to Mykolaiv after victory, and not leave the city. Transparency and accountability show that the city is changing, developing, becoming better.
Secondly, all these tenders and oversight which we are currently setting up, provide the understanding that we as a city are reliable partners focused on results.
And my main thesis, that we do not want to operate with other people's money, is very impressive to international partners. They understand that we have no basis for the narrative promoted by the Russian mass media, that the main idea in Ukraine is to steal aid, as if we were stealing gas from the Russian pipeline.
- You recently stated in Davos that you want the city not to ask for money.
- Yes, we do not ask for money.
At the very first meeting with the Danish foreign minister, I said: "We don't need money." If they fall into the state budget, they will be sent to war. If it is local, then we will not be able to spend it in accordance with Resolution No. 590. Therefore, financing should be conducted through international organizations. For example, NEFCO or DANIDA must independently carry out procurement, quality control and delivery procedures for Mykolaiv. We only have to form the need, approve the technical requirements and sign the documents that we have received all this. This also applies to post-war reconstruction: schools, kindergartens, hospitals.
- In this case, can the terms of project implementation increase due to European bureaucracy?
- The European bureaucracy may slow things down, but it will increase trust. Trust, in turn, will increase the number of projects. And in the end, maybe 100 projects will go a little slower, instead of having only one.
In Ukraine, there is a much bigger problem - managers have no experience of working with international partners. They don't know what project management is, they don't know how to use the simplest project management programs, how to report, etc.
The prevailing opinion in the country is that an official should be poor and ugly. This encourages keeping the salaries of people working in the government at a low level. In this way, people are incentivized into corruption, and professionals are told that they do not belong here. Building the state was actually left to those who are unfit for the profession. The third-string league. It is high time to change this attitude.
Despite all these difficulties, the city is trying to implement changes and look for new specialists. Recently, we decided to attract veterans who can no longer serve in the ranks of the Armed Forces to communal enterprises.
On the territory of Mykolayivskyy Parks KP, work is in full swing - the manufacturing and warehouse premises are being repaired, and a new solid fuel boiler has already been put into operation.
"Now the temperature in our office is +20,” reports one of the leaders of this initiative.
“Finally, we can sit without a jacket.”
A variety of special equipment is placed around the yard - this is humanitarian aid from European partners. Among the tractors and cars, three big red fire engines stand out, which will replace those that were destroyed during the shelling of the city.
The mayor is pleased with how the area is changing, which until recently was cluttered with the properties of private tenants. The head of the enterprise promises that before the visit of the commission of city councilmembers, the changes will be even more striking. We return to the center of Mykolaiv.
"I don't like this time of the year,” Sienkevych says dreamily.
“Everything is gray, colorless. In the spring, the city is much more beautiful.” The situation established at the beginning of 2023 gives the city authorities an opportunity to think about what will happen after the war. Or at least in the summer.
With thoughts on the future
- Earlier, you talked about the development of a new general plan for Mykolaiv due to major destruction. And now - about individual projects...
- We are engaged in several processes in parallel, because it is too early to build something: the war is ongoing, the Russians can easily reach Mykolaiv with S-300, S-400. But it is time to plan recovery processes so as not to waste time afterwards. To begin, it is important to assess the problem. At our request and with the support of EUACI, the Kyiv School of Economics, namely the "Russia Will Pay" project, made an assessment of the city's destruction and prioritized its needs. Together, we created an additional layer on top of our geographic information system with all the damage caused by Russian aggression. We introduced the city registry of destroyed structures, and we are now verifying this data. Later, there will be a Register of restored objects.
We will work on the strategic and tactical levels next. The first is to work on the master plan. The second is on the Comprehensive Recovery Program and other shorter-term projects. We are developing a new master plan together with the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UN ECE). The Italian studio OneWorks works with us, which deals with the visual part (parks, squares, urbanism), and we plan to involve the Danish engineering company COWI. We will do everything according to the principle of BBB - building back better.
- What does it mean in practice?
- If the large and small schools were destroyed by rockets, and the middle school was damaged, we will not restore all three of them in the same format in which they were. Perhaps all three will be completely demolished, and in their place one large modern one will be built, and bus routes for children will be laid – how this is done all over the world.
- Do you plan to somehow change the content of schools, I mean, to change the curricula?
- This is rather a matter for the Ministry of Education. For us, the challenge is simply to return the children to school and to Mykolaiv. This process is ongoing now.
War is a chance for all of us to become better – the best time for decisive changes and restructuring of processes for which there was not enough time or motivation.
After the liberation of Kherson and the passing of winter, we have the inspiration to work out all these processes in our system.
- What challenges do you see for Ukraine in the future?
- Ukrainians have the impression that reconstruction is a process in which foreigners will implement various projects here. Europeans perceive the process of recovery of Ukraine as an opportunity for a new market for their services and goods. To connect those who need and those who can, another component is needed - money.
Today in the EU and in the world, there is no understanding of who will pay for all this: European grant money, Marshall Plan money, loans, investments in the creation of new enterprises, or Russian money.
I believe that already today it is necessary to actively promote the narrative that Russia will pay for all this. It has assets all over the world, but there is no legal reason to use them. This needs to be changed.
- What signs will be the signal for the start of recovery of Mykolaiv?
- For Ukraine, victory is the liberation of the entire territory and a return to the 1991 borders. But we don’t yet know when this will happen. Therefore, a practical signal to start this processes is the lifting of the ban and restrictions on capital expenditures at the state level. Until then, we have to look for potential partners, to plan, to prioritize, and to make designs and estimate a project documentation. To be ready.
The project was created with the support of the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative in Ukraine (EUACI)
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