«Meeting Mayor Klitschko in Kyiv was a true experience»
When I found myself sitting at the same table with Mr Vitali Klitschko in a rooftop restaurant in Kyiv last June, I was able to measure both the charisma and authenticity of the multiple world boxing champion and current Mayor of Kyiv.
Although I had known about Vitali Klitschko and his brother as sports icons and tough, powerful and extremely technical boxers, before meeting him I had no idea what to expect. After spending half a day with him in Kyiv, I can say that he is a leader that cannot hide: he is totally himself.
It is quite rare to meet a political leader who is not tempted to provide complacent answers to satisfy his audience and interlocutors. Mayor Klitschko seems uninterested in any of this and stirred only by his determination to strive, overcome challenges and move forward.
When I asked him how he managed to keep the Russian forces away when they have already kidnapped more than 50 local elected politicians from across the country, he reacted by instinct: “well, if the Russian come to me, I’ll be ready.” He paused, looked at me resolutely and resumed: “sometimes people call me and say: ‘Vitali, you should hide, they are looking for you.’ But for a person like me it’s hard to hide. Once they called in the middle of the night while I was perlustrating the city with my staff and they told me to hide underground: ‘Russians are looking for you!’ We found a ruined building and spent the night sleeping on the floor.”
It was at that moment that I realised that Mr Klitschko had again become an icon. This time the tremendous admiration and respect for him comes from local elected politicians all over Europe. These local leaders who indeed cannot hide before the urgent and crucial responsibilities they are facing: from climate change to social inequalities, economic recovery and even war. To them Mayor Klitschko has become a true reference. Someone that leads by example. A leader that walks the talk.
Mr Klischtko may be the most famous of Ukraine’s local leaders, but many more are also selflessly sacrificing and risking their lives every day in this war. Mayors, district leaders and local public workers across Ukraine have continued to heroically serve their people in the most trying of circumstances. Conditions vary greatly by territory. Local governments in areas of heavy fighting work to evacuate residents and provide water and basic supplies despite regular shelling and bombardments.
In territories that have been de-occupied since April, mayors are already beginning the work of reconstruction, the restoration of damaged buildings being especially important to achieve before the onset of winter. Local governments in other parts of the country are coping with the massive influx of internally displaced people and the need to house them and integrate them into local life.
It is humbling to see this work undertaken by mayors and local leaders despite the looming threats of kidnapping and death. Ukraine’s local government associations have also been working hard since the beginning of the conflict: coordinating aid provision, identifying the diverse needs of different territories and facilitating contact with their European supporters.
Local and regional government associations across Europe have been doing their part to support Ukraine during this difficult time. The Association of Towns and Communities of Slovakia has sent thousands of packages of various medical supplies. In the UK, the Local Government Association has called for new powers to lawfully exclude companies supporting Russia from winning public contracts. Meanwhile the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe (NALAS) was among the first to provide emergency financial assistance to the Association of Ukrainian Cities; and many other associations have followed suit. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what has been achieved and undertaken.
Local leaders’ engagement in support of their Ukrainian peers and in handling the direct and indirect consequences of this war is just a further confirmation that in this new era of systemic crisis, territorial leadership is the basis on which to build our responses. At the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) we are receiving very encouraging signs of the strong willingness of local and regional governments to play a crucial role in the postwar recovery.
The Mayor of Kyiv is ready to take up the task. “Reconstruction efforts should focus on grassroots projects and be designed by local communities”, he told me. During our bilateral meeting he emphasised the urgent need for short-term support to build key infrastructures in the Kyiv city area such as new fire stations.
This is one of the projects we at CEMR are gathering support for. Our taskforce on the war against Ukraine meets regularly to coordinate local and regional governments’ support to Ukraine and ensure political, material and financial aid is meeting the most urgent needs on the ground.
Hopefully, many other projects will be discussed at the occasion of my next visit to Mr Klitschko in Kyiv. The Mayor of Ukraine’s capital invited me to come for a longer visit next time and reassured me in his inimitable style: “If you are concerned about your security, I would like to reassure you, you’ll have the two toughest bodyguards in town: my brother and myself!”