Terestchenko: Why I Want To Be President Of Ukraine
Supporters attending an Oct. 1 press conference of Michel Terestchenko greeted with applause and congratulations his announcement that he is a candidate for the Ukrainian presidential election in March.
Some Ukrainians see Terestchenko, a 64-yearold French businessman turned politician, as a breath of fresh air in the country’s oligarch-infected political scene.
Even so, this fresh face has long family connections to the country: the Paris-born Terestchenko is a descendant of a Ukrainian industrial dynasty of sugar producers. The Terestchenkos were the country’s richest family in 19th century Ukraine during the Russian Empire and one of its most generous, building schools, hospitals, orphanages and churches.
His grandfather, Mikhail, was forced to flee to France when the Soviets came to power in Ukraine after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
Michel Tereshchenko, who returned to Ukraine at the turn of the millennium, ventured into politics in 2015, when he won the mayoral race in his ancestral hometown of Hlukhiv in Sumy Oblast.
But on Sept. 27, Terestchenko resigned as mayor, saying he was unable to make a difference in Hlukhiv, a city of 34,000 people lying 300 kilometers northeast of Kyiv, because of Ukraine’s “kleptocratic and oligarchical” political system.
The only way to change the nation is from the top, he said.
“Only someone who is totally out of this system, maybe a bit atypical, could really change things and give people some hope,” he told the Kyiv Post in an interview after his press conference on Oct. 1.
Critics and skeptics say, however, that Terestchenko’s chances of winning are non-existent because of his lack of a team, money and media.
Terestchenko is betting that values matter more to Ukrainian voters than money and said that people are fed up with the same old corrupt politicians. He counts President Petro Poroshenko, who gave him Ukrainian citizenship in 2015, among them.
He said he spent only 1,000 euros on his mayoral campaign in Hlukhiv because the people of the city believed in him — and he won 65 percent of the vote.
“Money is not everything. The most important thing is whether you can believe the guy,” he said.
No one else to trust
Terestchenko said decided to run for president because he sees no candidate that Ukrainians can trust.
About 66 percent of Ukrainians think the country needs new political leaders, according to a poll conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Razumkov Center in late August.
At the same time, 27 percent of Ukrainians have yet to decide who they will vote for as president, another poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found in September.
Those numbers are higher than the combined ratings of the two top candidates — former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 11 percent support, and incumbent President Petro Poroshenko with 7 percent.
Terestchenko shook hands with Poroshenko when receiving his Ukrainian passport back in 2015. But he's no longer a fan. “I like what Poroshenko is saying — army, language, and faith. But he’s forgetting corruption,” Terestchenko said. “And the three instruments that he mentions will be absolutely senseless without a fight against corruption.”
He labeled both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko serve as “instruments of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin” by allowing the current corrupt system to continue.
Terestchenko also believes he has an advantage over musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, whom many see as a potential new leader, despite the fact that he is yet to announce his candidacy.
“I’m a lot different from Vakarchuk because he’s financed by oligarchs, including (Victor) Pinchuk and some other people,” Terestchenko said. “My campaign will not be financed by any oligarch.”
There is, however, no evidence that Vakarchuk has any connection to oligarchs, other than his participation as a speaker at the annual Yalta European Strategy conference, organized by Pinchuk.
After Terestchenko’s announcement, political commentators and journalists immediately started to weigh his chances.
“For me, Terestchenko is better than any other candidate. I hope he wins,” Ivan Yakovyna, a journalist working at weekly current affairs magazine Novoye Vremya wrote on Facebook.
Others doubt that Terestchenko, having failed to bring change to a small city, can be successful as president.
But Terestchenko doesn’t see his three years in charge of Hlukhiv as being a failure.
Terestchenko argues that he achieved a lot in Hlukhiv, the city where his ancestors made their fortune in the 19th century.
Before becoming mayor, he was known in the city as the head of the foundation preserving the historical heritage of the Terestchenko family and the co-owner of a local company growing and processing linen and hemp.
Terestchenko said he ensured that all the city’s procurements were con- ducted through the Prozorro public procurement system, and that city land was allocated transparently, thus blocking the main channels for corruption.
“We demonstrated in Hlukhiv that we can work without corruption,” he said. “But the problems of Hlukhiv cannot be solved in Hlukhiv.”
He boasted that during his time as mayor, from 2015 to 2017, city budget revenues tripled. However, this growth is at least partly explained by Ukraine’s decentralization reform, which changed the way tax revenues are shared between local budgets and the state budget. That had the effect of increasing the city budgets’ revenues without the mayor having to do a thing.
Trouble started brewing in November 2017, when Terestchenko sent Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko evidence that his predecessor had stolen Hr 40 million ($1.4 million) from the city and bought a Mercedes car and a house in Slovenia. A month later, he received a formal response saying the investigation into his predecessor had been closed.
Prosecutors seem much more interested in Terestchenko.
They have opened nine criminal cases against him since he ran for mayor in 2015, investigating him for allegedly lying on his income declaration, making libelous statements and other offenses.
Terestchenko says the cases, all of which are still open, are a politically motivated response to his efforts to stop corruption in Hlukhiv.
In Hlukhiv, Terestchenko tried to give a boost to the local civil society, regularly meeting with activists at a special workshop and seeking their proposals for developing Hlukhiv.
In 2017, he was recognized as one of the four most innovative Ukrainian mayors, according to the rating by the International Summit of Mayors and the Ukrainska Pravda news website.
But while being liked by city residents, Terestchenko was in conflict with the local elites, the most prominent member of which is independent lawmaker Andriy Derkach. Derkach won the seat of the parliamentary constituency that includes Hlukhiv at the last elections to the Rada.
Terestchenko said that Derkach, who allegedly supports his political rival, ex-mayor Yuriy Burlaka, had started a campaign to undermine him.
Derkach said in a written response that Tereshchenko's accusations "have nothing to do with reality."
According to Terestchenko, Derkach, who is a member of the budget committee in parliament, blocked all state subsidies to Hlukhiv, with the intention of squeezing the mayor out of office. Terestechenko also claimed that Derkach had bribed members of the city council to block key votes on the mayor’s social and economic programs.
“Even without funding from the state, we were ready to change the city with our own efforts. It would have been possible if Derkach hadn’t decided to buy the deputies and deprive us of all city funds,” Terestchenko said.
He added that Derkach is just “a symbol of the corrupt system” that he now pledges to destroy.
“There is a Derkach in every city in Ukraine,” Terestchenko said.
Derkach, in his turn, heavily criticized the ex-mayor’s performance and accused him of failing to fulfill his promises to construct new roads and add jobs.
"People are waiting for him in Hlukhiv to look him in the eyes,” Derkach told the Kyiv Post in a written statement. “But it seems that he is busy with other things in Kyiv.” Today the now unemployed Terestchenko shuttles between meetings and interviews in his modest Ford Fiesta car. He is accompanied by his pregnant wife, Olena, who acts as his press secretary.
Despite having lived in Ukraine since 2003, he says he has never adopted the lavish lifestyle of
“We have the poorest country in Europe with the richest president in Europe,” he said. “In Hlukhiv only 3 percent of the population have cars. But look at the car park near the Verkhovna Rada.”
Terestchenko’s declaration shows two apartments in Kyiv and one house and a land plot in Hlukhiv. In 2018, he earned about $57,000 from selling shares in his assets in addition to the $8,000 he and his wife earned in 2017 in salaries.
Terestchenko said he would fund his campaign through the crowdfunding, and announced a “broad, anti-oligarchic platform of political parties, civic organizations, and concerned citizens.” He promised to announce the members of his team soon.
Terestchenko said he favors the policies of French President Emmanuel Macron, and supports free market economics, socially responsible business, and prison terms for the country’s many corrupt officials, who “could be imprisoned in the U.S. for 300 or even 500 years.”
Analysts say that while Terestchenko’s idealism will definitely improve the tenor of the presidential campaign, his main problem is that many Ukrainians don't know him, and he lacks the media resources to become known.
“In order to become a president a person has to be recognizable to at least 60 percent of voters,” activist and political consultant Oleksiy Kovzhun told the Kyiv Post.
Mykhailo Minakov, the Kennan Institute’s principal investigator on Ukraine, said Terestchenko’s campaign “is an attempt by an honest person to change the situation in the country,” but he has no chance of winning.
Kovzhun wouldn’t comment on Terestchenko’s chances, but said that with a clear message and the right team, the idealist could attract many of those looking for a person “untainted by the system.”
He also noted that Macron wasn’t well known by the public before he started his successful run for the presidency in France in 2017.
“The beauty of Ukraine’s politics is that it’s unpredictable,” Kovzhun said.
Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner and video editor Anna Yakutenko contributed to this story.
Michel Terestchenko, the former mayor of Hlukhiv in Sumy Oblast, is running for president of Ukraine in the March elections. He is the descendant of one of Ukraine's most prominent families in imperial Russia. His paternal grandfather fled the Bolshevik Revolution for France. Terestchenko says President Petro Poroshenko and other candidates are perpetuating Ukraine's corruption, not solving it. (Volodymyr Petrov)
Mykhailo Terestchenko, the grandfather of Michel Terestchenko, was a sugar beet grower, philanthropist and one of the richest people in imperial Russia. (Courtesy)
Michel Terestchenko speaks to volunteers on Dec. 5, 2015, in Hlukhiv. (Volodymyr Petrov)
French-born Michel Terestchenko holds his Ukrainian internal passport on March 21, 2015. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko presented Terestchenko the document signifying citizenship to the former French citizen and grandson of Ukrainian philanthropist Mykhailo Terestchenko. (Mykola Lazarenko)