Cherkasy mayor violates national quarantine, drawing warnings from Kyiv

4 May 2020

Anatoliy Bondarenko, the mayor of the regional center of Cherkasy, drew fierce criticism from top Ukrainian officials after deciding to relax quarantine restrictions for local entrepreneurs as of May 1 beyond what the central government had authorized. The decision reached by the city council executive committee on Apr. 30 cited the complaints of scores of local entrepreneurs, who said they were on the brink of survival. In exchange for being able to engage in business, they promised to uphold all sanitary norms and rules, including placing antiseptic liquids at entrances to buildings and restricting the number of customers in buildings. Businesses allowed to open included food markets (which were approved nationally), many categories of non-food stores (not approved by Kyiv), restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating, various repair shops, hair salons, funeral homes, and fitness clubs, as well as parks and squares.


The next day, Ukrainian President Zelensky warned of legal consequences for those local officials violating the rules of the national quarantine. “This is an attempt to earn political ratings at the expense of the lives and health of the city’s residents,” Zelensky said in a May 1 video appeal. “And this will have respective legal consequences. For the future, this applies to all the representatives of local government, who are confusing the word ‘decentralization’ with ‘autonomy’. There’s no need to engage in amateurism, which threatens the safety of people.” In his turn, Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov tweeted his own response, “Mr. Mayor of Cherkasy, you overplayed your hand. Stop risking the health and lives of people for the sake of political games! The reaction will be harsh!” The same afternoon, Bondarenko received a summons for questioning on May 4 by the local police. Meanwhile, scores of small and medium entrepreneurs engaged in the latest protest, this time at the National Police administration, to allow businesses to function.


As his response, Bondarenko criticized the logic behind the Kyiv government’s quarantine restrictions, stating they were unequal. With its actions, the local government merely “placed small construction supply shops and large construction supply retailers at an equal level,” he told a television news network on May 1.  “Because I can’t explain to the city’s residents why dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands of people are in a large construction supply retailer, but they can’t go to a small construction supply store and buy a can of paint. I can’t explain why people can stroll along the Cherkasy riverfront in protective gear, but can’t visit parks that are nearby.” He also expressed confidence that his decision won’t lead to an increase in coronavirus infections. About 3,500 people have died in the Cherkasy region this year so far, of which 1,500 were from heart attacks and strokes, 700 from cancer, 38 from suicide, 24 from auto accidents and only nine from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, he said.


Zenon Zawada: It was inevitable that a local politician was going to lead some kind of rebellion against the central Kyiv government’s severe quarantine. And Bondarenko made the calculated decision that his political prospects, particularly ahead of the October local elections, would be boosted by heeding to protests. Indeed Bondarenko found a political issue that was ripe for the picking, raising the same questions and arguments that everyday Ukrainians have been making. And we have also questioned the logic of allowing certain retailers to operate, and not others, which has all the signs of political lobbying and favoritism.


Needless to say, it’s better to err on the side of caution, especially in a country like Ukraine in which the healthcare system could have easily collapsed under the same burden that Western countries faced. Nonetheless, we expect similar rebellions before the national quarantine is scheduled to be relaxed as of May 12, with the tourist center of Mukachevo being among those announcing premature easing. And mini-rebellions have been quietly occurring throughout Ukraine among small and medium businesses that have reopened, or never shut down. It’s hard to predict whether this will cause infection rates to increase again.

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