European ideas crash against the wall of Ukrainian corruption in a small historic city on the Russian border
The interview was conducted by UDI Chief Content Manager Alina Nychyk
Michel Terestchenko is an heir of the prominent old Tereshchenko family (See historical note) of sugar producers, landowners, and philanthropists. Being a successful businessman in France, Michel decided to return to the land of his forefathers and started a honey and linum business in the city his family originated from – Hlukhiv. After Euromaidan, Michel decided to implement European ideas in the city and became its mayor in 2015. However, the spiritual support of his great ancestors, his European mentality, and strong motivation to develop the former Cossack capital did not help Michel in the fight against Ukraine’s corrupt elites. Most innovative ideas crashed against a wall of bureaucracy and corruption. Michel Tereshchenko here shares his life story, ideas for the development of Hlukhiv, and the obstacles that he met in attempting to realize his inspiring goals.
Dear, Michel, could you please tell us how you came to a decision to relocate to Ukraine, and then later to become a mayor of Hlukhiv?
I always felt strong connections to the land of my roots. With the years of my life, I was learning every time more about the history of my family and Ukraine. In 2002, I moved to Ukraine for business, as I saw huge business opportunities. I was in favor of the Orange Revolution, but was not involved in politics. At one moment, things have changed for me…
As an expat working and living in Kyiv, I saw and supported with great satisfaction the events of Euromaidan in 2013-2014, attending a little bit every day and supporting whenever it was badly needed. Until February 20, 2014… as this day I unexpectedly had to see fourteen dead members of “Nebestna Sotnia” (The Heavenly Hundred) when I went at 10 am to visit my friend, Doctor Olga Bogomolets, at the clinic of Hotel Ukraina. At this moment, I took the decision to do everything possible so the sacrifice of those brave Ukrainians for justice, democracy and dignity would not be made for nothing.
In 2015, I asked and received Ukrainian citizenship “for the interest of the State” from the hands of President Poroshenko. In October, I took the decision to enter the ballots to help the small homeland of my family, also to turn the page of the corrupt local system controlling this depressed and forgotten region of North-Eastern Ukraine in the 20 years following the fall of the Soviet Union, and open a new perspective towards Europe, justice, and prosperity. I decided to become a mayor of Hlukhiv.
I saw that many people supported my candidacy. However, after the elections I found out that many youngsters did not vote for me because they were paid 200 hryvnas (around 7 euros) to vote for the other person. I won, thanks to the awareness of older people who wanted better future for their children. This was a first big shock for me in Ukrainian politics.
You had many ideas how to turn Hlukhiv into a prosperous European city. What have you achieved?
Hlukhiv has a great potential. It was the capital of Cossack Ukraine. Now it is a crucial geopolitical city on border with Russia. Of course, the economic success of the city would be known in Russia, and would mean the success of democracy and European values in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, it did not come as easy as I thought. The way to attract investments should have been quite easy: as the capital of Cossack Ukraine in the 18th century, Hlukhiv has great tourism potential, and still has many beautiful historical monuments to show. Hlukhiv also has great potential for industry as our city was, even 10 years ago, an important assembling and manufacturing center with more than 6000 working places in 4 large plants. Unfortunately, all four plants were liquidated as a result of corruption schemes, and have all closed by now.
I must admit that this border zone is plagued with corruption and contraband, therefore investors do not come here, and, indeed, I fully understand them. From the other side, Western businessmen do not want to invest 10 kilometers from the border with an aggressive Russia.
Therefore, we have to win our war against corruption, and offer investment projects that could only be done in the northern oblast of Sumy, like the culture and transformation of linen-flax and industrial hemp for the production of natural fibers.
This is what we are doing, and I know that we are going in the right direction with hemp and flax. The only good decision that was taken in Sumy region during the 70 years of Soviet occupation was to establish the National Institute for Plants with Fibers (Institute of Bast Crops) in the former family residence of my grandparents in Hlukhiv. I became interested in flax and hemp as I was looking ways to save this important Institute, and this way I unexpectedly opened the door to a fascinating new “green business” that proved potentially very profitable.
The hemp and flax industry could save not only the Institute of Bast Crops, but also the city of Hlukhiv, together with depressed Polissia region of northern Ukraine.
Not only our hemp- and flax-scotching mill Linen of Desna is developing fast, but we have also launched a new company, Desnaland, to market healthy foods made from hemp and flax seeds, including hemp cheese, hemp halva, hemp truffle, proteins of hemp, hemp flour, and of course oil and many other derived trendy products.
We are also looking at the possibility to burn flax and hemp brickets of wooden shives (“kastra”) in our city heaters. I would like to stress that Hlukhiv has probably become the first city in the world to be completely heated by hemp and flax biomass.
Making Hlukhiv city attractive for tourists, together with developing the mass production of natural fibers and biomass from hemp and flax, are our two economic priorities for years to come.
Could you provide a few examples of corruption that you have faced?
One of the best known examples is the story with the new European ambulance car. The Ukrainian Foundation in Netherlands presented the car to the Hlukhiv Hospital; however, I could not get customs clearance. The governors of Sumy region were asking for an unbelievable amount of money (500,000 million hryvnas, or USD $18,400), and did not want to provide the required documents for customs clearance. I even brought this ambulance to the building of Ukrainian government in Kyiv to show the absurdity of corruption in Ukraine.
Another example is about hemp industry. The Hlukhiv Institute for Hemp was already able 20 years ago to select varieties of hemp without THC (that means non-narcotic varieties), but not without CBD (cannabinoids that could be used to help fighting numerous illnesses like cancer, sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s). Following discussions with investors, we were able to gather interest in creating the first European Center for Konoplio-Therapy, in Hlukhiv. I wanted to organize an international conference on the use of non-narcotic hemp in textile industry. A night before the conference, all stands and pavilions were burned. The police never found those responsbile.
What has made you stop implementing your plans, and who is responsible?
As I told you earlier, war and corruption are our main enemies. And corruption is the biggest threat, as it isolates us from anyone, while the war is always creating support and friendship.
Many things have hindered my attempts to make Hlukhiv a prosperous European town. Sometimes, this political struggle reaches my personal life. For example, my wife’s car was burned while we were out of town; I constantly receive various threats; and some time ago, someone broke the ribs of one person from my team. Courts were ordered to invent proceedings against me…
For two tears, I have been waiting for President Poroshenko’s support, who committed to visit Hlukhiv just after my election as mayor. He never came. I was expecting to receive support from all levels of the presidential and regional administration. But nothing came!
On the contrary, I could see that all former politicians from “The Party of Regions”, many of them being pro-Russian, were getting organized again and looking for their revenge. They started to hire lawyers and journalists to print “yellow press” and other discrediting materials against me. My life became very hard as I start going from one lawsuit to another, from one protocol of corruption to the other, and witnessed that all services of the local Sumy administration were aggressively playing against me and my team.
I started to wonder where this aggressive discrediting campaign, aimed at removing me from my seat as Mayor of Hlukhiv, could come from. It was easy to find out. A member of the Sumy regional parliament, Andriy Derkatch, was using his stolen millions to make my life difficult and clean the place for the coming elections both for the President Poroshenko and for himself in the nation’s parliament. He has been a Member of Parliament for 20 years and he badly needs parliamentary impunity to be protected from many accusations and pending lawsuits.
So, all this legal persecution, doubled by all Derkatch’s efforts to deprive our city from normal government financing and subventions, hampered our development plans since the beginning of my term. We have wasted huge amounts of time, money, and energy to fight back against those accusations, instead of normally developing our city. Now we are catching up, as changes are coming quickly into Hlukhiv, and we are indeed transforming this ancient, charming, “sleeping beauty” into a beautiful small European city, a nice place to live and raise children.
You have spent most of your life in countries where the law works for people, not against them. You experienced life without facing invasive corruption. In Ukraine, people do not know how to live without it. Different people came to power promising to eradicate corruption, but it is still systemic. How do you believe corruption can be defeated in Ukraine?
Indeed, “corruption” and, even more precisely, “the corrupt system”, is the main illness of Ukrainian society. It is very difficult to fight, as it is a real monster, with many heads that are growing again and again each time after you have tried to cut them. The solution cannot be an easy one. The fight has to be fully determined, decisive, and radical. But it is possible–it is the wish of the Ukrainian people to eradicate corruption, as Euromaidan showed the whole world. The Ukrainian people have already voted and demonstrated its support for excising corruption from the country; unfortunately, their calls have not been heard so far, and their wishes have even been betrayed.
My small knowledge of the French revolution (having been a Frenchman for 60 years of my life) tells me that the time of the “guillotine” is coming also in Ukraine, and it might well be really needed. Maybe no longer by “cutting heads”, but at least by not hesitating to send even best friends to jail for a very long time. Also the European parliament should help by placing sanctions or “non-grata status” on the main Ukrainian “corruptioners” (corrupt officials), mainly ministers, members of parliament, and directors of institutions or administrations that are stealing European-sent funds and grants, or are deliberately acting against European interests and European rules.
However, yes, it could be done, and I do intend to demonstrate it in my small city of Hlukhiv. At my level, we should be able to rebuild our city with our own forces, and to free initiatives and positive energies that do exist, but do not dare to express themselves right now. People already see this. For so long as we do not steal from the city budget, we have enough money to repair our roads, build new sidewalks, and to thermo-isolate our schools and kindergartens. We can help our maternity wards and hospitals, build new monuments in city center, and multiply by four social help, and even by six the material help for medical treatment against cancer.
We have evaluated that the previous government in the City Council was stealing 3 million hryvnas every month, as before elections there was a permanent deficit of 3 million hryvnas per month. At the moment, we have a surplus of almost 2 million hryvnas per month in our budget. And the population of Hlukhiv understands this very well. My team does not accept any compromise with our opponents from the former “Party of Regions” or corrupt Members of Parliament, which instead of defending our city, are sabotaging all our innovative initiatives. We are just “incorruptible”, and we could see that the people of Hlukhiv are supporting us with all their might. So there is still a hope! Hlukhiv will try to demonstrate it to the whole Ukraine. If it is possible in Hlukhiv, a small economically depressed city located at the border with Russia, then it is possible everywhere! In this sense, Hlukhiv is becoming a symbol for Ukraine!
With all this misfortune in the implementation of your political plans, do you feel some kind of frustration about your decision to live in Ukraine and become the mayor of Hlukhiv?
Oh no! Far from it! I feel lucky and “privileged” to live this important moment of the history of my country, Ukraine, and to be able to help in the construction of a new society, a new country. This is the end of 350 years of the most terrible colonization faced by a country that survived terror, deportation, and genocide, and enemies who aimed at a total rape of the nation, a total denial of Ukrainian identity.
Every day, I wake up with fantastic positive energy, because I know that at one moment during that day I will be thankful to transform a little piece of our world for the better. So, I am not looking at what I have lost by refusing the comfort of my previous French citizenship, but only looking at the progress that I see every day in the minds of my fellows from Hlukhiv. I know that our Ukrainian people are great people, that have suffered a lot, but that will soon finally enjoy the right to the “pursuit of happiness”.
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From the other side, being the Mayor of Hlukhiv, like my grandfather’s grandfather, who was Mayor of Hlukhiv from 1850 to 1872, I know that I have the honour and privilege to fulfill my mission and to accomplish what they would have accomplished if they had the chance to live nowadays. Here in Ukraine in 2017, I can finally fulfill the motto of my Terestchenko family since 1870: “Stremlennie k obschesrvennim polzam” (“Our ambition is public good”).
Despite the huge moral and financial difficulties, this mission fills me with a great sense of responsibility and a huge desire to succeed. One day, I want to see my beloved Ukraine where it should always have been: a great European nation, and also a special link between the European Union and Russia, like England and the United States, or Spain with South America, or even France with the African continent. On this day, 350 years of inhuman colonization and 100 years of terror and rape of our Ukrainian nation will have finally ended. I would then leave this Earth very happy and with a grand satisfaction for having contributed to this well-deserved achievement. No regret then! Only an ardent desire to move forward and to be able to do more every day! Slava Hlukhovu! (Glory to Hlukhiv!) Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine!)
Historical note: the Tereshchenko family has Cossack origins and comes from the former Ukrainian Cossack capital of Hlukhiv. Being mostly sugar businessmen and one of the biggest landowners in the former Russian Empire, the family became famous in 18th century. Members of the family were highly involved in philanthropy in their region and received hereditary noble from the Russian Emperor Alexander II in 1870. The next members of the family developed sugar production together with investments in culture and education.
Mikhail Tereshchenko (a grandfather of Michel Terestchenko)was Minister of Finance and later Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Provisional Kerensky Government in 1917. He was a supporter of the Ukrainian government of General Secretariat in 1917. In 1918, he was arrested by Bolsheviks. In 1918, he escaped from prison and fled the country, starting a business in France. Since then, and until now, heirs of the Tereshchenko family live in France. Their Ukrainian property was confiscated and many historical building connected to them were destroyed by the Soviet regime. Among the most famous objects built by the family are the hospital “Okhmatdet”, the building of the Karpenko-Karyi Theater Institute, and the building of the medical library on Tolstoy Str. The Terestchenko collections of artworks now fill two big museums in Kyiv: the National Taras Shevchenko Museum and the National Museum “Kyiv Art Gallery”.