Mayor of 'Ukraine's soul' looks to heal country's divides

Andriy Sadovyy, mayor of the westward-leaning city of Lviv, refused to enforce the central government's short-lived anti-protest laws. But he believes in a united Ukraine.

Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters
Demonstrators attend a pro-European integration rally in the western Ukranian city of Lviv in December. City mayor, Andriy Sadovyy, supports the protesters' desire to see a strong, independent Ukraine seeking closer integration with the EU, but hopes for a peaceful solution to the tensions and violence convulsing the country.

There are no photographs of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in the Lviv mayor's office.

The large, airy room on the second floor of the 19th-century Hapsburg-era Ratusha, or town hall, is elegantly furnished with solid oak furniture, tiled wood burning stoves, framed canvases of city views from the 1920s, and a portrait of Prince Lev Halytsky, son of Lviv's founding father Danylo. It retains the stolid respectability of Austro-Hungarian times from which it dates, bearing not a trace of 50 years of Soviet rule or the past 20 years of Ukraine's fragile independence from its massive eastern neighbor.

But framed photos of Mr. Yanukovych, a common feature in his stronghold cities of the industrial ethnic-Russian-dominated east, are nowhere to be found.

Lviv, the largest city in Ukraine's west, is overwhelmingly anti-Yanukovych. In the standoff between the angry masses occupying the barricaded center of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Lviv is among the wellsprings of those pushing for sweeping political change.

And the office's occupant, Andriy Sadovyy, a slim, bespectacled man casually dressed in an informal shirt and comfortable cardigan, is among Lviv's key champions.

"Kiev is the heart of Ukraine; Lviv is the soul," the mayor of this city of 750,000 says. "When the heart is sick, the soul must help heal it."

As the battle for the future of Ukraine enters its third month of crisis and a deadly new stage in which seven antigovernment activists have now lost their lives – among those Lviv resident Yuri Verbitsky, who was buried here last week – Mr. Sadovyy is a politician who carries the hope and dreams of many in this divided country.

Once a member of former President Viktor Yushchenko's party Our Ukraine, Sadovyy is now an independent and recently founded his own party, Samopomich, which translates as "self-reliance" or "self-help." But Sadovyy, a former executive of his family's private media business, sees no simple solution to the crisis that is now stirring fears of broad violence.

Yanukovych's abrupt decision last November to walk away from a deal for closer economic and political ties with the European Union, in favor of a $15-billion bailout and cheap gas deal from Russia for the cash-strapped country, sparked the most serious violence and unrest in Kiev since World War II.

Shuttle diplomacy by senior EU officials and politicians, including today's visit to Kiev by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, has been countered by economic pressure from Russia, which has reintroduced stringent controls on the import of Ukrainian goods and questioned whether its aid package will still hold should the country turn afresh toward Europe and move away from its orbit.

"We have been under constant pressure from Russia ever since independence in 1991," Sadovyy says. "They are massive and have the ability to wield immense economic influence. The only way out of our current troubles is to find a way to reduce that influence."

A Ukrainian 'free city'

Sadovvy, whose town hall carries a banner announcing, in Ukrainian, "Lviv is a free city," stuck his head above the parapet after the adoption of repressive measures against the protests on January 16 that provoked the deadly confrontations in Kiev between demonstrators and police in which two activists were shot dead.

He declared the measures illegal and announced that in Lviv they would not be observed.

It was not a secessionist move by the city, he says. "The laws were unconstitutional as their only effect would have been to bring harm, which they did."

The measure were repealed on the first day of an emergency session of parliament Jan. 28, when the prime minister, Mykola Azarov, and his entire government resigned as Mr. Yanukovych desperately sought measures to resolve opposition demands for his head. Ukraine has since been in an uneasy limbo. A week ago, Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first post-independence president, warned that the country would descend into civil war unless a peaceful way through the impasse was swiftly found.

Sadovyy, who is committed to serving his second term in office until it ends in the autumn of 2015, when he plans to turn his attentions to the national political arena, takes a more sanguine view.

"I am uplifted by the young people on the streets, by their strength and the influence they are exerting on politicians and parties."

The fires burning on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan, that are being used to keep those on the barricades warm, are a "burning brand" that exposed lies and truth equally, the mayor adds.

He insists that despite Lviv's history as part of the easternmost reaches of Europe – it was the Polish city of Lwow until 1939 and once was part of the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania – he would never consider secession.

People in the eastern half of the country – dominated by largely Russian-speaking industrial cities like Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk, the coal mining city once known as Yuzovka after John Hughes the Welsh mining engineer who sank the first pits there during Czarist times – were also Ukrainians and it was a dangerous simplification to cast the issue as east versus west. But many people relied upon Russian state-controlled television reports about Ukraine's political crisis, he adds.

"After a correspondent from [Russian state TV] Rossiya came here, I was surprised to see his report: 10 percent fact and 90 percent fantasy," Sadovyy says. "The eastern part of Ukraine watches that channel."

Between them, Russia and the EU account for around 65 percent of Ukraine's export market, making economic measures to alleviate Russian pressure perhaps even more important than the battle for hearts and minds, he suggests.

If Europe and the United States want to help Ukraine retain true independence, they need to act now to alleviate Russia's economic leverage through trade and tariff means to keep goods flowing in and out of the country, he argues.

A national future?

Asked about his wider political ambitions, Sadovyy adopts a more diplomatic approach.

"I was elected to serve the people of Lviv. I became mayor to help create the city I wanted to live in. When my term expires next year, I plan to spend the next 20 years helping create the country I live in."

He smiles, but refuses to be drawn on whether those plans might include having an eye on presidential office.

As the outcome of the Ukrainian gambit remains open to question, his discretion could be the wisest path.

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