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5 Jul, 2019 19:40

Gangster mayors and oligarch’s dirty money: Will former criminals hold on to power in Ukraine?

Gangster mayors and oligarch’s dirty money: Will former criminals hold on to power in Ukraine?

As Ukraine braces for an early parliamentary vote, its political elites are desperately looking for ways to forge alliances that would be of benefit in the new political environment. Some deals, however, look shadier than others.

While Ukraine’s major political parties led by former President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko are preparing to face off, as well as the newly formed party of current President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a parliamentary election, some political figures with a long criminal history also want a piece of the pie.

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One of the leaders of the newly formed ‘Opposition Bloc’ who made it to the top of its election list, Gennady Trukhanov, appears to have a particularly gruesome criminal history behind him.


Since 2014, Trukhanov has been the mayor of Odessa – Ukraine’s largest port and the third most populous city. He is a political veteran who has been building his career in Ukraine’s upper echelons of power for about a decade and a half.


Yet, his fine appearance hides the fact that he was once a member of a notorious gang which was allegedly involved in smuggling arms and drugs. According to a 2018 BBC report, the gang, which came into being in the 1990s, was linked to some particularly gruesome murders.

Trukhanov, who is involved in martial arts and has been the president of the Ukraine National Thai Boxing Federation of Muay Thai since 2003, trained members of the gang in “hand-to-hand combat and sniper shooting with high precision weapons,” the BBC said, citing data from Italian police.


A report compiled by Italian law enforcement in the late 1990s names Trukhanov as one of the leaders of the gang who had extensive contacts with Ukrainian law enforcement. He was also said to enjoy close ties with another gang leader – a notorious crime lord called Aleksandr Angert, aka Sasha Angel.

Angert was sentenced to 15 years in prison for premeditated murder in 1980, but was released 10 years later as he was allegedly suffering from stomach cancer, which, however, apparently did not stop him from taking a leading role in another gang – along with Trukhanov.


Later, Angert, one of Odessa’s most influential crime lords, moved to London, where he has lived ever since and allegedly moved from crime to business, dissolving his gangs. However, he reportedly retained his close ties with his now ‘business partner’ Trukhanov.

The criminal-turned-mayor, meanwhile, apparently did not wipe the slate clean after moving away from gang activities. A 2016 report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), citing the Panama Papers, revealed that the mayor owns an entire business empire in Ukraine controlled through offshore firms registered in the British Virgin Islands, which is actively involved in embezzlement and money laundering.

Skeleton in every closet

Another Opposition Bloc leader who found his way to the top of the election list is Gennady Kernes, the longstanding mayor of Kharkov. For about two decades, he has ruled over the nation’s second most populous city (almost 1.5 million people), also a large industrial and science center. He managed to retain his post through a range of political cataclysms, from the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought Yushchenko to power, to the 2014 Maidan coup.


He has, however, a few skeletons in the closet. According to an extensive report published by an investigative media project called ‘Criminal Ukraine’, the now respectable mayor started his career in the 1990s as a fraudster, whose gang ran several shady schemes. Eventually, they decided to “expand” their “business” and move from fraud to blackmail and extortion. Kernes’ gang was even suspected of murder at one point, but those charges were apparently not proven.

Eventually, Kernes (nicknamed Gepa) was arrested, but only sentenced to three years in prison, and was set free two years later due to “active repentance.” Following his release, the future mayor turned to privatization and managed to obtain quite a number of assets in Kharkov, including factories and real estate, through shady schemes, eventually emerging as a “wealthy businessman.”

Later, he allegedly used his influence to exert pressure on his political rivals and to gag journalists who dared to mention his criminal past in their reports.

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Kharkov Region is located right next to the tumultuous Eastern Ukrainian regions, parts of which refused to recognize Kiev’s authority following the 2014 Maidan coup and declared themselves the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). As Kiev still struggles to regain control over the rebellious Donbass republics, having people like Kernes and Trukhanov at the helm of the regional governments will hardly give it much legitimacy in the eyes of the people there.

Other Ukrainian media reports suggest that Kernes enjoys close ties to controversial Ukrainian billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, who is suspected by some of being the real ‘puppet master’ behind Zelensky’s recent landslide victory in the presidential election.

Kernes visited Kolomoisky in Israel ahead of the presidential runoff, according to one such report. The billionaire dismissed the idea of any “hidden agenda” behind the trip, telling the media that Kernes went to Israel “for medical reasons” and met him by coincidence.

Puppet master

Kolomoisky, an oligarch who made a fortune during the privatization frenzy in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, might yet turn out to be the one pulling the strings in the newly-formed political bloc. A sort of Ukrainian George Soros, Kolomoisky gained a reputation of being a shadowy figure seeking to influence politics.


Unlike Soros, he does not seem to have any particular ideological preference. Instead, he apparently tries to place his millions on the winning horse. Over the last decade and a half, he has supported the Orange Revolution, former President Viktor Yushchenko, and then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

He attained particular infamy in the wake of the Maidan coup, when he created his own paramilitary force by sponsoring anti-Russia battalions. Kolomoisky initially financed the notorious ultranationalist Azov Battalion for months in 2014. He is now reportedly one of the major backers of the Opposition Bloc.

He does not really hide this fact either. In May, he admitted he was “consulting” the party created by Trukhanov and Kernes, which he called “an All-Ukrainian project.” He also held talks with a leader of another party that eventually joined the bloc.

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“We have common issues. The commercial and political ones,” he told Ukrainian Pravda back then, adding that some “unsuccessful projects need a reboot.” The billionaire specifically mentioned “aligning” forces and creating a “broader” agenda as a recipe for moving forward.

Kernes then rushed to downplay the oligarch’s influence on his party by saying that he neither financed nor “consulted” the party, while calling his contacts with Kolomoisky a “private matter.”

As Zelensky’s presidential victory clearly shows that Ukrainians have grown tired of the old political ways, tainted by corrupt elites linked to organized crime, he has apparently embraced the idea of rebranding and renewal – at least on the surface. Whether the dark past will still loom over the bright future they claim to offer remains to be seen.

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