Gennady Kernes, the flamboyant mayor of Kharkiv, is fighting for his life after a sniper shot him in the back Monday.
Kernes was out for a run when unknown men shot him from the woods, piercing a lung and his liver, former Deputy Provincial Gov. Yuri Sapronov wrote on Facebook.
The assassination attempt is a worrying sign for Kharkiv, which had coped far better than nearby Donetsk and Luhansk in warding off separatists, activists, and militant groups that Ukraine’s government says are controlled by Russia.
Kernes is an unlikely hero for pro-unity Ukrainians. He and former Gov. Mikhail Dobkin are despised in Kiev, the capital, and strongly opposed protests there against former President Viktor Yanukovych.
Kernes and Dobkin have run Kharkiv for years as members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which dominated the Russian-speaking southeast for years but has rapidly disintegrated since Yanukovych and his closest allies fled the country in February.
Dobkin is its presidential candidate, but is polling in the single digits and has been assaulted by protesters at campaign stops nationwide. instagram.com
Before he became mayor in 2010, Kernes was seen as the power behind the throne and a key intermediary between the government and the criminal underworld. He has a criminal conviction and is universally known by his reputed mafia nickname, “Gepa.”
Russian state TV recently ran a phone tap from a conversation between Kernes and oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, now governor of neighboring Dnipropetrovsk. Both men have long been believed to be high rollers in east Ukrainian criminal circles.
“We helped you get everything done, and you helped us get rich,” a voice similar to Kernes’ says on the tape, which could not be independently verified. youtube.com
They are most famous, however, for this outtake from an old campaign video, where Kernes admonishes Dobkin (“Dopa”) from behind the camera in highly colorful, almost completely untranslatable, swearing.
The video, “Gepa and Dopa Make a Movie,” is one of the most popular in the history of the Russian-language internet. youtube.com
More recently, Kernes showed he was no stranger to the viral web by mastering Instagram, where he posts often bizarre pictures of himself and sometimes argues with commenters.
On Feb. 22, Kernes and Dobkin held a Soviet-style party conference to launch a separatist movement in response to the protests. The movement, however, collapsed later that day, and Yanukovych fled for Russia.
Kernes and Dobkin also traveled to Russia, but soon returned to Ukraine. youtube.com
Kernes even cheered on the first of those occupations when an angry crowd stormed the provincial government building and raised the Russian flag over it, injuring 97 people in the process.
Stringer / Reuters
Two weeks later, however, Kernes did a complete about-face and came out in support of Kiev’s new government. Angry protesters chased him away.
Since then, Kharkiv has weathered the storm facing the rest of the east, where separatist militants Ukraine and the West says are backed by Russia have seized government buildings and taken several hostages.
Protesters occupied Kharkiv’s provincial government building and declared an “independent republic” on April 6, the same day as in Donetsk and Luhansk, but were turfed out and arrested a day later. Stringer / Reuters
That’s not to say there haven’t been cracks. Violence has sporadically broken out, and anti-Kiev protesters have briefly seized a few government buildings.
On Sunday, pro-unity soccer hooligans clashed with pro-Russian protesters, injuring 14. Police stood idly by, as they often have when violence breaks out in the east. youtube.com
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, a longtime Kernes rival and Kharkiv native, subsequently fired 30% of the city’s police and said Sunday that he was planning a further “purge” of disobedient officers. That means Kernes may be Kharkiv’s best hope.
Valery Boiko, the surgeon who operated on Kernes, told Ukrainian media the mayor was in critical condition.