Pavlo Holodnikov: “Our shared challenge is to fight against Russian aggression”

According to a legend, this town, located 40 kilometers from Kharkiv, was named so because there used to be a Snake or Dragon in this area. Then there were Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Huns, Alans, Avars, Polovtsians, Pechenegs, Tatars, and Slavs. But there have never been orcs. We spoke with Zmiiv Mayor Pavlo Holodnikov about how the townspeople responded to the news of their attack on Ukraine and what the authorities did in those circumstances.

He is head of a densely populated area, because two years ago a territorial community, which included 55 settlements, emerged around the town. With the population of 42,000 people and the total area of ​​792 square kilometers, it isn’t an easy task – and the war made it even harder.

“None of us believed a full-scale Russian offensive was possible until the last moment,” the mayor admits. “Although our Western partners kept warning us about the possibility of an invasion. That’s why we wouldn’t have believed it a year ago either. But if I had had intelligence data that proving 100 percent the possibility of an offensive, of course I would have tried to warn the regional and state leadership.”

Mr. Holodnikovsays that little would have depended on him as the community head in such conditions. Instead, he believes, in the current situation, they did all as best they could. And all this was thanks to the team.

“In the first days of the war, we all worked around the clock, without a break. We had a lot of challenges: to bring flour to the bakery, to organize food delivery, to meet and accommodate displaced people… Today we have shops, pharmacies and public transport, but four months ago no one knew what would happen and how. As for the organization of the community’s civil life, I am sure that during the first three months we coped with that problem very well, despite the fact that we did almost everything on our own initiative, supported by businesses and without involving budget funds,” says Holodnikov.

During this time, many things struck him, both positively and negatively.

“What impresses me most is the cynicism, and even betrayal on the part of our northern neighbor,” says the mayor. “Due to the nature of my activity, I have to follow both domestic and foreign media. I came across an interview with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Lavrov, broadcast by the BBC. He constantly tried to justify the actions of his country. Both Lavrov and many other people refer to the fact that after the 2014 revolution, Russia reserved the right to come to us and “restore order”. Ukraine is an independent state, and everything that happens inside the country is our history, our way. They have come into our homes, killed our children, thinking that they have the right to do so!”

For Holodnikov, this is the biggest disappointment, because the occupiers are destroying the southeast of the country, including Kharkiv, where most of the population was loyal to Russia. Now these people hate and curse it.

But what struck him most, but in a positive way, was the surge of patriotism among Ukrainians. On February 24, a lot of people came to the city council and demanded: “Pavlo Viktorovych, send us to the military units, we want to defend our land!” We will tell future generations about the first day of a full-scale war as an example of patriotism. Those people were unprepared, but motivated. And that “iron” motivation made it possible to form the units that went to the front very quickly.

“A lot of people, young men, immediately volunteered to the front to defend their homes, their country, their land,” Holodnikov continues. “Both then and now, these people realize that we have fewer people and weapons than the enemy. But the line of contact in the battlefield has hardly changed recently. In fact, our guys are heroically holding the “second army of the world” by the power of their patriotism and an overwhelming support of all Ukrainians. It’s really impressive.”

Since February 24, the Zmiiv community has lost 15 of its sons. They gave their lives for the freedom and independence of the country. For the community leader, they are all heroes of Ukraine, heroes of modern times, who will be talked about in the future, whose deeds will be set as an example for children.

But that will be later. Today, the community has to survive. How does it manage to do it? Answering this question, the mayor begins by criticizing government officials: “I believe that it was not quite right to cancel local taxes in the areas with no active hostilities. They have canceled the land tax. Was it necessary? Yes, it was, but the issue was to be addressed carefully. The tax service, the department of agro-industrial development and the like should function.”

The budget is not filled, but the community is getting by. They had to reduce the number of full-time employees in the town council, thereby balancing its revenues and expenses. At the same time, employees of all utility enterprises receive their wages.

“We cannot allocate funds for capital expenditures now – there is a ban at the legislative level. We do what we can, some basic things: buy fuel, materials for pothole patching, etc. But after February 24, all our economic problems took a back seat. Today, one of the main issues to be resolved is a large number of IDPs,” the mayor says.

To date, the Zmiiv community has accepted more than 15,000 internally displaced persons. Can it accept all comers? Probably not, but they try to pay attention to everyone. Especially to help people fleeing from shelling. A limited number can be placed in communal institutions of the city and provided with food, clothing and more or less normal living conditions.

But there is a problem that Zmiiv is unable to solve. In the early days of the war, people self-organized to help themselves and others, and did so without any coercion or call. Every day, they came to the city council and offered their help. Every day people came to the village heads and said the same thing. At that time, everyone built checkpoints and loaded humanitarian trucks. But time is going out, resources are running out. Four months of the war have passed, and people have a question: how to feed the family?

“It so happened that 80% of the residents of Zmiiv and the community worked in Kharkiv. Today they have lost their jobs. Another problem is that many worked at enterprises that have suspended their activities or simply been destroyed. No one can even fire them so that a person can get a work book and register at the employment center. There are cases when no one knows where the work books are, where the management of the enterprise is. This is not a problem of the Zmiiv community, it affects the whole country,” Holodnikov says.

He hopes that overcoming difficulties will not be only the communities’ task. The state should help. There should be a government program to rebuild the country, and the government is already announcing some steps. In particular, people who are registered at the employment center and have not found a job within a month will be involved in public works, and they will be paid the minimum wage.

“In my opinion, the restoration of the country will be supported by all its citizens,” says the mayor of Zmiiv. “People are already willing to work hard every day, when they see the destruction in Chuhuiiv and other communities of the Kharkiv region. But the government must take on the financial side of the issue, i.e. provide the citizens of Ukraine financially at least at the minimum level so that they do not think about how to feed their children. As for financial resources, perhaps community funds should also be involved. However, the country’s recovery should be mostly financed by international partners. We cannot afford it on our own.”

Holodnikov understands the specificity of work both in local self-government and in the power vertical, because he has worked for a year as head of the district state administration. He analyzed once what changed after the reform, what resources the community received after decentralization. In his opinion, they didn’t received much: in fact, the district budget was divided between the two communities into which the Zmiiv district had split. Among the pluses: the community can dispose the lands outside the settlements.

Along with that, a big plus before the war and now is that the local councils can independently manage their budget, albeit a limited one.

“If we talk about powers, on February 24, 2022, when Russia attacked Ukraine, they almost reset to zero,” the mayor explains. “The Treasury stopped 99% of payments. Therefore, everything that happened in the community at the beginning of the active phase of the war was done through personal contacts and thanks to partnerships with businesses, farms, and caring citizens. But I believe that today, especially during martial law, the role of administrations as coordination centers remains important. Now we are one team, both the district state administration and the local government. Our shared challenge is to fight against Russian aggression. We, the town council, try to help as much as possible, but our opportunities are limited. Without state support, local councils cannot cope with this problem. Today, the main value of the state is people, their life and health. The state should ensure that there are no active hostilities in our territory. We can get by the rest – pits, garbage!”

He is an optimist. Once, he saw a story on the United News TV marathon with a granny baking pies in the oven – the only thing left from the house destroyed by the occupiers. She said: “Guys, when the war ends, I’ll be waiting for you. We’ll bake pies and celebrate!” This impressed Holodnikov: “I am sure that our victory will be the greatest holiday for Ukrainians, and I am no exception. My dream is to live and see this day!”

Tetiana Logvina

Article is prepared within the project “Countering Disinformation in Southern and Eastern Ukraine” funded by the European Union.