When Russia’s hybrid war moved from Crimea to mainland Ukraine in the first weeks of spring 2014, the resistance began in Dnipropetrovsk. At the time, the country was rudderless following the chaos of the Euromaidan Revolution, and appeared in mortal danger of falling into the hands of the Kremlin’s irregular forces and their local proxies. As a wave of panic swept across Ukraine, Dnipropetrovsk-born oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy took on the job of Regional Governor and gathered a team around him with the goal of fighting back.
Within days, they had rallied sagging national morale by mocking Vladimir Putin publicly while offering bounties for the liberation of government buildings and the capture of Russian “Little Green Men”. Behind the scenes, threadbare Ukrainian military units received desperately needed basic supplies, while volunteer battalions hastily came together. This was modern Ukraine’s moment of truth, and Dnipropetrovsk had emphatically passed the test.
None of this was inevitable. As the gateway to the Donbas and the richest Ukrainian city after the capital itself, strategists on all sides saw Dnipropetrovsk as one of Russia’s top priorities. The city had long been within the catchment area of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and had witnessed violent clashes in early 2014 as the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv spiraled out of control. With the situation rapidly deteriorating across the whole of southeast Ukraine in the wake of the Crimean annexation, few would have bet against the appearance of mysterious masked gunmen and the declaration of a Dnipropetrovsk People’s Republic.
All this makes the city’s subsequent transformation all the more remarkable. It is often said that Russia’s hybrid attack forced millions of previously ambivalent Ukrainians to get off the fence and choose where their loyalties lay. Dnipropetrovsk came down firmly on the side of Ukraine, and the city has not looked back since. Today, even the name has changed. It is now known officially as Dnipro, having dropped the awkward reference to Ukrainian Communist leader Grigory Petrovsky as part of the country’s de-Sovietization process. This symbolic switch reflects the prevailing mood in a city that finds itself at the very heart of Ukraine’s war effort.
Bastion of the new Ukraine
Dnipro Mayor Borys Filatov was a key member of the team that emerged in March 2014 to defend the city. A larger than life and eminently quotable character who is one of Ukraine’s brightest social media personalities, Mayor Filatov has come to embody Dnipro’s current role as the frontline bastion of the new Ukraine. While most other Ukrainian city bosses stand or fall by their ability to improve public services and rein in corruption, Filatov’s public persona is framed in a much grander historical context. While canvassing Dnipro locals about their attitudes towards the mayor, one response is heard time after time. “He saved us from the war.”
When Business Ukraine magazine caught up with Mayor Filatov in his office at the Dnipro City Administration building in early March, he was happy to reminisce about the narrow escape he helped orchestrate back in 2014. “It was a close call,” he admits. “There was an attempt to seize this building. The plan was the same as for Donetsk and Luhansk. Luckily, we do not have a shared border with Russia, so there were not so many so-called “Russian tourists” to deal with. Nevertheless, we intercepted busloads of Russians sent here to destabilize the situation.”
Mayoral election win
Mayor Filatov’s role in the success in 2014 led to a place in parliament. This was followed by victory in Ukraine’s 2015 local elections – a win that allowed him to secure his current position. The autumn 2015 vote saw politicians tied to the ousted Yanukovych regime elected as mayors in a number of the Kremlin’s key Ukrainian targets such as Kharkiv and Odesa, leading to media speculation of growing Maidan fatigue and a possible counter-revolution. This was not the case in Dnipro, which emerged as the only major city in southeast Ukraine to elect a member of the new generation as mayor.
Filatov attributes his win to public gratitude for avoiding the bloodshed of the occupied east. “The election presented people with a very simple choice,” he says. “They understood that the return of the old guard could end very badly. Even those who had sympathies for the Soviet era or longed for more paternalistic times saw what was going on in the neighbouring oblasts. They were grateful they did not have to spend their nights hiding from artillery bombardments in basements.”
Such gratitude requires little additional explanation, but the fact remains that Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Party of Regions comfortably took first place in Dnipro during the parliamentary elections of 2012 – the last national vote prior to the Euromaidan Revolution. Mayor Filatov says he is well aware political divisions within the city did not disappear overnight amid the shocks of 2014. Indeed, it is a popular theme in his frequent Facebook posts. Nevertheless, he argues that the existential challenge posed by Russia’s military intervention has transformed attitudes towards issues of national identity, putting previous political differences into perspective. “There are people close to me who were categorically against Maidan,” he says. “But when Russia treacherously seized a piece of our country and then deployed its forces to the Donbas and began killing Ukrainians, a lot of people started to think differently. It is perfectly normal to have conflicting attitudes towards things like Stepan Bandera. Is he a hero or not? Should we remove Soviet monuments? Do we need two state languages? However, when it comes to the relationship with the Russian Federation, I believe we have experienced an irreversible break. I cannot conceive of any propaganda campaign that could possibly win the people of this city back to close ties with Russia. They tried to coerce us into friendship, but they have produced exactly the opposite effect.”
Distinctive and diverse Dnipro
A born and bred Dnipro native, Mayor Filatov is perhaps at his most engaging when expounding on his hometown’s history and character. Despite the city’s close associations with Catherine the Great and the Russian imperial expansion of the late eighteenth century, he rejects attempts to depict Dnipro as part of the so-called Russian World (a vague but menacing concept promoted by the Kremlin that implies Russian hegemony extending deep into Ukraine and much of the former Soviet Empire - Ed.). Instead, the Dnipro Mayor paints a picture of a cosmopolitan melting pot in a region with strong Cossack roots and a traditional Ukrainian agrarian character. “Dnipro has always been a multicultural place,” he says. “We have always had a large Jewish community. There were always Germans here. Always a Catholic community and an Armenian community living together with Ukrainians. Even the official date for the city’s foundation is arbitrary. When the Tsarist project began in 1776, the site was already home to a large Cossack population, while the surrounding countryside has always been part of Ukraine’s agricultural heartlands.”
Filatov recognizes why observers might be inclined to group Dnipro together with the other large and predominantly Russian-speaking industrial hubs of the Ukrainian southeast, but he is adamant the city has a distinctive identity that defies the stereotypes common in Moscow-centric narratives. “It may not be considered politically correct to say so, but I like to think that Dnipro represents the best qualities of Odesa and Donetsk,” he offers. “We are reliable and straightforward like Donetsk folk, but as cunning and streetwise as Odesites.
At the same time, there has always been a certain subtlety to life here, and an emphasis on the intelligentsia. People have always been able to find a common language and reason with each other. Even during the lawless years of the early 1990s when you had bandit wars raging elsewhere in the Donbas, there was nothing like that in Dnipro. You can breathe more easily here."
Ukrainian civic identity
Today’s Dnipro remains a very multicultural city. At the same time, it is now also one of Ukraine’s most self-consciously patriotic places. Blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags adorn billboards, buildings, handbags, lapels, and car dashboards, while regular rallies draw large crowds. Energetic flashmobs take to the streets each weekend and introduce locals to the Ukrainian historic figures behind the city’s new street names, while support for the Ukrainian armed forces is ubiquitous. Dnipro’s hospitals have treated the majority of the Ukrainian troops wounded in the Donbas, with locals flocking to give blood whenever demand has spiked during surges in fighting. These long queues of blood donors have become one of the defining features of wartime Dnipro, reflecting the community spirit engendered by close proximity and intimate involvement in the conflict.
Mayor Filatov says the striking rise in Dnipro’s patriotic mood is part of a countrywide shift in attitudes towards Ukrainian identity. He believes the city has played a key role in an historic awakening that goes far beyond the kind of emotional excesses common in times of war. “When we talk about the city becoming pro-Ukrainian, what we’re really talking about is the emergence of the Ukrainian political nation. Since 2014, Dnipro has been at the center of this process. We are witnessing the phenomenon of a new civic identity taking shape.”
Wanted: new trade partners
Amid all the talk of hybrid war and national awakenings, it is easy to forget that Mayor Filatov has a city to run. His task has been made significantly harder by the collapse of commercial ties with Russia, which had previously been the main partner and primary market for many of Dnipro’s major industrial concerns. The geopolitical confrontation with Moscow has had a negative impact across the local economy, with the city’s famed rocketry and machine-building industries particularly hard hit.
Mayor Filatov admits that the damage from the Russian embargo has been severe, but points to a range of other sectors in the local economy that are helping to compensate for these losses. In particular, he identifies logistics, finance, and a booming local retail sector that includes more downtown malls than any other Ukrainian regional capital.
Dnipro is also at the forefront of Ukraine’s efforts to embrace e-government. Aided by Estonian-Ukrainian Deputy Mayor Jaanika Merilo, Filatov has led the push for nationwide legislation opening the way to everything from e-tickets on public transport to the digitalization of public services. “Our goal is to relieve businessmen, investors, and ordinary citizens of the obligation to communicate with state functionaries. By reducing contact between the public and civil servants, we reduce corruption and make life easier for everyone,” he explains.
Transforming Ukraine’s infamously byzantine bureaucracy into an efficient example of e-government is a Herculean task and one that places the Dnipro Mayor on a collision course with large numbers of people who have a direct stake in the subterranean cash flows of the existing system. “There is opposition,” he concedes. “It is impossible to change everything overnight. Our objective is to keep expanding e-services slowly but surely. Every day we bring more and more people into the system. We spend a lot of time promoting new services and explaining the options to the public. It is not a rapid or revolutionary process, but things are gradually changing for the better. Within a few years, I expect some public services will have changed beyond recognition.”
Attracting international investment
Adopting e-government innovations will improve Dnipro’s attractiveness, but it will not be sufficient in itself to attract much-needed international investment to the city. Mayor Filatov speaks enthusiastically about his readiness to personally welcome investors to the city and ease their market entry. He has set a target of creating 100,000 new work places and attracting USD 5 billion in investment. The Mayor outlines a number of ambitious projects including an industrial park, international airport, and exhibition center, while waxing lyrical about Dnipro’s excellent human resources.
However, the elephant in the room remains the Russian hybrid war beyond the horizon. The frontlines of the conflict lie a few hundred kilometers to the east of Dnipro, and Mayor Filatov acknowledges that this inevitably dampens investor enthusiasm. He believes these fears are understandable but unwarranted. “There is absolutely no risk of conflict erupting here unless we see the outbreak of a full-scale conventional land war with Russia,” he states. “Of course, Russia is known as an exporter of state terrorism so certain provocations cannot be ruled out. But I’m 110% sure that it would be impossible to destabilize this city.” Given his past record, Borys Filatov’s security assessments deserve due consideration. Nevertheless, the battle to convince risk-averse international investors of Dnipro’s merits is only just beginning.