Vitali Klitschko hopes to follow Poland and Hungary on path to greater prosperity and European integration
Ukraine needs international aid for reconstruction to build a European future apart from Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian and dictatorial Russia, the mayor of Kyiv has said.
Vitali Klitschko, the capital’s mayor since 2014, said Ukraine’s main priority was to win the war, but the long-term goal was the reconstruction of the country, which he said would also help draw back millions of people who had fled their homes.
“Our next step is reconstruction of the country and to make a lot of reforms to be not [only] European geographically, but to be European in quality of life,” he said.
Klitschko, one of the leaders of the 2013-14 Maidan protests, said Ukraine’s desire to live in an independent, free and democratic country was why Putin had launched the invasion. “The reason for this senseless war is our wish to be part of the European family, with European quality of life, with values – human rights, press freedom, democratic values.” He said this was never accepted by Russia “because they feel Ukraine is part of the Russian empire. And we don’t want to go back to the USSR”.
The mayor was speaking to the Guardian before a big conference on Ukraine’s reconstruction and recovery in Berlin on Tuesday, to be opened by the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
He said Ukraine had no desire to be controlled by Moscow, where “they are slowly going in the direction of North Korea”, and hoped to follow, Poland, Hungary and other central European countries on a path to greater prosperity and European integration.
Klitschko outlined his hopes for reconstruction to von der Leyen at a recent virtual meeting earlier this month. He had to cancel a face-to-face meeting with her in Brussels after Russia launched scores of attacks on civilian targets across Ukraine, in apparent revenge for the blowing up of the Kerch Bridge, linking occupied Crimea to Russia. In Kyiv, missiles rained down on the historic heart of the city, hitting a bridge once popular with tourists and leaving a crater in a park by a children’s playground.
Joining the meeting were several European city mayors, who have promised support to help Ukraine rebuild. Dario Nardella, the mayor of Florence, told the Guardian it was essential to begin reconstruction immediately, even while missile attacks and explosive-laden drones were being launched. “The Ukrainian people need hope,” he said, but also urgent repairs to infrastructure, such as schools, pipelines and power stations, “to allow Ukraine to survive in this difficult moment”.
Nardella led a delegation of eight mayors to meet President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in August, where they pledged their expertise in helping to rebuild Ukraine in line with eco-friendly, European standards. Nardella suggested successful reconstruction could help Ukraine’s accession into the EU, an event seen as years away. He said: “These reconstructions have to be based on sustainability, on social inclusive values, so could be a big opportunity also to accelerate the procedure for … accession in the European Union.”
For now, the focus is on emergency. Riga is sending buses to Kyiv to replace destroyed vehicles and recently promised to send generators. Mārtiņš Staķis, the mayor of the Baltic city, hopes Riga can help rebuild Ukraine’s kindergartens. Visiting Kyiv, Irpin and Borodianka over the summer, he saw the same Soviet-era kindergartens built all over the former Soviet Union, including Latvia. “We know them so well. We can repair them within six months, making them more efficient.”
While the enthusiasm to help Ukraine shines through, the costs of rebuilding will be colossal. Last month, the World Bank put the bill at $349bn (€359bn, £315bn), a figure published before the latest rounds of deadly attacks. The city mayors, whose own funds are limited, have promised Kyiv to push the EU for reconstruction funding.
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Meanwhile, Kyiv faces its most difficult winter in 30 years. Klitschko, who is responsible for ensuring heating, energy and water supplies to the capital, said street lights were switched off at night to save energy and called for help to defend Ukraine’s power plants.
“First of all, we need the best weapons,” Klitschko said listing air-defence and anti-rocket systems to protect Ukraine’s skies from Russian missiles and drones. Klitschko, who before the war criticised Germany’s government for its contribution of 5,000 helmets, said he was thankful for Berlin’s support, noting its financial and political help.
He added: “It’s never enough as long as we have war in Ukraine. When the “last Russian soldier left Ukraine, I [will] tell you in this moment, thank you very much, it was enough. But right now we need to continue.”
The former heavyweight boxing champion said Ukraine’s soldiers were far more motivated to win the war. “As a former fighter, it is not important how big you are or how strong you are. It’s important, but the main point is the will to win, your motivation. We are motivated so much, because we defend our families, our house.” Russia’s army, in contrast, were fighting for money, he said.
“Everything will depend on us to kick Russians away from Ukraine, from our territory.”