Stories of EU-Ukraine municipal partnerships: Okhtyrka — Leszno

20 Ukrainian communities met with Polish and German communities at the EU-Ukraine Municipal Partnerships Forum. Some communities agreed among themselves on specific steps toward cooperation, including working together to solve water supply problems; developing local fire departments and police stations, supporting beekeeping; developing sports and cultural exchange.

“Stories of EU-Ukraine Municipal Partnerships” is a series of publications in which we will showcase successfully launched partnerships between Ukrainian and EU communities. The first story is about the Ukrainian community of Okhtyrka and the Polish community of Leszno.

 Okhtyrka, a community that is rebuilding its city and rebuilding its mindset

Okhtyrka is a community in Sumy region that unites the city of Okhtyrka and ten adjacent villages, has 49,111 residents and is located 30 kilometers from the Russian border. The community has the most powerful oil and gas deposits in Ukraine. There are 21 industrial enterprises, developed mechanical engineering, light and food industries, and several sewing factories. The community also has a rich cultural heritage with more than 60 cultural monuments.

Today, Okhtyrka is one of the four “Hero Cities” honored by President Zelenskyy. Since February 24 the city was bombarded with artillery shells “Grads”. In the first days of the war, 18 people died here, including the first child since the attack on Ukraine. Pavlo Kuzmenko, the Mayor of Okhtyrka, worked as a doctor in the district hospital for 20 years. It was during the hostilities that his skills came in handy again – during the day, Pavlo managed the city, and at night, he operated on the wounded. As a result of the shelling, the railway station, kindergartens and schools, high-rise and private houses were completely destroyed. The local thermal power plant and other critical infrastructure facilities were destroyed.

Despite the destruction and the Russian offensive, Okhtyrka remained a Ukrainian city, and despite the significant damage, the community is rebuilding quickly. In particular, the damaged thermal power plant is already operating, and the new plant, which was built in 100 days, provides heat to the residents today.

“We are one of the few communities that have rebuilt quite a lot, but according to preliminary estimates, it is several hundred million hryvnias. Of course, we need much more to rebuild the state we had before the war. But we want to become not the same as we were, but better,” says Pavlo Kuzmenko.

Before the full-scale invasion, the local authorities aimed to build roads, improve the city’s infrastructure, and improve natural resources, but now the main goal is to influence people’s minds. Through communication, exchange of experience, and cooperation with European communities, Pavlo Kuzmenko seeks to develop pro-Ukrainian views and a European worldview. He says that changing people’s thinking will be much more difficult than rebuilding a city. He believes that this partnership with the Polish community of Leszno will help to realize the goal.

Cooperation with Polish Leszno

At the EU-Ukraine Municipal Partnerships Forum in Poland, Pavlo Kuzmeno met with Katarzyna Plevka-Khizynska, representative of the Mayor of Leshno on the issues of Ukraine. Before the forum, the organizers offered these communities to participate as potential partners, taking into account their similarity in community type, population, and production direction. At the forum, the mayor of Okhtyrka and the representative of Leszno got to know each other personally. 

Leszno is a commune and the largest city in the southwestern part of the Greater Poland Voivodeship, located between Wrocław and Poznan. The community has a population of 64,630 people and is currently associated primarily with sports – with an aeroclub and the largest gliding school in Poland, and speedway, which is very popular in the city. Leszno attracts the best athletes, and the local airport has become a venue for the World Gliding Championships.

Despite the fact that Leszno and Okhtyrka are separated by 1,600 km, they have common views on the future. Leszno, like Okhtyrka, actively develops sports in his community among children and young people, in particular, karate, judo, and sambo.

During a personal meeting at the forum, the Mayor of Okhtyrka and the representative of Leszno agreed to organize youth sports exchanges between the communities. According to Pavlo Kuzmenko, this will allow local youth to get acquainted with Europe, and this will contribute to the transformation of Ukrainian youth’s worldview.

“The mayor of Okhtyrka wants to cooperate with Leszno. We are separated by 1600 km. I asked him what would be the most important thing for him in this cooperation. “To show young people the world. To show them that they don’t have to be victims.” He didn’t talk about machines, medicine or food. He constantly said: “We will manage with this.” A man who faces war and death every day, a man who calls himself a realist, tells me that if they survive, that will be the most important thing,” comments Ms. Katezhyna, impressed by Okhtryka’s resilience in war conditions.

The communities agreed that they will start working together within two years, in particular in the field of supporting children and youth, education and health care. And after the end of this term, their heads will sign an agreement on partnership between communities.

On February 27-28, 40 Ukrainian communities will meet with communities from Germany and the Netherlands in Sindelfingen (Germany) at the EU-Ukraine Municipal Partnership Forum as part of the Cities 4 Cities | United 4 Ukraine initiative.

Cities 4 Cities | United 4 Ukraine are partnership initiatives that joined forces in September 2022. Cities 4 Cities was founded by the city of Sindelfinden (Germany) under the patronage of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. United 4 Ukraine was launched by SALAR International and the city of Lviv (Ukraine) with the support of the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida). The initiative’s strategic partners are the Association of Ukrainian Cities and the All-Ukrainian Association of Amalgamated Territorial Communities.

This publication was produced with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).