Krem­lin mo­bi­lizes its arse­nal to in­flu­ence Ukrainian elec­tions


In the run-up to Ukraine’s 2019 pres­i­den­tial and par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, the Krem­lin is mo­bi­liz­ing its re­sources to in­flu­ence the out­come of the votes.

The tools at Rus­sia's dis­posal are di­verse: friendly po­lit­i­cal par­ties, eco­nomic in­flu­ence, es­ca­la­tion on the war front, me­dia re­sources, and even the pro-Rus­sian Ukrainian Ortho­dox Church.

“Rus­sia will use ev­ery­thing it can use,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Vi­taly Bala told the Kyiv Post.

But Bala and other an­a­lysts say pro-Rus­sian par­ties are un­likely to win in ei­ther the pres­i­den­tial or par­lia­men­tary elec­tions due to the huge swing in pub­lic opin­ion in fa­vor of the West, and as a re­sult of the Krem­lin’s war against Ukraine and Ukraine's loss of pro-Rus­sian vot­ers in Rus­sian-oc­cu­pied Don­bas and Crimea.

The main pro-Rus­sian pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have a joint rat­ing of 15.6 per­cent — 8.1 per­cent for Op­po­si­tion Bloc leader Yuriy Boyko and 7.5 per­cent for Za Zhyt­tia (For Life) party leader Vadym Rabynovych, ac­cord­ing to a poll con­ducted by the Kyiv In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of So­ci­ol­ogy in Septem­ber.

Pro-Rus­sian par­ties have a joint rat­ing of 19.4 per­cent — 10.1 per­cent for the Op­po­si­tion Bloc and 9.3 per­cent for Za Zhyt­tia.

In com­par­i­son, pro-Rus­sian par­ties got a to­tal of 43 per­cent in the 2012 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions — 30 per­cent for the Party of Re­gions and 13 per­cent for the Com­mu­nist Party.

More­over, even if a pro-Rus­sian can­di­date gets to the sec­ond round of pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, they are very un­likely to win and will be an ideal com­peti­tor for any proUkrainian can­di­date, an­a­lysts ar­gue.

“By an­nex­ing Crimea and launch­ing ag­gres­sion in the east of Ukraine, the Krem­lin shot it­self in the foot,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Olek­siy Kovzhun told the Kyiv Post. “The word ‘pro-Rus­sian’ be­came an in­sult, and it’s used to smear po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.”

Medved­chuk’s rise

Politi­cian Vik­tor Medved­chuk, a close friend of Rus­sian dic­ta­tor Vladimir Putin, “is the main op­er­a­tor of Rus­sian in­flu­ence in Ukraine,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Volodymyr Fe­senko told the Kyiv Post.

Medved­chuk has re­cently raised his pro­file and re­turned to the po­lit­i­cal scene.

In July, Medved­chuk joined Rabynovych’s Za Zhyt­tia party. By join­ing Za Zhyt­tia, Medved­chuk has been ef­fec­tively “le­gal­ized,” Fe­senko ar­gued.

“Medved­chuk is the party’s real owner, and Rabynovych is the front­man,” Fe­senko added.

Mean­while, Za Zhyt­tia and two ma­jor fac­tions within the pro-Rus­sian Op­po­si­tion Bloc — those of oli­garch Ri­nat Akhme­tov and ex-Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych’s for­mer Chief of Staff Ser­hiy Ly­ovochkin — are cur­rently hold­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions on merg­ing into a sin­gle party. The Op­po­si­tion Bloc is the main off­shoot of ex-Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych’s now de­funct Party of Re­gions.

The par­ties are hop­ing to form a ma­jor­ity fac­tion af­ter the 2019 par­lia­men­tary elec­tion.

Mean­while, Op­po­si­tion Bloc law­maker Vadym Novyn­sky on Oct. 1 be­came head of the newly-reg­is­tered Peace Party.

Pro-Rus­sian chan­nels

Medved­chuk is also boost­ing his in­flu­ence on the me­dia — an­other cru­cial tool for Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tions.

One of the main chan­nels with pro-Rus­sian cov­er­age is 112 Ukraine.

Un­til April, 112 Ukraine was for­mally owned by busi­ness­man An­driy Pod­shchip­kov, but nu­mer­ous mar­ket sources said it was ac­tu­ally owned by Krem­lin-friendly al­lies of ex-Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych, although this was de­nied by the chan­nel.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by Ra­dio Free Eu­rope/Ra­dio Lib­erty re­vealed in Au­gust that the chan­nel may have been de facto taken over by Medved­chuk, who de­nies ac­quir­ing it.

In April Ed­uard Katz, a lit­tle-known Ger­man busi­ness­man with­out any overt links to Ukraine, bought 112 Ukraine. Af­ter the ac­qui­si­tion, 112 Ukraine’s al­ready mostly pos­i­tive cov­er­age of Medved­chuk in­creased dra­mat­i­cally.

Mean­while, Artem Marchevsky be­came the gen­eral pro­ducer of the chan­nel. In 2015 he ran on the list of the Peo­ple’s Right, a party headed by an as­so­ci­ate of Medved­chuk, in the elec­tion for Kyiv City Coun­cil.

Other chan­nels

An­other pro-Rus­sian chan­nel, NewsOne, was pre­vi­ously owned by Rabynovych, head of the Za Zhyt­tia party, and was sold in 2014 to Yevheny Mu­rayev, an ex-top mem­ber of Za Zhyt­tia.

Con­cerns about Rus­sian in­flu­ence on the chan­nel also in­creased in Au­gust, when An­driy Port­nov, an ex­iled ex-deputy chief of staff for Yanukovych, be­came the trus­tee with ex­clu­sive rights to run NewsOne, although Mu­rayev re­mains the owner.

Much of NewsOne’s cov­er­age is de­voted to pro­mot­ing Rabynovych and Mu­rayev. And since Medved­chuk is now a top mem­ber of Za Zhyt­tia, NewsOne has be­come yet an­other me­dia tool at his dis­posal.

On Oct. 4, the Verkhovna Rada ap­proved the im­po­si­tion of sanc­tions on NewsOne and 112 Ukraine for their pro-Rus­sian cov­er­age.

The much big­ger In­ter and Ukraine tele­vi­sion chan­nels have less ex­plicit pro-Rus­sian cov­er­age. How­ever, they are used to pro­mote pro-Rus­sian politi­cians, since In­ter is owned by Akhme­tov, and Ukraine is owned by Ly­ovochkin and his ally, the oli­garch Dmytro Fir­tash.

Other Rus­sian tools

Rus­sia may also try to in­flu­ence the elec­tions through the In­ter­net, in­clud­ing so­cial net­works.

"The ex­pe­ri­ence of the United States and United King­dom shows that In­ter­net bots can in­flu­ence the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion," Fe­senko said.

He added that it was even eas­ier in Ukraine's case be­cause Rus­sia and Ukraine are part of one cul­tural and lin­guis­tic space.

An­other way for Rus­sia to in­flu­ence the out­come would be to es­ca­late its war against Ukraine. In that case, Medved­chuk can be used by Rus­sia as a bar­gain­ing tool and "peace­maker,” Fe­senko ar­gued.

Rus­sia can also use eco­nomic tools — such as black­mail­ing Ukraine over nat­u­ral gas tran­sit, he added.

Alexan­der Babakov, a pro-Krem­lin mem­ber of the Rus­sian par­lia­ment’s up­per house, con­trols many power com­pa­nies in Ukraine, and pro-Rus­sian oli­garch and for­mer Rus­sian cit­i­zen Vadym Novyn­sky owns banks, food pro­duc­ers and gas com­pa­nies. Rus­sian banks are still func­tion­ing de­spite leg­is­la­tion un­der which they must sell their as­sets.

Ty­moshenko’s role

An­other con­cern is that the Krem­lin may use os­ten­si­bly pro-Ukrainian pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to pro­mote its goals. As part of the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, var­i­ous politi­cians have ac­cused each other of be­ing se­cretly pro-Krem­lin.

Ex-Prime Min­is­ter Yu­lia Ty­moshenko has been ac­cused by her op­po­nents — mainly Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko’s sup­port­ers — of hav­ing pro­moted the Krem­lin's in­ter­ests in Ukraine for years. She has de­nied the ac­cu­sa­tions.

When Ty­moshenko was prime min­is­ter in 2007 to 2010, she en­joyed bet­ter re­la­tions with Putin than Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yushchenko. In 2009 she signed a nat­u­ral gas sup­ply con­tract with Putin that was highly un­fa­vor­able for Ukraine.

In 2011, when Vik­tor Yanukovych was pres­i­dent, Ty­moshenko was sen­tenced to seven years in prison on charges of abus­ing her power by sign­ing the gas con­tract. The case was rec­og­nized by Ukrainian and Eu­ro­pean au­thor­i­ties as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

But Fe­senko ar­gued that “por­tray­ing Ty­moshenko as a Rus­sian agent is non­sense and a pro­pa­ganda tool.”

He ar­gued, how­ever, that the Krem­lin was ready to ne­go­ti­ate with Ty­moshenko, and she might reach some com­pro­mise with Rus­sia — for ex­am­ple, a per­ma­nent cease-fire on the war front.

Poroshenko’s stance

In re­turn, Ty­moshenko’s sup­port­ers and other op­po­nents have ac­cused Poroshenko of hav­ing links to Rus­sia — a claim ve­he­mently de­nied by the pres­i­dent.

Rus­sian op­po­si­tion po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Stanislav Belkovsky claimed in Septem­ber that “Putin has de­cided to back Poroshenko in the elec­tions and cre­ate all nec­es­sary con­di­tions for his vic­tory next year.”

Poroshenko’s Roshen con­fec­tionary paid taxes to the Rus­sian bud­get from its Lipetsk fac­tory in Rus­sia un­til 2017, when pro­duc­tion at the fac­tory was sus­pended, trig­ger­ing ac­cu­sa­tions that Poroshenko took part in fund­ing the ag­gres­sor state.

Poroshenko has also had ties to Medved­chuk since 1998, when he was a mem­ber of Medved­chuk’s So­cial­ist Party of Ukraine.

Law­maker Sergii Leshchenko has ac­cused Poroshenko of ef­fec­tively be­ing a busi­ness part­ner of Medved­chuk in the liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas busi­ness, and al­low­ing him to by­pass the ban on di­rect flights to Rus­sia. Poroshenko and Medved­chuk have de­nied the ac­cu­sa­tions.

And de­spite head­ing the overtly sep­a­ratist Ukrainian Choice party, Medved­chuk has not faced any crim­i­nal cases.

“It is Poroshenko who al­lowed Medved­chuk to get out of his po­lit­i­cal grave and re­turn to the pre-elec­tion scene,” Leshchenko ar­gued in Septem­ber. “Medved­chuk can be used for do­ing busi­ness and cre­at­ing a scare­crow for the coun­try with the dilemma of 'ei­ther Poroshenko or Moscow’s vic­tory.’”

“In fact Poroshenko is him­self a vic­tory for Moscow, be­cause the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent’s cor­rup­tion makes Ukraine an easy tar­get for ag­gres­sion, de­stroys the West’s trust in Ukraine and un­der­mines so­ci­ety’s be­lief in the Eu­ro­pean choice and re­forms.”

Poroshenko has also been crit­i­cized for ap­point­ing or fail­ing to fire of­fi­cials with re­ported links to Rus­sia — such as For­eign In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice Deputy Chief Ser­hiy Se­mochko, Supreme Court Jus­tice Va­len­tyna Si­mo­nenko and Se­cu­rity Ser­vice of Ukraine Deputy Chief Vi­taly Ma­likov. Poroshenko and the of­fi­cials have de­nied ac­cu­sa­tions of wrong­do­ing.

But Fe­senko dis­agreed with the claims that the Krem­lin is back­ing Poroshenko.

“The Krem­lin doesn’t trust Poroshenko and wants him to quit,” he said. “Re­la­tions be­tween Putin and Poroshenko have de­te­ri­o­rated since 2015.”

Vadym Rabynovych, head of the Za Zhyt­tia (For Life) party (R) and law­maker from the 43-mem­ber Op­po­si­tion Bloc, stands in the Verkhovna Rada on Feb. 9, 2017. In July Rabynovych's party was joined by Vik­tor Medved­chuk, a close friend of Rus­sian dic­ta­tor Vladimir Putin. Za Zhyt­tia is cur­rently in talks on a merger with the Op­po­si­tion Bloc in the run-up to the 2019 pres­i­den­tial and par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. (Volodymyr Petrov).

Op­po­si­tion Bloc leader Yuriy Boyko (L) and Op­po­si­tion Bloc law­maker Mykhailo Dobkin (C) stand in front of a court dur­ing a hear­ing on Dobkin 's ar­rest in a graft case on July 15, 2017. (Kostyan­tyn Ch­er­nichkin).

A pro­tester holds a ban­ner show­ing Ukrainian oli­garch Dmytro Fir­tash and Op­po­si­tion Bloc law­maker Ser­hiy Lovochkin, who co-own In­ter TV chan­nel, and pro-Rus­sian politi­cian Vik­tor Medved­chuk, who re­port­edly owns Chan­nel 112, call­ing them the "Krem­lin's mouth­pieces in Ukraine" dur­ing a protest near the Ukrainian par­lia­ment build­ing on Sept. 21 in Kyiv. (UNIAN)

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